How far can Deron Williams and Brook Lopez lead the Brooklyn Nets?
Over around three short months, the Nets have gone from perennial contender to merely fighting for a playoff berth to back as one of the the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
They started the season 11-4, only to come crashing down at the cost of Avery Johnson's job. As shortsighted as it seemed to fire a top head coach because of one poor month, the team has responded.
Sitting 2.5 games behind the Miami Heat, Brooklyn is now closing in on premium seeding in the East.
What needs to happen for the Nets to maintain their current momentum and avoid another setback? Here are some of the top factors to keep an eye on heading into the final half of the season.
Williams has finally began to heat up under Carlesimo's watch.
The NBA is a star-driven league, and the Nets' star has finally shown up.
A bolstered supporting cast was supposed to propel Deron Williams back to the superstar heights he reached during his tenure with the Utah Jazz. Instead, the 28-year-old point guard has played the worst basketball of his career.
Williams is averaging 16.9 points per game on 40.3 percent shooting. His 7.8 assists are the lowest rate since his rookie campaign.
If maintained, his 18.0 PER (via Basketball Reference) would represent his worst efficiency rating since the 2006-07 season.
But ever since the Nets jettisoned Johnson, Williams has played closer to the star of old. During January, Williams is scoring 18.8 points per game with 8.5 assists.
After questioning Johnson's conservative offense, the pressure is on Williams to deliver. So far, so good.
The Heat have the best player in the world running the show, the Knicks boast arguably the sport's premier scorer and the Bulls will eventually bring Derrick Rose back into the mix. For the Nets to join those clubs as a legit contender to win the East, they'll need Williams to play like a superstar.
Avery Johnson ran a slow-paced offense in Brooklyn.
In all fairness to Williams, he had a point about the Nets running too slow of an offense.
Brooklyn currently ranks last in the NBA with a pace factor of 88.0, according to Basketball Reference. That means that they muster 88 possessions in 48 minutes
Their company at the bottom consists of the league's worst clubs (New Orleans Hornets, Toronto Raptors) and teams who camouflage mediocre offenses with fearsome defensive units (Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers).
But what's the Nets' excuse?
They have a guy who's supposed to be one of the game's top point guards. Offensively, Brook Lopez belongs in elite discussion among centers, and Andray Blatche's seamless scoring ability has lifted him to Most Improved Player contention.
Say what you want about Joe Johnson's decline, but he can still score better than most shooting guards in the league.
The fewer possessions the Nets gain offensively, the fewer chances they have to produce points. Their slow tempo shows in their low fast-break point total. Brooklyn's 9.1 points per game on the break ranks 29th in the NBA.
Nobody wants Carlesimo to become Mike D'Antoni, but the Nets can thrive if he lets Williams push the ball and improvise occasionally.
Kris Humphries has been relegated to bench duty.
The Nets boast a roster full to the brim with talent deserving of playing time. Carlesimo has 41 games to assemble the ideal five-man units in time for the postseason.
Call it a good problem, but nevertheless one that must be solved.
Allotting time between their big men will present the interim head coach with his biggest challenge. Kris Humphries entered the season as the starting power forward, but has since lost minutes to Blatche and Reggie Evans.
Brooklyn stole Evans from the Los Angeles Clippers in hopes of fixing its rebounding woes. He's delivered, snatching a team-leading 8.9 boards per contest in 21:53 minutes.
Blatche's emergence has thrown a wrinkle into the Nets' plans. The 26-year-old is putting up 11.0 points with 5.9 rebounds.
Although he serves as Lopez's backup center, Blatche struggles defensively at the position. According to 82games.com, opposing centers have registered a 54.1 effective shooting percentage against him.
Just when Humphries seemed down and out, he returned from the dead. He's scored double-digits in three of the last five games, including a double-double to help top the Knicks on Monday.
That gives the Nets three true power forwards, one real center and a jumbled depth chart that needs organizing.
So far, their most efficient lineup does not include any of those three big men. The grouping of Williams-Keith Bogans-Johnson-Gerald Wallace-Lopez, which secured the last victory over the Knicks, leads all of the squad's units with a plus-37 point differential, as calculated by 82games.com.
Because of this new-found depth, their top pick from last year has been stuck on the sideline.
MarShon Brooks has received little playing time this season.
One guy who has especially gone lost in the shuffle is MarShon Brooks, a dynamic scorer receiving no chances to show off his skills.
The sophomore has knocked down nearly half of his shots this season, but he's only attempting 4.5 field goals per game.
There's not much he can do while playing 12 minutes a night.
No longer ignored by a last-place squad suffering a major power outage on offense, Brooks is now just another ancillary piece offered few opportunities to play for Brooklyn.
At first, Johnson's firing figured to free Brooks from the bench, but Carlesimo has not afforded him many more minutes.
If he catches fire on a given night, then maybe he gets 20 minutes. Otherwise, he's sitting in favor of defensive-minded veterans Bogans and Jerry Stackhouse.
Will Brooks get an extended chance to prove himself, or will he become another young talent the Nets give up on way too soon?
The Nets stumbled without Lopez.
Johnson got kicked out of town rather quickly, but that's because championship teams don't lose 10 games in a span of 13 bouts.
Perhaps the real issue is that they are still not good enough to earn championship contender status, but the Nets' front office feels otherwise. So when the Nets followed a sensational November with a 3-10 stretch of basketball, panic mode ensued.
Even the best teams hit a funk. An off week? Sure, it happens, but a month?
Brooklyn overcame that terrible slump to jump right back in the playoff picture, and even another abysmal month is unlikely to cost them a postseason bid.
Inconsistency, however, could cost the Nets dearly in terms of playoff seeding, or a playoff matchup if that cold spell resurfaces in late April.
The No. 1 seed is well in striking distance, but they could just as easily plummet to the sixth or seventh spot. They're only three games behind the Milwaukee Bucks, who occupy the No. 7 slot.
Part of that rough patch resulted from an injury to Brook Lopez, which leads up to another key concern: health.
Gerald Wallace's tenacious play puts his body on the line.
Everyone deals with injuries over the course of an 82-game season, but a few of the Nets' prime contributors have recently been plagued by ailments.
Earlier in the season, Lopez missed seven games due to a sprained right foot. Although Blatche posted commendable numbers in the starting center's absence, the Nets dropped five of those matches, allowing 99.9 points on average.
Williams' wrist bothered him late last season, and the issue flared up near the end of December. They obviously cannot afford to play without their best player.
And there's a reason Wallace is nicknamed "Crash." His reckless style of play wins the hearts of teammates, coaches and fans, but it also puts him in constant danger.
The forward has logged at least 75 games just once in his career, and he's already out of reach to change that this season. He's missed 10 games due to a sprained ankle and, more recently, bruised ribs.
Knock on wood that the Nets stay healthy throughout the rest of the year. They're good, but not good enough to overcome significant injuries.
Can the Knicks stay ahead in the Atlantic without Raymond Felton?
It's too early for scoreboard watching, but the play of Brooklyn's competition shapes their postseason outlook.
So far, the East has failed to live up to expectations of the conference usurping the West as the NBA's powerhouse. The game's top three teams reside in the West, as the Heat have floated by so far with a 26-12 record.
Many of the top teams are fighting through key injuries. The Bulls and Pacers are struggling to produce points without Rose and Danny Granger, respectively.
While Raymond Felton looks like a much lesser loss in comparison, the Knicks' offense has faltered without their starting point guard. The Knicks have lost ground on the Nets without Felton, dropping their Atlantic Division lead to one game.
How will the rest of the conference perform in the second half? Those sidelined players could come back, Miami could turn on the switch to lock down the No. 1 seed and the Boston Celtics could wake up in time for another playoff push.
All of the sudden, the East then transforms from a weak batch of squads to a group of formidable opponents.