Are Brooklyn Nets Legit Title Contenders for Next Season?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2013

The Brooklyn Nets aren't terribly interested in the future. They want to win now. Management made that abundantly clear when they traded for former Boston Celtics Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

Think about a lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Pierce, Garnett and Brook Lopez. The pieces fit perfectly on paper. All five are essentially prototypes for their positions—All-Star caliber prototypes.

They have a combined 35 All-Star appearances, and the only one who hasn't been named All-NBA is Brook Lopez. Williams, Pierce and Garnett have all finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, and Garnett won the award in 2004.

All those personal accolades are nice, but fans want championships. And the Nets, with their newly hired, 40-year-old coach Jason Kidd, and their new star-studded starting five may be able to deliver one.

One of Brooklyn's strengths has already been touched on. All five pieces of the starting lineup fit perfectly. Balance should be very easy to find.

Deron Williams will need to be the leader. Just a few short years ago, any conversation on who the NBA's best point guard was began and ended with Williams and Chris Paul.

From 2007 to 2011, Williams posted averages of 19 points and 10.5 assists. He made the Utah Jazz a perennial playoff team but never had enough talent around him to make the team a title contender.

This year, he'll have great weapons to distribute the ball to, and the 7.7 assists he averaged last season should get a significant boost.

On the wings, Williams will have two great floor spacers in Johnson and Pierce. They both shot 38 percent from three-point range last year and averaged 18.6 and 16.3 points, respectively.

He has a balanced frontcourt to work with as well.

Power forward Kevin Garnett's mid-range jump shot is among the best in the league and has extended his career by helping him punish defenses from 10 to 20 feet out.

Center Brook Lopez is an excellent low-post scorer. He averaged 19.4 points and just under 64 percent of his field-goal attempts came from within eight feet of the rim. He and Garnett are a textbook hi-lo combination.

The two potential problems with this starting five are Garnett's age and Johnson's tendency to over-dribble at times.

At 37, KG's minutes will need to be managed, but incoming rookie Mason Plumlee could help pick up the slack at the 4.

He obviously doesn't have the perimeter game of Garnett, but his size and athleticism (he measured 7'0" with a 36-inch vertical at the draft combine) will make him a good change of pace, and a nightmare for opposing bigs on fast breaks.

Plumlee ran the floor like a gigantic jackrabbit at Duke and will get plenty of opportunities to finish at the rim with Williams running point.

As for Johnson, Jason Kidd may have to convince him to take on a role closer to the one he had in Phoenix. His ability to create his own shot is a strength, but he goes to it too often.

Deron Williams is excellent at making plays for others, and Johnson should lean on that. When he allowed Steve Nash to create for him in Phoenix, his three-point percentage shot through the roof (he hit 48 percent from downtown in 04-05).

If Johnson can accept that different role, everything else should fall into place for the starting five. But it takes more than five players to win a title.

Bench play is crucial for ultimate success, and Brooklyn has a deep eight-man rotation.

In addition to Plumlee (who can play either frontcourt position), the Nets have Reggie Evans and Jason Terry as reserves.

Evans basically has one skill, but he's arguably the best in the NBA at it. He started 56 games for Brooklyn last year, averaged over 11 rebounds and led the league in rebounding percentage.

Since he offers little else, Evans is probably better suited to a reserve role, and he'll be a solid backup for Kevin Garnett. 

The last one in this rundown could very well be the first off the bench during the season. Combo guard Jason Terry has thrived in this role for much of his career, winning the Sixth Man of the Year in 2009.

He'll add even more shooting behind Williams, Johnson and Pierce. For his career, Terry has hit 38 percent of his three-point attempts and is fourth all time in makes (Pierce is fifth).

The trade that landed Terry, Pierce and Garnett was obviously huge and makes Brooklyn a much better team in the short term. But was it enough to make them contenders right away?

The three teams that finished above the Nets in the Eastern Conference standings last season were the Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers.

With the exception of Indiana letting Tyler Hansbrough go, the Pacers have basically stood pat this offseason. But they'll still be better by virtue of the experience they gained in the playoffs last year and the possible return of Danny Granger.

If they're all healthy, a lineup of George Hill, Paul George, Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert could be a nightmare.

Brooklyn's biggest advantage is at point guard. George Hill is solid, but he's never been in Deron Williams' league. Other than that, the Nets might struggle with Indiana. They're on the rise, and I see them as the second-best team in the east next year.

That said, I still think Brooklyn's experience and three-point shooting could be enough to beat them in a seven-game series.

As for the Knicks, they may have taken a step back this offseason by trading for the woefully injury prone and inefficient Andrea Bargnani.

It's hard to see what New York's plan is with Bargnani. The 7', former No. 1-overall pick was only able to play 35 games for the Raptors last year and averaged less than four rebounds.

If Amar'e Stoudemire can return to somewhere near the form he showed in Phoenix and force Bargnani to the bench, New York's frontcourt of him, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler would be one of the best in the NBA.

If they end up relying on Bargnani to hold down the fort at the 4, they could struggle against Brooklyn or Indiana.

Both teams in the battle for New York made big moves this offseason, but Brooklyn's were definitely better.

The Nets got much better by adding significant upgrades at both forward spots. The Knicks may have gotten worse by adding Bargnani to an already muddled frontcourt situation and giving up one of the league's best shooters in Steve Novak.

Brooklyn's biggest fish to fry is obviously not New York or Indiana though. Any team hoping to contend in the east knows they have to deal with the Miami Heat.

Going into the season, LeBron James' Heat will definitely be the favorites to win it all. He's the best player in the world and has a great supporting cast of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen.

There's no doubt they're the best, but Brooklyn may be able to attack a couple of their weaknesses.

One of the best ways to approach Miami's defense is to stretch them thin with three-point shooting. San Antonio almost won the Finals on the back of Danny Green and his hot hand. When he cooled off for Games 6 and 7, the tide turned for Miami.

Brooklyn will cause all kinds of problems for their opponents with the shooting of Williams, Johnson, Pierce and Terry.

Another of Miami's weaknesses is post offense and defense. Roy Hibbert cooled off the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, averaging 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds (compared to his regular-season averages of 11.9 and 8.3).

And Hibbert is not the same kind of offensive force as Brook Lopez, who's averaged 17.9 points over his five seasons in the NBA.

If Miami signs Greg Oden and he stays healthy, this could be less of a weakness. But at this moment, they don't really have anyone with the size and defensive ability to slow down a good inside scorer.

Those two things, in combination with the competitive fire that Pierce and Garnett will bring from Boston, make Brooklyn one of the few teams that have a slight shot at beating Miami in a playoff series.

Will Brooklyn win the NBA championship in 2014? Probably not. If I had to guess, I'd say Miami. But can they win in 2014? Adding Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez makes the answer to that question a "yes."



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