How Brooklyn Nets Can Win Battle for New York City This Season
Things are already getting heated up as the two elite Eastern Conference squads provide each other with bulletin-board material. Courtesy of ESPN"s Ian Begley, we've learned that Raymond Felton and Paul Pierce are already getting into a war of words.
But words can only get a team so far, which is why we're focusing on the on-court action here.
The Nets have their work cut out for them if they wish to control the City that Never Sleeps. Not only do they have to be better than their New York counterparts, but they have to be decisively superior to win the battle of public perception. They're fighting an uphill battle because the Knicks are far more established.
Brooklyn is the better team going into the 2013-14 season. At least on paper, since many of the key pieces have yet to fit together on anything but a depth chart.
While the Knicks could very well maintain their stranglehold on the Big Apple—as detailed by B/R's Dan Favale—this is the year the Nets take over. Year 1 of the Brooklyn era saw them move out of New Jersey; Year 2 will be the season in which they officially take hold of New York in more than just name.
Win the Head-to-Head Battle
Part of the Battle for New York City involves off-court perception, not just the performances on the hardwood. And the Knicks have a major leg up on the competition because they've been in Madison Square Garden for what seems like forever and have a larger, more established fanbase.
As Felton said, "They will never take over the city. Because we've got 'New York' on our chest. They've got 'Brooklyn' on their chest, and we've got 'New York.' They'll never take over the city."
In a way, he's right.
But the Nets can begin to shift the battle of public perception by dominating the head-to-head matchup, which is sure to be one of the most intense and glamorous series of contests on the NBA schedule in 2013-14.
During the 2012-13 season, the first in which "Brooklyn" was plastered across a jersey, the Nets and Knicks split the four-game series. The challengers opened with an incredibly entertaining overtime victory but lost Game 2 thanks to a game-winning three-pointer from...wait for it...Jason Kidd.
Although the fourth game was close and came down to the final minute, neither it nor Game 3 was as memorable as either of the first two contests.
Well, the rivalry is even more heated now, and the Nets have improved rather significantly. There's no need for media-driven manufacturing of the contests, as these two teams are already at each other's throats and ready to compete for the city.
This season, we'll have to wait for a while before the two New York-based franchises square off for the first time. They meet in the Barclays Center on Dec. 5, which is great news for a Nets team that will now have a chance to develop some semblance of chemistry before the clash.
They'll also play each other in mid-January and then have two games in April near the close of the season.
While Brooklyn doesn't necessarily need to sweep all four games, it must at least go 3-1. Without a definitive series victory, the Nets can't truly claim the city.
Play with Second-Half Deron Williams
Which Deron Williams will show up during the 2013-14 campaign?
Will we see the version of the All-Star point guard that was held back by injuries during the first half of the 2012-13 season, or will we get to witness the healthier, more dominant player who took over after the All-Star break?
Just take a look at his per-game splits, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
|Before the break||16.7||3.3||7.6||0.9||0.5||41.3||34.7||85.5|
|After the break||22.9||2.5||8.0||1.1||0.3||48.1||42.0||86.6|
With a little time for rest and recovery, Williams emerged as a much more effective player after the midseason stoppage. He moved with much more freedom, shot the ball with an increased level of confidence and was able to completely control games on the offensive end of the court.
It's this version of the point guard that needs to show up throughout the season.
Make no mistake about it. This is Williams' team.
While other stars populate the roster, he's the barometer by which the Nets are measured, and it's up to him to control the tempo and make sure everything runs smoothly.
In victories last year, Williams averaged an additional 1.0 points, 0.1 rebounds and 0.6 assists, but he also played much more efficient basketball. His field-goal percentage was 2.5 percent higher, he shot better from behind the arc and he coughed up the rock with much less frequency.
Williams doesn't have as much offensive pressure heaped upon his shoulders following the additions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, so it's going to be even more vital for him to focus on distributing the ball to his teammates. He should keep the scoring instincts going, but he has to think of himself as a facilitator more often than ever before.
Let Brook Lopez Continue Improving His Weak Areas
If you haven't realized that Brook Lopez is an elite offensive center by now, then there's a solid chance you've been living directly under not just one rock, but rather a whole pile of them. The Stanford product was one of the better scorers in the NBA last season, and he was a deserving member of the All-Star squad.
However, Lopez is by no means without his weaknesses.
He's a putrid rebounder, especially when you consider the fact that he's a legitimate 7-footer, and his defense isn't very good at all. Lopez improved defensively, but he still struggled on that end of the court despite what his 2.1 blocks per game might tell you.
Improving both of these areas is vital, as it takes a lot of pressure off Kevin Garnett and allows for more playing time to be doled out in Lopez's general direction. The Nets have a luxury item on the bench in the form of Reggie Evans, but playing him makes the offense much more limited.
Lopez has been trending in the right direction lately when it comes to his rebounding numbers, though. During the 2012-13 season, he posted offensive, defensive and total rebounding percentages of 10.8, 16.1 and 13.4, respectively. Those all pale in comparison to the rest of the league's premier big men, but they're marked improvements over the two seasons prior.
Now it's time for his defense to follow suit.
While his defensive rating jumped in the positive direction last year, that was more a function of an improved Nets team starting to come together. That's not the best testament to his individual skills.
Let's turn to Synergy Sports (subscription required) and take a look at how many points per possession he's allowed in certain defensive situation over the last few years. Due to the small sample size in the 2011-12 season that stemmed from his foot injuries, I'll be comparing 2010-11 to 2012-13.
Lopez has taken steps forward as an isolation defender, but the rest of the improvements are fairly minimal. He needs to continue getting better in the post—he ranked only 177th among all qualified players—or else defenses are going to continue manufacturing opportunities against him on the blocks.
Garnett's presence should help, both from a mentoring and production standpoint, but Lopez still needs to prove that he can stay on the court against other offensively potent big men.
Turn Paul Pierce into the League's Best Role Player
Paul Pierce was a superstar for the Boston Celtics.
But, in the words of S.E. Hinton, that was then, this is now.
Pierce may still be a star player, but he's going to have to morph his playing style and become the league's best role player. If he does that, the Nets will be dangerous enough to take away New York from the Knicks.
The Truth of the matter is Pierce can't dominate the ball anymore. He can't go to work in isolation settings as often, or else he's taking the rock away from Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez.
Instead, he must focus on two of his biggest strengths: spot-up shooting and defense.
Pierce has one of the best jumpers in basketball, particularly when he's able to catch the ball in the sweet spot and waste no motion at all. Rajon Rondo could deliver it to him right between the numbers, and now Williams will be able to as well. And with him conserving his legs by taking a step back in the rest of the offensive game...
As for defense, Pierce has long been one of the league's most underrated preventers of points, and now he'll get a chance to expend even more energy on the less glamorous end of the court.
According to Synergy (subscription required), Pierce allowed only 0.79 points per possession during the 2012-13 campaign. That ranked him 57th in the league, not a bad mark at all for an aging player with tons of offensive responsibility.
He truly thrived guarding isolation sets, holding opponents to only 0.65 points per possession. Just 31 other qualified players were able to top that mark.
And now Pierce can focus even more on that end. The results could be scary.
Well, scary for opponents. Not for the Nets.
Balance Minutes Wisely
The biggest key to remaining an elite team—which is absolutely necessary when trying to dethrone another elite team like the Knicks—is staying healthy. And that's where Jason Kidd comes into play.
In no time at all, Kidd transitioned from extremely old to extremely young. He didn't find the Fountain of Youth or develop a Sorcerer's Stone. Instead, he went from the ranks of players to the fraternity of NBA head coaches.
Right off the bat, Kidd has a tough job. He has to balance the minutes of a star-studded but aging roster.
It's something he's clearly already thought about doing, as evidenced by this quote from Stefan Bondy's article for the NY Daily News:
We’ve talked about it that there’s going to be (minutes restrictions). When you look at KG, probably no back-to-backs for him. Those are just topics we’re talking about, throwing around to keep these guy’s minutes down because we are deep. …you want to be fresh going into the playoffs.
Garnett is by no means the only player who needs minutes to be managed.
Although he's the oldest key contributor, checking in at 37 years old, he's not exactly the lone aging one. Paul Pierce (35) and Joe Johnson (32) have both passed the dreaded three-oh. Deron Williams is only 29 years old, but injuries are always a concern there, and the same can be said about 25-year-old Brook Lopez, who has already had multiple foot surgeries during his professional career.
All of them need to be fresh going into the playoffs, so it will be a constant battle for Kidd to keep them healthy and productive. That's not an easy task for a first-year head coach, and especially not for a first-year head coach with absolutely zero prior coaching experience.