Will Brooklyn Nets Be This Year's Version of Failed LA Lakers Experiment?
What happened in L.A. last season should serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of the NBA: Building a championship contender takes much more than adding splashy names to an already solid roster. Things like chemistry, depth and patience count for just as much as top-end personnel.
The Nets went out this past summer and embraced the Lakers' year-old process of adding stars to an already top-heavy and expensive roster. And while some of the circumstances are different, there are also a number of commonalities that should make Nets fans at least a little bit uncomfortable.
Big Moves and Little Patience
The comparison between this year's Nets and last year's Lakers has to start with the most obvious similarity: Both added a pair of marquee veterans to a roster already boasting All-Star talent. In acquiring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Nets added championship experience and blue-collar workers to a roster that was a little short on both qualities.
Not only did Brooklyn copy the star-acquisition strategy that L.A. used to bring in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash last year, but the organizational mindset behind the decision was also somewhat similar.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov isn't one for subtlety. He swore to secure a championship within five years of his purchase of the team, and to his mind, the best way to deliver on that promise has always been to spend boatloads of money on established stars.
The long, slow process of cultivating talent from within isn't an option.
He wants to win right now, and his impatience (not to mention his willingness to toss up a middle finger to the luxury tax) resulted in a big, headline-grabbing move.
The Lakers have always been similarly impatient. Any doubt about that should have been removed when the front office cut coach Mike Brown loose just five games into the 2012-13 season.
So, like the Lakers, the Nets will be under immense pressure to win right away. The age of the players they acquired dictates that, but so does the team's top-down craving for immediate gratification.
If things don't get off to a smooth start, watch out.
A Crisis of Leadership
The resemblance between the Nets and last season's Lakers goes beyond the fact that both brought in big talent.
After L.A. canned Brown, Mike D'Antoni took the reins in one of the most mismanaged coaching searches of recent years. The process that led to D'Antoni's hiring was messy, and it didn't make fans who were sure they'd get another Phil Jackson-led team very happy.
But beyond the sloppy process, the results were awful, too.
D'Antoni wasn't the right coach for L.A.'s roster. He struggled to find a way to make his system work with the talent on hand, ultimately scrapping most of his pet sets for ones that worked better but clearly left him unsatisfied.
And the Lakers simply never found a way to defend at a respectable level with D'Antoni at the helm.
In a similar way, the Nets have their own coach who might be out of his depth.
Jason Kidd was a terrific player, but he has zero coaching experience, and the track record of former athletes in their first coaching gigs is spotty at best. Based on the remarkable access the attention-hungry Nets have granted the media, we've already seen that assistant coach Lawrence Frank is doing all of the heavy lifting in practice.
He's the one installing defensive sets and explaining terminology, not Kidd.
Granted, the practice of installing a head coach as a figurehead while more experienced assistants do the bulk of the strategic work is far from novel (see: Jackson, Mark). But because Kidd is so unproven, he runs the risk of losing his players' respect.
D'Antoni never had that to begin with, and it cost the Lakers dearly.
The Lakers' fractured locker room might have been the biggest contributor to their embarrassing season a year ago, and some of the same elements exist with these Nets.
For starters, Deron Williams is a seasoned coach-killer and All-NBA first teamer when it comes to complaining. Even though he and Kidd are thought to be friendly, rest assured that D-Will will seize the first opportunity to smugly assert that he's unhappy with his situation.
It's just what he does.
Secondly, Williams could play a role in this year's version of the Dwight-Kobe feud. Williams is sure to eventually bristle opposite Garnett, whose intensity and no-excuses attitude are nearly identical to Bryant's. When KG gives Williams his first dressing-down, the pouty point guard might react by doing a convincing impression of Howard.
The recipe for locker room unrest exists in Brooklyn, just as it did from the start in Los Angeles.
For all of the internal strife and substandard leadership, one of the main reasons the Lakers disappointed last season was because they simply didn't play very good basketball. The offense was unrecognizable from week to week, injuries mounted, and nobody was willing to defend on a consistent basis.
A lack of athleticism and speed contributed to most of those issues.
The Nets are going to be similarly slow-footed this year, and it could wind up costing them against some of the East's more dynamic offenses. It's difficult to imagine a team adding Kevin Garnett and failing to improve on defense, but the Nets ranked just 18th in defensive rating last year, per ESPN. So even with a new anchor, there's a chance Brooklyn won't have great stopping power.
And it'll be even harder to get stops if key pieces can't stay healthy.
Aging players generally don't get better at avoiding injuries, and no matter how much Garnett is willing to limit his minutes, he's a candidate to break down during the year. The same is true of Pierce and Joe Johnson.
Plus, Williams has battled ankle issues for the last handful of years, and Brook Lopez has a broken foot in his medical history. So they're not locks to stay on the floor, either.
The 2012-13 Lakers were pretty darn good on paper, but all four of their stars had health issues—of varying severity—at some point last year. The Nets are similarly vulnerable.
Well, we've run through a whole bunch of reasons to fear that the Nets are going to suffer a fate similar to the one that doomed the Lakers last year. But there's no reason to believe that all of those worst-case scenarios are going to play out.
Truth be told, there are a number of significant differences that could result in a far more successful campaign for the Nets.
There's Only One D12
If D-Will is an All-Star as a malcontent, then Howard is a Hall of Famer.
A uniquely problematic character, D12 tore the Lakers apart from the inside last season. He clashed with teammates, coaches and the front office, but he managed to play the victim in the media as much as possible.
The Lakers were in the impossible situation of trying to build around a player that refused to meet them halfway, which basically ended any chance of good chemistry before the season started.
The Nets don't have to placate Pierce and Garnett like the Lakers did Howard. The two veterans are all business, and they'll only clash with teammates who don't embrace the same approach. In terms of attitude, they're as different from Howard as can be.
Plus, the chemistry problems the Lakers endured last year were visible from a mile away.
I wrote about the unlikelihood of a Nash-Bryant pairing working out shortly after L.A. acquired the two-time MVP from the Phoenix Suns in July 2012. (And yes, this is a massive "I told you so" to the tiny number of people who read that article.)
Garnett might be the easiest, least selfish big man to play in the last 20 years, so he won't present any of the chemistry hiccups that surfaced with the Lakers last season. And Pierce should fit ably into any offense with his versatile skill set.
The Lakers spent a year trying to fit square pegs into round holes; the Nets have pieces that fit.
There's Help Available
The Lakers' big guns succumbed to injuries last year and had to watch as one of the league's worst benches struggled to fill in the gaps.
Chris Duhon played 46 games for L.A. last season. Digest that for a moment.
By contrast, the Nets are uncommonly deep. So if one of the front-line players goes down, reinforcements are ready to step in. Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry, Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche have all been accomplished starters in their careers, and having them available off the bench means the Nets won't be nearly so vulnerable to injury.
The Expectation Gap
Everyone expects the Nets to be very good this season, with a handful of especially optimistic prognosticators seeing them as potential title contenders.
But hopes are nowhere near as high as they were for the Lakers before last season.
Remember, L.A. was viewed as a virtual lock to win the West, and oddsmakers pegged it to be right on the Miami Heat's heels among championship contenders. The Lakers' championship odds were 5-to-2 before the 2012-13 season started.
Within the organization, there'll be disappointment if Brooklyn doesn't come close to winning a title. But throughout the league, the Nets aren't viewed as anything close to a sure-fire contender. Expectations are lower, which means there's less pressure.
Close, But No Cigar
Ultimately, there are some undeniable similarities between this year's Nets and last year's Lakers that should create at least some mild concern among Brooklyn supporters.
But the combination of better chemistry, more stability and lowered expectations means the Nets are on much firmer ground than the Lakers were in 2012-13.
Bad planning and worse luck brought about a perfect, disastrous storm in L.A. last season. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong and then went wrong again in ways nobody could have imagined.
Are the Nets vulnerable in some of the same ways the Lakers were? Absolutely.
But there's no way things combust quite as spectacularly as they did for the Purple and Gold a year ago.
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