WASHINGTON — The voices permeate every huddle, resonate through every team meeting, reverberate across the locker room. The message never wavers. It repeats on a steady loop, like an old vinyl record with a well-placed scratch.
The newest members of the Brooklyn Nets are already the loudest, their instruction insistent, their moral authority unquestioned.
“Rotate! Get a stop! Get a stop! GET A STOP!”
“You hear them,” said Nets veteran Reggie Evans, who adds with a smile, “Only a fool would not listen to what they say.”
Only a fool, indeed.
“Culture change” has become a grating NBA cliche, invoked with every coaching hire and every roster overhaul. Only rarely does a meaningful evolution follow.
What the Nets are now undergoing might be more of a culture shock, an identity transformation spurred by two of the most powerful personalities in the league. It just might turn Brooklyn into a title contender.
The Nets have All-Stars at every position, with Pierce and Garnett—acquired in a July trade with Boston—now fused to the core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. Their supporting cast is deep, with Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry, Shaun Livingston and Andray Blatche.
Their potential is, in Pierce’s unique estimation, “unlimitless.”
The Miami Heat, as two-time champions, will rightfully open the season as favorites in the Eastern Conference. The Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls are the most established challengers to the throne. But the Nets are easily the East’s most compelling team, with enough talent to make it a four-team race. All they need is good health, good chemistry and attentive ears.
It will start with the daily lessons imparted by the two future Hall of Famers with the championship rings. What fool would ignore Pierce’s sermons on teamwork? What brave soul would dare tune out Garnett’s barking defensive instructions?
“Those guys have been real receptive to that,” Terry, who was part of the July trade from Boston, said of his new teammates. “They understand that, 'OK, if we listen, if we follow—but still be us—then we got something special here.'”
The Nets won 49 games last season to finish with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. But they went 15-27 against teams .500 and above, and they were routinely dismembered by the Miami Heat. Their offense—fueled by Williams, Johnson and Lopez—ranked in the top 10. Their defense was 19th, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
The Nets won a lot, but they intimidated no one. Their personality was best described by Jason Kidd, their new head coach, as “just vanilla.”
“I think we were a little on the quieter side,” Lopez acknowledged.
Pierce and Garnett represent everything the Nets lacked: toughness, accountability, ferocity and a dedication to the defensive arts. Outside of Evans and the rapidly declining Gerald Wallace, the Nets had no defensive conscience last season.
That conscience is now easy to spot, and hear. Garnett was at the center of nearly every huddle Tuesday night in the team's overtime victory over the Wizards, when the new-look Nets made their preseason debut in Washington.
“He’s a constant talker on the floor,” Lopez said. “He’s just talking through the team defense and the spot where he needs to be. Letting me know he has my back or I need to have his back, vice versa, whatever, talking about the pick-and-rolls. It’s good to have that chirping in your ear, because it gets you to talk on the floor as well.”
It took little time for Garnett and Pierce to assert themselves when training camp opened last week.
“A tenth of a second,” Kidd said. “Their impact was from their press conference. Talking about winning and being professionals, showing up at 8:30, early in the morning, first guys out—they show by example, but they also talk about it.”
It may take a while for the Nets to assimilate the lessons, or to approximate the intensity the Celtics sustained for most of the last six seasons. Deron Williams has yet to practice with his new teammates because of a sprain and bone bruise in his right ankle. He skipped the preseason opener and will sit for at least one more game.
Livingston filled in for Williams on Tuesday, joining the four All-Stars. The early returns were promising. The ball moved swiftly and effectively, pinging from Garnett to Pierce and Pierce to Johnson. Lopez, the NBA’s most skilled scoring center, feasted inside, scoring 15 points in 12 minutes, moving Garnett to gush, “I’m just in awe.”
“His skill level is impressive,” Garnett said of Lopez. “I haven’t been around a skill level like that.”
The Nets' starters all played just 12 minutes, all in the first half, and the defense was certainly not up to Celtic standards. But this was just the start.
Some skepticism is surely warranted. Age, chemistry and coaching loom as the Nets’ greatest question marks.
Garnett is 37, with 18 seasons and 131 playoff games behind him. Pierce (15 years and 136 playoff games) turns 36 on Sunday. But both ranked in the top 40 in player-efficiency rating last season. And neither will have to carry as great a load on this stacked Nets team.
Kidd is a rookie head coach, just months removed from his last game as a player. But he has a deep and capable staff, anchored by Lawrence Frank, who spent a year as Doc Rivers’ top assistant in Boston.
The Nets' holdovers, particularly Williams and Lopez, are not known for their defense. But then, Pierce and Ray Allen weren't regarded as defensive dynamos, either, before uniting with Garnett in that transformative summer of 2007.
Adjustments will be necessary. Williams will have to pass more and shoot less, as he did in his early Utah Jazz days. Joe Johnson may have to sacrifice some shots.
“Everybody understands they gotta make some sacrifice,” Evans said. “When you make a deal like we did and you get the caliber of players that we did—we got Hall of Famers. So quite naturally, if you’re going to look at history and knowing the sacrifice that they did to win it, it’s almost like, 'OK, well, we can do the same thing.'"
Pierce and Garnett provide a ready template, and it has a name. In 2007, the Celtics adopted the philosophy of Ubuntu, which means roughly, “I am, because we are.” The point was selflessness, and the Celtics of Pierce, Garnett and Allen lived the word, winning 66 games and a championship in their first season together.
This is a different group, and a different time. No one has mentioned Ubuntu in Nets camp, but Pierce and Garnett are still preaching the lessons. Every practice ends with a scrum—Garnett at the center, his right arm and right forefinger raised high above the rest, leading the Nets in a simple chant: “One, two, three…All in!”
“We all understand we gotta drop our egos. We gotta be unselfish,” Pierce said. “Nobody has to do it by themselves. We got a lot of guys that are capable, but if we share the ball, play together, I think our potential can be unlimitless.”
It is easy to get distracted by the visuals, the mad-scientist mash-up of All-Stars, the still-jarring juxtaposition of Pierce and Williams, Garnett and Lopez and Johnson, all draped in black, and not a shamrock in sight. It will take time for new realities to sink in, for new identities to take shape.
The images are in flux. But it’s the voices that matter.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.