With a full two-thirds of the season still left to play, no Eastern Conference team is completely out of the playoff conversation—a testament less to some still-dormant dominance than the shoddy quality of the conference itself.
That includes the Brooklyn Nets, who have managed to parlay lofty preseason expectations into a basketball soap opera worthy of its own tawdry tabloid.
But if the Nets can manage to reach some of the following guideposts over the next few months, it might be enough for them to not only to crack the postseason, but assure the summer finds them safe in knowing that owner Mikhail Prokhorov won’t be looking for too many heads to roll.
Pierce and Garnett are both starting
It was supposed to be the grandest of curtain calls: two surefire Hall of Famers taking their twilight talents to an up-and-coming contender.
Sadly, this swan song seems to be hitting all the wrong notes.
Thus far this season, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have amassed 276 minutes of combined court time over 21 games. That’s less than 13 minutes per game.
Needless to say, it’s a far cry from the dynamic one-two punch that the pair produced over six seasons with the Boston Celtics.
It’s hard to say whose has been the more surprising decline. While Garnett’s numbers have arguably taken a bigger hit, Pierce’s newfound role as sixth-man extraordinaire may be Kidd’s most curious gamble to date.
With 16 of Pierce’s 23 appearances having been as a starter, predicting that his bench role will stick may be a bit premature. Regardless, it’s clear that no two Nets players understand one another’s tendencies and idiosyncrasies—both on and off the court—better than Garnett and Pierce.
Whether you chalk up the two’s dearth of shared minutes to coaching alchemy or big-picture—read: the playoffs and concerns over wear and tear—sooner or later, Kidd must devise a way to spark anew the two’s dormant chemistry.
Doing so would not only rejuvenate Pierce and Garnett, but would also help buoy the spirits of their fast-floundering team.
Andray Blatche is starting, and producing, consistently
Of the many moves spearheaded by Prokhorov and general manager Billy King over the past few seasons, perhaps none proved a savvier gamble than the signing of Andray Blatche.
After six seasons of steady improvement with the Washington Wizards, Blatche’s unique propensity for drama resulted in a disastrous 2011-12 campaign—a season that saw the talented, but temptation-prone, center nearly put his career in jeopardy.
But after signing with the Nets as a free agent ahead of last season, Blatche began carving out a quieter and steadier second life as an offense-first backup to the blossoming Lopez.
Now, with Lopez sidelined and the team’s middling offense in need of a spark, it’s high time for Kidd to start considering giving Blatche a starting slot.
It’s not nearly as crazy a move as it sounds. In 2011, Blatche started 63 of the 64 games in which he played. The result was a banner year for him in nearly every statistical category.
The Nets could use some of that mojo—like yesterday.
In Lopez’s absence, Brooklyn’s rebounding—already in the bottom quarter of the league—has fallen off a cliff. Over the last six games, including five losses, the team has been beaten on the glass five times, with four of them coming by 10 or more rebounds.
Blatche is no Wilt Chamberlin on the boards, but his rebounding rate over the past two seasons (15.4) is respectable enough.
With shooting guard Alan Anderson struggling in his role as a starter, it might be time for Kidd to give Blatche some burn with the first unit, where an aging Garnett has lately been pressed into awkward service as the team’s No. 1 center.
Deron Williams and Joe Johnson have to start playing like All-Stars
Through 17 games, Deron Williams is on pace for his lowest player efficiency rating (16.8) since his rookie season in 2006. Williams’ defensive rating, meanwhile, would be his lowest ever at 113.
That’s not exactly what you want to see from a point guard who, a full seven months shy of his 30th birthday, is still ostensibly in his prime.
Granted, it’s not all Williams’ fault. A series of injuries and re-aggravations to Williams’ injured right ankle has only accentuated the dips in what has been a roller-coaster season for the veteran point guard.
While most of Johnson’s numbers—both advanced and per 36 minutes—are up from a season ago, he’ll need to dig even deeper into the retro well if the Nets offense has any chance of plugging the hole left in Lopez’ wake.
Unlike Williams, Johnson’s durability has been nothing if not reliable. His scoring, on the other hand, has been anything but, as indicated by his recent string of 22, 13, 15, 7, 21, 12, 37 and 20 points over the last eight games, respectively.
That Williams and Johnson have become Brooklyn’s two most important players goes without saying. But for the team to have any hope of making some postseason noise, Williams and Johnson will have to go from being “most important” to "best".
Jason Kidd can’t be the top story
Among the many twists and turns in what has been a dire downward spiral for the Brooklyn Nets this season, Jason Kidd’s pointed postgame sermon following his team’s embarrassing 95-78 loss on Christmas Day may have been the gravest yet.
Fed up with what he sees as a lack of urgency on the part of his charges, Kidd called out his locker room just long enough to light a fuse under Garnett, who reporters say offered up his own choice words.
In reality, Brooklyn’s Christmas Day meltdown was only the latest in a series of dramatic incidents that have succeeded in putting Kidd squarely in the spotlight—never a good sign if the design is to win.
After a productive season in which he became an indispensable cog to the New York Knicks’ surprising 54-win team, Kidd’s sudden move from tracksuit to two-piece raised more than a few questions of how Kidd—as cerebral a player as there’s ever been—would handle his new-found authority.
The answer: By squelching the opposition, consolidating his power and not hesitating to call someone out if effort or attitude is deemed lacking.
Such tactics may have served to endear himself to Prokorov, who understands corporate politics better than just about anyone. But the heightened scrutiny certainly hasn’t helped the actual product, mired as it’s been in mounting losses and questions of managerial credibility.
When it comes to a team’s growth and development, new coaches tend to be afforded considerable leeway. Brad Stevens and his six-year deal come immediately to mind.
But not Kidd, not when his team stands to pay the most lucrative luxury tax in history. Not when his team's biggest trade to date put the future of the franchise at risk for the sake of two aging superstars.
Not when coaching coups become the entertainment substitute for bad basketball.
For all of the on-court questions that the Nets desperately need to address—particularly if the postseason is still viewed as a party there for the crashing—the last thing they need is for Kidd to become a regular circus sideshow.
After all, that’s what the Knicks are there for in New York.
"All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of Dec. 26, 2013.