After a tumultuous first half of the season that rivaled last year's Los Angeles Lakers squad in its inability to live up to lofty expectations, the Brooklyn Nets have found light at the end of the tunnel.
Initially it may have seemed to simply be a hot streak, but by now—even after dropping a close game to their division leaders, the Toronto Raptors—you have to question whether or not they have finally turned it around.
And while it's dangerous to buy into Brooklyn hype—we all know what happened the first time—a number of factors hint that this Nets team may be on the right track for good.
There are numerous reasons as to why the Nets performed so poorly early on. A lack of chemistry, locker room tension and a bumbling, inexperienced coach are only a few.
But among the most notable is the ceaseless injuries that seemingly sidelined half the roster.
Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry missed the beginning of the season, diminishing the depth of Brooklyn's bench, while Deron Williams battled—and still does—an ankle injury that forced him to miss significant time.
Former All-Star Brook Lopez went down with a season-ending injury in the opening weeks, and the team was forced to make spontaneous adjustments to account for the absence of the offensively talented big.
Overall, there was a lot of identity searching during the opening half, and given the inconsistency of the roster due to injury, problems inevitably arose.
However, the team is finally healthy, or at least as healthy as they will be this season.
Lopez is still out, but the team has found a more-than-capable backup option in Andray Blatche, whose scoring ability and rebounding aptitude have given rise to an argument regarding whether or not he's more valuable than Lopez.
Also, the return of Deron Williams has been imperative in helping the squad regain footing. Despite continuously not living up to the bar set during his days in Utah, Williams is still an irreplaceable asset to the squad. As the floor general and team MVP, he remains valuable even as he continues to underperform.
However, perhaps the most important return was that of Kirilenko, who joined the rotation around the same time that the Nets began their upward trend.
As a defensive stopper, an all-around offensive weapon and an overall energy builder, the team's resident glue guy has been crucial in helping the team sharpen its deficiencies and fill its glaring holes.
While Lopez is done for the season, the rest of the team is making strides towards being healthy, and as long as injury is avoided, there's no reason to expect that this sudden emergence of chemistry will disappear any time soon.
A Winning Formula
While an end to the team's injury woes has made an impact, it would be foolish to ignore the strategic changes that the team has made in order to succeed.
The change is focused around two new mantras: a small-ball lineup and a decreasing focus on isolation.The former has been the most effective and should be pinpointed as the crux of the team's resurgence.
I highlighted this trend earlier in the week, and in case you missed it, here's an excerpt:
Of the five-man groupings that the Nets have tried—excluding ones that include Lopez—three rank significantly above the others in the plus-minus category, per 82games:
- Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Alan Anderson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett
- Deron Williams, Johnson, Anderson, Mirza Teletovic and Garnett
- Williams, Livingston, Johnson, Pierce and Garnett
After these lineups, which all average between a plus-20 and a plus-30, the next highest plus-minus is a plus-four, coming from a lineup that features two players who were recently traded away.
It's clear that giving Paul Pierce defensive assignments that don't involve young and athletic wings has been a step in the right direction, and Kevin Garnett's move to center has helped him regain his defensive tenacity and his offensive confidence.
Adding an extra slot to give greater playing time to the team's streaking role players hasn't been a bad idea either. Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson have been valuable assets, while Mirza Teletovic has been thriving alongside Garnett in the post.
Another portion of the newfound identity involves ball movement. On a team overflowing with stars, it can be difficult to avoid isolations. After all, Joe Johnson has been followed by the nickname "Iso Joe" throughout his time in the NBA. Williams too can get caught up in scoring and can be a black hole.
Recently though, coinciding with the increased roles given to the second unit, the team has become much better at moving the ball. Passing has become a strong element of Brooklyn's offense, and as the track record continues to build itself with unmistakable evidence, the days of isolation could be dwindling to a close.
After fruitlessly searching for an identity in the first half of the season, the Nets have finally found a winning formula.
Whether or not the Nets keep this up remains to be seen, but even if they begin to cool off, you can bet that it will still appear as though they've turned the corner.
In the Western Conference, things would be different.
But in the lowly East, the Nets have a fantastic shot of capturing the third seed even if their current level of prosperity fails to continue.
The fact of the matter is, the East is currently a two-way race between the Heat and the Indiana Pacers, and beyond that the conference is composed of a hodgepodge of tanking teams and mediocre squads taking advantage of the poor competition.
Chicago is in the midst of finding a new identity after losing Derrick Rose for the season and trading Luol Deng. Thanks to coach Tom Thibodeau, they remain a top defensive squad, but if the Nets can refrain from completely collapsing, they should be able to pass them without an issue.
The same holds true for the Hawks, who—without Al Horford—are simply pretenders.
The Raptors are the most interesting squad since they share a division with Brooklyn. However, the Raptors are basking in the glory of Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, two above-average players performing like superstars.
If they cool down—or if the Raptors deal Lowry, as ESPN's Marc Stein reports they intend to do—the Nets remain close enough to overtake them too.
The Wizards might be a bit tougher since they are trending up thanks to superstar play from a superstar point guard, although their inexperience may trouble them down the stretch.
Overall, the Nets seem to be in a good place to succeed. Not only does their competition look weaker by the day, but their schedule gets incredibly easier.
NBA strength of schedule ranks. Sorry Portland, the free ride's over. pic.twitter.com/OBTWyAbIhN— Ed Kupfer (@EdKupfer) January 16, 2014
Even if the rest of the season doesn't follow their January success rate, the Nets' newfound identity will ensure that the early-season atrocity does not get repeated. With the help of a weak conference, the Nets will continue to trend up as the season progresses. And even if they haven't fully turned the corner, it will undoubtedly look as if they have when the final regular-season standings are locked in.