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Power Ranking Every Key Brooklyn Nets Player Before Season's End

Walker HarrisonContributor IIIMarch 21, 2014

Power Ranking Every Key Brooklyn Nets Player Before Season's End

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    Ranking the best players on the 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets feels a little bit wrong.

    Why? Because Brooklyn has played such distinctly team-oriented basketball this season.

    And yes, the term "team" is used endlessly to describe cohesive play in professional sports. But for the Nets, it sticks: They have no one in the NBA's 20 best players (at least) and rely on someone different for a big play every night.

    Still though, there's no avoiding the reality that some players are far more important than others on any team. So, here are the power rankings of the Brooklyn Nets' 10 key players this season in ascending order.

    These rankings consider each player's entire season. However, we weighed more recent play heavily, since we've come to the crux of the regular season with the Nets chasing home-court advantage in the playoffs.

10. Andrei Kirilenko

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    Andrei Kirilenko has been forced to accept a smaller role than the veteran forward is used to. He plays only 18.8 minutes per game, which is far below his career average of 30.4. To make matters worse, he missed 25 games early in the season with back spasms.

    Yet "AK-47" has been reasonably productive in his limited floor time. He's shooting 54 percent from the floor and has one of the better defensive ratings on the team with a mark of 106. He may not see the ball as much as he did with the Utah Jazz, but he usually converts on offense when given the opportunity, and his pesky style of defense fits well within the Nets' "long-ball" strategy.

    Kirilenko also grabs 6.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, which is a boost for a Nets team that needs all the rebounding help it can get.

    There is one recent and glaring flaw in his game that is a growing problem for the Nets: his free-throw shooting. A career 76 percent shooter from the charity stripe, he is converting just 33 percent of his free throws since February 9. That's bad even for the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Ben Wallace.

    Kirilenko needs to address this problem soon. If he continues to brick the majority of his free throws, he'll see even less playing time. The Nets can't risk giving opponents the chance to play Hack-a-Andrei in close games down the stretch. 

9. Mirza Teletovic

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    Mirza Teletovic is a great example of the Nets' depth. He's not a guy with a wide skill set and averages less than 20 minutes a game, but he can easily shift a close contest with his perimeter shooting off the bench.

    His job is pretty simple. He's a tall player (6'8") with a smooth outside stroke, so when the likes of Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston and Joe Johnson are creating chaos with their penetration, Teletovic finds openings outside the arc. He's converting 38 percent of his three-pointers, which is pretty good given how many he takes (almost nine per 36 minutes).

    Plus, when he heats up, he can be the difference in a game: The Nets needed all seven of his three-pointers in a tight one-point victory over the Dallas Mavericks on January 24.

    He has been a little bit off his game since the All-Star break. He was shooting almost 40 percent from downtown going into the break and is only hitting about 30 percent of his threes since. With Marcus Thornton representing another viable shooter off the bench, Teletovic has seen a slight decrease in his minutes. 

    The Nets will need him to return to his early-season form for the playoffs, since the team's bench may be the trump card in a close series.

8. Marcus Thornton

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    There's not a whole lot to consider when sizing up Marcus Thornton's contributions for the Nets: He's only been on the team for a month. However, he's shown in that time that he can be a tremendous weapon for Brooklyn off the bench.

    He isn't a nightly factor, as he only takes a couple of shots and fades into box-score obscurity in some games.

    And then there are the nights when he is quite possibly the difference between a victory and a loss. He scored 25 points on 13 shots against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 1 and then torched his former team, the Sacramento Kings, for 27 points a week later.

    Thornton's ability to catch fire from the perimeter makes him a critical asset for Brooklyn down the stretch. He may not play lockdown defense or distribute the ball with much effect on offense, but a few late threes off the bench could propel the Nets as high as the No. 3 seed in the East.

    In his 12 games as a Net, Thornton has showcased enough firepower to earn the title as one of the team's key players. The rest of the regular season and the playoffs are difficult to predict for Thornton, though: He might spark some important wins or remain a nonfactor on the pine. Therefore, somewhere in the middlelike this eighth rankingis probably the best place for him.

7. Kevin Garnett

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    A month ago, Kevin Garnett probably would have been in this list's top five. He wasn't playing that many minutes, and his offensive game was uninspiring, but he was having an incredible defensive season. He anchored some of the stingiest five-man rotations in the league, per 82games.com.

    But, as often occurs with 37-year-old professional athletes, he has suffered a significant injury. On Wednesday he missed his 10th straight game with back spasms, and there doesn't seem to be a timetable for his return. It's possible that the Nets are playing it safe until the postseason, when they'll unleash a fully rested and recovered Garnett.

    It's also possible that KG has a major health issue that will sideline him indefinitely.

    Whatever the next month looks like for Garnett, his earlier contributions cannot be ignored. His move from power forward to center was the catalyst for the Nets' defensive turnaround back in January, and despite a major offensive downgrade, his deep two-point stroke is still effective. Plus, he's a vocal leader on and off the court, no matter his statistics.

    This list in particular focuses on the present and the future, both of which are uncertain for Garnett. Therefore, he cannot be ranked higher than seventh.

6. Mason Plumlee

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

    On a team that once started Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett, it's Mason Plumlee who has emerged as one of Brooklyn's most important big men. He has stepped into the starting center role for the Nets in recent weeks and responded with productive play at both ends of the court.

    He is wildly efficient on offense. His .633 shooting percentage leads the Nets and is best amongst this season's rookies. His offensive rating of 118 trails only Lopez' amongst other Nets, and Lopez hasn't played since December.

    Plumlee has also been a much-needed anchor for Brooklyn's ever-improving defense. His defensive rating of 103 trails only Kevin Garnett's for best on the team. As a rookie, he may not have the best interior instincts yet, but he is able to make it up with his athleticism. Watch him bite for a Joakim Noah ball fake in this clip but then recover for a big-time rejection.

    He still has work to do. His offensive repertoire isn't much more than monstrous dunks, and he'll need to learn how to foul less on defense when his role is expanded to more minutes. That being said, he's been a huge safety net for Brooklyn after the injuries to Lopez and Garnett, giving the Nets an interior presence in the wake of their fallen giants.

5. Andray Blatche

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    Sometimes it's difficult to take Andray Blatche's game seriously. He's the gangly center with moves straight from the playground: He is more likely to head fake a half dozen times before unleashing a step-back jumper than turn and post up like a conventional big man. 

    His unusual style of offense is working, though. He averages 11.5 points per game off the bench, which translates to an excellent 18.5 points per 36 minutes. His .474 shooting percentage isn't great for a center but is perfectly respectable, given that more than 25 percent of his shots come from more than 16 feet from the basket.

    Blatche's style of offense also fits well within the Nets' schemes. Opponents must respect his jump shot and shadow him on the perimeter, which opens up the paint for the likes of Joe Johnson and Deron Williams to take their defenders off the dribble. 

    To further cement his case as one the key members of the Brooklyn Nets, check out his advanced metrics. He has the third best defensive rating on the team at 104, has the second-most defensive win shares with 1.8 and is second with a player efficiency rating of 19.4, per ESPN.com. Clearly, Blatche is a major component of the Nets' 2013-14 success.

4. Paul Pierce

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    A close look at Paul Pierce's last few games shows us why the Nets traded for an aging veteran in the first place last summer: big shots.

    On March 10 against the Toronto Raptors with the score tied at 94 with one minute left, Pierce drained a three-pointer. On March 12 against the Miami Heat with the scored tied at 92 with 1:45 remaining, he converted a tough layup in traffic. Finally, with Brooklyn clinging to a two-point lead against the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday with two minutes left, he sank a three-pointer.

    The Nets won all three of those games.

    For all the chatter about his declining skills, "The Truth" has proved that he can still be a key player on a contending team. His effective field-goal percentage of .515 this season is better than his career mark of .499. He has a respectable 100.0 defensive efficiency rating this year, including a robust 97.8 since January 1, per NBA.com.

    And he still does all the things that once made him an NBA champion: crashing the boards, hitting his free throws and pumping up the home crowd.

    His counting stats may be down, and he can't stay on the floor for 35 minutes per night like he used to, but any predictions about him relaxing in his post-Celtic days have been disproved. He still craves pressure moments and has his eyes set on another memorable postseason.

    Plus, he still knows how to turn it up a notch when it counts. In March, a crucial month for the Nets' hopes to win the Atlantic, Pierce is shooting 48 percent from three-point range with a plus/minus of plus-17.

    He didn't come to Brooklyn to chat with the fans in the front row. He feels this team can disrupt the Indiana-Miami hierarchy in the East, and he's played with that conviction, earning this spot as one of the team's most essential players.

3. Joe Johnson

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    Joe Johnson has provided some offensive stability for a team with a dearth of steady scorers. He leads the team with 15.2 points per game and recently added more stability to his outputs. Since the All-Star break, he's failed to reach double digits in scoring only twice, which has helped quiet critics who insist that he mails in the occasional game. 

    Part of the reason he has found constant success this season is the versatility of his attack. He likes to use his 225-pound body to overpower smaller opponents, but he can also create space from isolation.

    Plus, he's become a good spot-up perimeter shooter and provides a kick-out option when Deron Williams or Shaun Livingston drive the lane. He's shooting 40 percent from beyond the three-point range, including 60 of 138 from the left side of the arc—a natural weak-side swing for Brooklyn's right-handed guards.

    Plus, he has emerged as one of the league's better final-possession options. At one point in the season, he was 6-of-6 from the field with less than 30 seconds remaining and the score within three points, including an amazing buzzer-beater to stun the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 2.

    Johnson still needs to work on the other aspects of his game. He's a bit of a weak spot on defense with a defensive rating of 111 and has only the seventh-most defensive win shares on the team despite playing the most minutes. He also doesn't fill out the stat sheet much besides total points: He averages only three rebounds and three assists per game and rarely picks up blocks or steals.

    But on a team that has been shaken by numerous injuries, Johnson provides a veritable heartbeat. He's out there every night and finds a way to get his baskets. 

2. Shaun Livingston

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

    How can a guy scoring eight points per game possibly be the second most important player on an NBA team? The answer is complex, just like Shaun Livingston's game.

    After a summer dominated by trades for Hall of Famers, the addition of Livingston wasn't seen as a major transaction. Months later, it's clear that he was the most important piece that Brooklyn added last offseason.

    His offense is passable: He shoots a solid 47 percent from the floor and has shown a capacity to post up shorter guards and shoot over them. He shares the ball well, picking up 4.4 assists per 36 minutes and provides a nice complement for his more productive backcourt mate, Deron Williams.

    But it's his defense that has been crucial to the Nets' success and earns him the No. 2 spot on this list. Since the calendar turned to 2014, Livingston has a defensive efficiency of 98.8, amongst the best in the league for guards who play starter minutes, per NBA.com. In that span, the Nets have gone 25-10, which puts them in a position to grab home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

    There's more than just numbers to Livingston's defense, though. His bizarrely long frame—he's 6'7" with a 6'11" wingspan—allows the Nets to play their own unique style of defense. Brooklyn has a big backcourt that can bully opposing guards. Meanwhile, it can get away with a relatively small frontcourt that starts Paul Pierce at the 4, because of Livingston's ability to effectively switch onto forwards when necessary and help guard the paint.

    Thus, whatever Brooklyn loses in height, it regains in length and speed thanks to Livingston. Plus, he is the best bet when a premier scorer comes to town: Livingston guarded Kevin Durant against the Oklahoma City Thunder and LeBron James against the Miami Heat.

    Brooklyn's second-half resurgence hasn't been about big numbers or an explosive offense, which makes Livingston an ideal pick for one of the team's two most integral players.

1. Deron Williams

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    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    It feels a bit odd placing Deron Williams atop a list of important players for a legitimate contender, given his up-and-down season.

    He is the same player whose skills were called into question countless times by the media earlier this season as he underperformed and suffered ankle injuries. The Nets played some of their best basketball in January while getting limited minutes from Williams. By the All-Star break, many were wondering if the guard could still spearhead a successful team. 

    Since that break, he has answered his doubters and captained a Nets team that suddenly looks like a danger to the once presumed Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.

    Some of his increased contributions can be quantified. He averaged 13.3 points per game on 45 percent shooting before the All-Star break, compared to 17.5 points on 48 percent since. He scored at least 20 points five times before the break and has already done so six times since.

    A lot of his importance to this squad can only be understood by watching him play. He has more energy, more cockiness, two healthy ankles and also a refreshed spirit. He slashes into the lane with a purpose and confidently backs down smaller guards.

    He also has been taking key shots for Brooklyn as of late. With the Nets up by two with less than a minute remaining in Miami last Wednesday, he sank a crucial step-back jumper over Mario Chalmers. A week later against the Bobcats, he converted a long two-pointer to give Brooklyn a 100-95 advantage with just 30 seconds to play, effectively ending the game.

    In both instances, he matched up in isolation against the opposing point guard, created space with his dribble and knocked down a contested jumper.

    These are the types of plays that have gotten Williams to this No. 1 spot. These are the types of plays he'll need to keep making if the Nets are to advance deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs.

    Williams was crowned the face of the franchise when he signed a $98 million contract two summers ago. He's been living up to that billing in the past weeks and is without a doubt the Nets' most important player at the moment. The Nets will go as far as "D-Will" takes them. 

     

    All statistics from Basketball-Reference.com unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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