In 2014-15, the Brooklyn Nets will have a shot to win the Atlantic Division for the first time since Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson were running the show in New Jersey.
A season ago, the Toronto Raptors ran away with the division down the stretch. The Raptors beat out the second-place Nets by a margin of four games, and finished third in the Eastern Conference.
But in the opening round of the playoffs, the sixth-seeded Nets managed to squeeze by Toronto in a grueling seven-game series.
The most expensive basketball roster ever assembled then moved on and got squashed by LeBron James and the Miami Heat in five games.
The battle for the Atlantic crown is going to be a three-team dogfight this season. The Raptors are still the favorite after a breakout campaign in 2013-14, and Carmelo Anthony’s New York Knicks won’t go down quietly.
But under new coach Lionel Hollins, Brooklyn has a shot to steal the division this year and consequently enter the playoffs as one of the top four seeds in the East.
Staying healthy and consistent
If the duo is healthy, the Nets are in business. And I mean business. But history has taught us that D-Will and Lopez can’t be counted on for a full season.
The two missed a combined 83 games last year. Williams limped in and out of the lineup with never-ending ankle issues, and Lopez broke his right foot 17 games into the season.
This summer, though, D-Will had surgery on both ankles, and Lopez’s recovery has gone according to plan. Both are expected to be ready to go on opening night.
Here’s Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News on Lopez’s recent weight loss:
"I'm at my playing weight," Lopez said Wednesday at Barclays Center..."I'm back to the weight that's normal for me," he went on. "Last I checked I was just under 275. I'm definitely more comfortable but I think that just comes with being more active again."
Lopez, who didn't wear a protective boot on either foot on Wednesday, said he finally ran for the first time on Aug. 11 and expects to be ready for the start of the regular season on Oct. 29, when the Nets travel to Boston's TD Garden.
"There's no question," he said of his readiness for that game.
Last year, Brooklyn managed to get by despite losing two of its best players, both of whom are elite at their respective positions when totally healthy.
But this time around, the Nets can’t afford to lose Williams or Lopez in their pursuit of the division title. If one or, even worse, both go down or struggle with serious health trouble, Brooklyn will be forced to watch the Raptors or Knicks raise the banner.
The Nets were forced to watch two of their best players walk this summer. The veteran leadership of Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce will be sorely missed, but strong years from Williams and Lopez can make up for Brooklyn's free agency casualties.
D-Will is a game-changer when healthy. At his best, he can provide open shots for himself and his teammates, get to the rim at will and wreak havoc with Lopez or Mason Plumlee in the pick-and-roll.
Lopez, who averaged 20.7 points a night before going down last year, has the ability to give Brooklyn a presence on the interior as well as on the glass. The Nets ranked 29th in team rebounding last season and greatly lacked a scoring threat on the block.
Though poor luck in the health department wasn’t the sole reason for Brooklyn’s embarrassing 10-21 start last year, it was one of the biggest.
Lopez broke his foot. Williams was either on the sidelines or playing through pain. Pierce broke his hand. Andrei Kirilenko, and later Kevin Garnett, had back spasms.
It wasn’t pretty.
The Nets eventually turned it around, surging from one of the league's biggest laughingstocks to a premier team after New Year's. In the wake of Lopez's injury, Kidd's small-ball lineup clicked.
Kevin Garnett started playing like Kevin Garnett again, Pierce and Johnson carried the scoring load and Brooklyn finally got healthy. Following January 1, the team went 34-17 and finished with a 44-38 record.
This year, Hollins will be faced with the task of ensuring that the Nets are consistently playing at a high level.
If the Nets, specifically Williams and Lopez, can stay healthy, they’ll make a run at the division.
But that "if" is as big as Garnett is sweaty intense. And KG is extremely sweaty intense.
Analyzing the competition
There are a ton of question marks in the Atlantic.
Will Melo thrive in New York’s new triangle offense? What kind of effect will Derek Fisher have as a rookie head coach? How many wacky tricks will J.R. Smith pull?
(Side note: Hopefully many. Do your thing, J.R.)
Can Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan continue to improve? What will Lou Williams bring to Toronto?
Questions galore. One things is for sure, though—the Sixers are going to be horrendous again.
So, for now, forget about them. In 10 years, when they’ve spent all of their stockpiled draft picks and are finished making all of their crazy moves, then we’ll talk Philly basketball.
Let’s take a look at how the Nets stack up to the Knicks and Raptors.
New York Knicks
Both the Knicks and the Nets will have new coaches this year. New York replaced Mike Woodson—long live the beard!—with Fisher, while Brooklyn landed Hollins after Kidd left town.
Until D-Fish proves otherwise, the advantage there has to go to the Nets. From 2010 to 2013, Hollins led the Memphis Grizzlies to three straight postseason berths in the loaded Western Conference.
Coaches aside, Brooklyn still has a slight leg up on the Knicks as long as Williams and Lopez can stay healthy. Pun completely intended.
The Knicks were more than just disappointing last year. They were downright baffling.
How could a roster with so much talent be so bad? It doesn’t make any sense. Keep in mind that this was, for the most part, the same team that had won the Atlantic in 2012-13 behind an MVP-caliber season from Melo.
Anthony finished 2013-14 as the second-leading scorer in the NBA and put together arguably the best season of his 11-year career. And in the end, all he had to show for his 27.4 points and 8.1 boards was his first absence from the postseason.
New York got off to a rough start when Tyson Chandler got hurt and things just skidded down from there. The ‘Bockers eventually finished with a 37-45 record, a striking drop from their 54-28 campaign two years ago.
If the Knicks played every single game over again, it’s crazy to think that they wouldn’t be better than a 37-win team. They're still a very talented group and have some seriously electrifying scorers like J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Phil Jackson pulled some strings this summer and revamped the roster, most notably sending Chandler and Raymond Felton out to the Dallas Mavericks for a package that included Jose Calderon and a pick that turned into Cleanthony Early.
The future looks bright, but will New York's current roster be enough to beat out the Nets and Raptors?
“Yeah, I think so for sure. Absolutely,” Anthony told Fred Kerber of the New York Post when asked if the Knicks would make the playoffs in 2014-15.
The Nets are deeper and more experienced than their crosstown rivals, but the disparity is slight. New York can’t be taken lightly.
But now, the Raptors have been there and done that. They’ve played under the pressure of the postseason and would presumably be a much tougher out this time around.
Toronto made few changes this summer, but got significantly better through the moves that it did make. Lou Williams is a stud shooting guard that has led teams in scoring while coming off the bench. General manager Masai Ujiri—who just loves the Nets oh so much (note the sarcasm)—also managed to get rid of John Salmons as part of the deal with the Atlanta Hawks.
Lowry re-signed with Toronto on a four-year, $48 million deal. DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross are still intact. The Raptors are young, cohesive and flat-out good.
But they're not perfect.
The Raptors have no way to stop Johnson once he gets rolling, as evidenced by Iso Joe's 21.9 points against them in the playoffs. And in on-one-on situations, the crafty Lopez would teach Valanciunas a lesson on the block.
Despite some positional advantages for the Nets, Toronto would appear to be the clear favorites on paper. Lowry and DeRozan are studs, Ross is effective when he gets hot, and Johnson and Valanciunas form a solid frontline.
In the end, though, it all goes back to D-Will and Lopez.
If No. 8, who got smacked around by Lowry in the playoffs last year, and Lopez can both stay healthy and return to All-Star form, Brooklyn be neck-and-neck with Toronto late in the season.
But if the Nets struggle with injuries or Hollins can't align all the pieces, Brooklyn will have a treacherous time keeping up with the Raptors.
The final verdict: Will Brooklyn win the Atlantic?
The Nets can win the division. It’s just hard to say with conviction that they will because of all the pieces that must fall into place.
Who will win the Atlantic Division?
Williams and Lopez, two players who have been plagued with injuries in recent years, must stay healthy. Hollins will have to prove to be a stronger voice than Kidd was.
Garnett can’t continue crawling towards complete irrelevancy. Plumlee’s overall game must continue to expand. Johnson has to remain one of the league’s top shooting guards. The bench, led by Mirza Teletovic and newcomer Jarrett Jack, must shoot with precision and defend with valor.
The Raptors are still the favorites. But if everything goes according to Brooklyn's plan, Toronto may be in some trouble.
Anthony’s Knicks definitely have a shot to make a run. The ‘Bockers are too talented to count out even after last season’s disaster.
But the Nets are an even greater threat to halt the "Northern Uprising" and bring the division title back to Brooklyn.
All stats are accurate courtesy of Basketball Reference.