If you had asked me (OK, you’re not asking me now, either) to write this post 6 weeks ago, it’d be a whole different story. The Nets, 14-14 and losers of 10 in 13, had fired Head Coach Avery Johnson, and everyone and their mother in the news media was, and rightfully so, targeting Deron Williams with the blame. But it’s different now — the Nets have found new life under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo (though, at this rate, he’s probably not interim for long), winning 14 of 19 and reaching the No. 5 spot in the East standings heading into Tuesday’s games; in fact, the Nets are only 4 games behind the top-seeded Miami Heat.
Top to bottom, the Nets’ roster is as talented as any in the Eastern Conference, with Miami the obvious exception, and should they happen to advance to the No. 2 or 3 seed by season’s end (and thus avoid the Heat in round 2), there’s no reason to believe Brooklyn can’t make a run to the conference finals. With Williams, Joe Johnson and All Star reserve Brook Lopez, albeit due to Rondo’s torn ACL, Brooklyn boasts their own ‘not-as-big-but-still-very-good 3.’
Williams, 16.8 points per game; Lopez, 18.7; and Johnson, 17 despite early season struggles, are all coming into their own under P.J.’s tutelage. For the first time since his Phoenix days, Johnson doesn’t face the pressure of being the franchise player. For the first time in his career, Lopez is on a team, barring a major collapse, that’s playoff-bound (the last time the Nets made the playoffs was 2006-07). And Williams is playing with the best supporting cast of his career, even including his 2006-07 Western Conference Finals run in Utah.
Anchored by Lopez, the Nets boast one of the East’s strongest frontcourts, right next to Chicago and Indiana. Brooklyn’s only 18th in rebounding, but P.J.’s crew is No. 5 in total defense, surrendering only 94.5 points a night. Lopez is the cornerstone, but the Nets are deep; 4 different guys — Lopez, 40; Reggie Evans, 22; Kris Humphries, 20; and Andray Blatche, 7, have started for Brooklyn this season. Evans, 8.8 boards a night, is the team’s leading rebounder, and both Lopez, No. 4 overall, and Blatche, No. 14, are rated among the league’s best in PER. Add in the notoriously scrappy Gerald Wallace and ace defender Keith Bogans coming off the bench, and that’s quite the unit.
The best part? Depth. Lopez plays the most minutes of all the team’s power forwards and centers at only 29.4 a night. Crazy to imagine he’s putting up 19 points in less than 30 minutes. And even though Brooklyn’s bench is ranked No. 20 overall in scoring, they can sure overcome adversity. 16 players have suited up in at least 2 games this year as the team’s fought the injury bug; Johnson and Blatche are the only 2 guys to appear in all 47 games.
Weaknesses? Well, 3-point shooting is one; Brooklyn, as a team, averages 35% on 3-balls, good enough to tie the L.A. Clippers for 19th in the NBA. Rumors are swirling GM Billy King could swap Humphries for a guy like Orlando’s Hedo Turkoglu, due at least a $6 million buyout next season, or could consider J.J. Redick, an expiring $6 million player averaging 15.3 points a game this season, but such a trade could require losing promising sophomore guard MarShon Brooks given Redick’s demand. Nevertheless, gone are the Lopez-for-Dwight Howard rumors, at least so we think, given Dwight’s back, shoulder and, well, talent problems, as well as Lopez’s ascendance.
The only obstacle in the way of a Nets’ title run this year is LeBron James. The Nets are 0-3 against Miami this season, losing by 30, 13 and 20 points, respectively. But, for better or worse, the Nets’ core is in place for years to come. On the plus side, all three Heat stars could become free agents in the summer of 2014, thereby potentially breaking up their core (or maybe creating more Eastern Conference threats, we don’t know). On the negative end, the Nets already have at least $77.5 million, far above the league’s luxury tax, on the books through 2014-15.
But, boy, have the Nets come a long way under King, hired a mere 6 days after “The Decision.” A week earlier, the Nets had thrown all their cards on the table, Jay-Z and Brooklyn included, to lure LeBron James, or at least one of the half-dozen big names available. Their biggest score that summer was Travis Outlaw, since amnestied. Yet Lopez has come into his own, the Nets acquired Williams, Wallace (though gave up a lottery pick in the process) and Johnson, even convincing Williams to ink a long-term deal. Oh, and they call Brooklyn’s beautiful Barclays Center home … and have an owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, worth an estimated $13.2 billion.
It’s a good year to be a Net.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.