Lionel Hollins and the Brooklyn Nets are a team in flux entering 2015-16.
Gone are the championship aspirations of a couple years ago. An aging roster has slowly transformed into a younger core that needs development and chemistry, and this transition will result in a challenging season.
While the Nets aren’t an elite squad, they still have a chance to crank out a respectable campaign and outshine the crosstown rival New York Knicks. It all depends on how the new starting lineup jells and how quickly the green newcomers adapt to the rotation.
What exactly should the Barclays Center crowd expect this year? We cover it all here in our comprehensive 2015-16 season preview.
What Happened Last Year
To get a clear picture of where the club stands now, let’s recap how last season played out.
The opening-night starting lineup (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Kevin Garnett and Mason Plumlee) was markedly different than it will be this year. It didn’t take long for Brooklyn to fall under .500, thanks to a slow-footed defense and inconsistent offense.
Brooklyn ranked 20th in offensive rating (104.4) because it didn’t deliver consistently dynamic creation and ball movement (ranked 28th in passes per game). On defense, the Nets landed 23rd in defensive rating (107.4) because they lacked quick perimeter stoppers and athletic rim protectors.
While D-Will and Iso Joe were healthy for the majority of the year, they were still banged up and churned out the least-productive seasons of their careers. Williams missed 14 games due to calf and rib injuries, and he was far from 100 percent in many games he played in.
The biggest midseason transaction was the trade-deadline shipment of Garnett to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Thaddeus Young. It signaled the end of the Celtics’ import era and the beginning of the restructuring.
Brooklyn snuck into the No. 8 spot at the end of the season and made some noise in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks. But it was clear by the end of the year that some major changes might be on the horizon.
What Happened This Summer
Billy King’s offseason started off with a busy draft night.
He plucked 6’9″ Syracuse forward Chris McCullough with the 29th overall pick, and then he made a trade to land another first-rounder. The Nets traded their No. 41 pick Pat Connaughton and Mason Plumlee to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for No. 23 pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Steve Blake. Blake was subsequently dealt to the Detroit Pistons for Quincy Miller.
During the free agency period, King and Co. didn’t reel in any major assets, which wasn’t surprising. They did re-sign center Lopez to a three-year, $60 million deal and re-inked Young to a four-year, $50 million contract. It’s a rather hefty price to pay without upgrading the team, but it was nearly the only route the team could take.
Perhaps most notably, the team worked a buyout for D-Will, who then signed with the Dallas Mavericks. Williams had been the squad’s most exciting playmaker for the past three-plus years, so his departure signaled a major shift in the backcourt. Wings Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson were also significant offseason subtractions.
The Nets didn’t enjoy a phenomenal summer league, but they did notice the exploits of then-Miami Heat summer star Willie Reed and scooped him up mid-July. They also got strong performances from sophomore Markel Brown and undrafted rookie Ryan Boatright.
Brooklyn’s offseason also included the acquisition of potential rotation contributors Shane Larkin, Donald Sloan, Thomas Robinson, Wayne Ellington and Andrea Bargnani. Each had mediocre-to-substandard stints with their previous teams, and they’re looking to excel in modest roles off the Nets bench.
Key Player: Jarrett Jack
The Nets’ fate during this upcoming season will hinge largely on the execution of point guard Jarrett Jack.
He’s not the best player on the team, nor is he the most intriguing young addition. But he’ll likely be the new starting point guard, stepping into the lead playmaking role after D-Will’s departure.
Jack turns 32 later this month, and it’s safe to say he’s past his prime physically. But his playing style has never been predicated on athleticism or explosiveness. He heavily relies on timing, angles and outsmarting the defense to find favorable opportunities. Will his craftiness and experience create enough offense to give the Nets a fighting chance at sniffing the playoffs?
As a floor general, he posted a commendable ratio of 8.4 assists to 3.0 turnovers when Deron Williams was inactive last season. However, he only shot 43 percent from the field during that stretch.
Jack has had some clutch shots and performed exceptionally well in featured roles in the past, but his 2014-15 season with Brooklyn was a mixed bag. The Nets scored just 102.4 points per 100 possessions and surrendered 110.3 on defense when he was on the floor, per 82games.com. In addition, he’s a mediocre three-point shooter (career 35 percent) who shot 27 percent from beyond the arc last year:
Jarrett Jack's lack of faith in his 3-point shot is the biggest issue with his game. Drives into contested mid-range instead of shooting 3's
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 29, 2015
Jack’s efficiency and productivity as both a distributor and shooter will drastically affect this team’s bottom line. Keep an eye on how defenses play him. Will he make teams pay for going under screens and giving him open shots? Will he be able to finish off drives effectively? And will he improve his defensive effectiveness and slow down opponents on and off the ball?
As previously mentioned, the Nets’ collective fortune will depend on the chemistry of the roster.
The favorites to land in the starting lineup are Jack, Johnson, Bogdanovic, Young and Lopez. While this unit is different than last year’s starters, it’s a group of veteran pros who should adjust to each other relatively quickly. Jack will execute smooth pick-and-rolls with Lopez and pick-and-pops with Young, and the Johnson-Bogdanovic tandem on the wing offers dangerous shooting options.
Defense is a bigger question mark, as Jack, Johnson and Bogdanovic are all slower than average on the perimeter and didn’t fare well last year. It’s not a stretch to think opponents could average 1.05 to 1.10 points per possession against the starters.
The bench holds an unpredictable mix of youth and newcomers. Hollis-Jefferson will offer defensive juice but inconsistency in almost every other area, and it’s uncertain when fellow rookie McCullough will return from his ACL injury.
Meanwhile, newcomers Bargnani, Larkin, Sloan, Ellington, Reed and Robinson face the task of meshing with each other and young returnees Brown and Sergey Karasev. If that rotation of reserves is maximized, Brooklyn would have a chance to flirt with the 9-10 seed range. But it’s not fair to expect a massively transformed bench to excel throughout its first year.
When the regular-season dust settles, this new-look Nets squad will likely win fewer games than last season. The scoring prowess of Lopez and Johnson simply won’t be enough to compensate for a mid-to-lower tier defense and an unknown bench corps.
I’m predicting a record of 32-50, which should earn the No. 11 or No. 12 seed. The win total might be disappointing, but the real question is how the rookies and other young acquisitions develop during their first year together. Even if it’s a toilsome season, it could lay the foundation for future success.