While the Brooklyn Nets won’t scare anyone in the Eastern Conference during 2015-16, they can still assemble a respectable product and smartly develop young prospects.
With the likes of Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Mason Plumlee and Mirza Teletovic out of the picture, Lionel Hollins’s starting lineup and rotation will look substantially different this season. Younger faces now populate the bench and there’s less established star power.
The goal of this season is not only to win games and provide an entertaining product, but to facilitate the club’s long-term plan to eventually reach title contention. That means grooming the newcomers properly and finding the right combinations.
What should the Nets’ starting five and rotation look like? Remember, this is a projection of what we believe they should do, not necessarily a prediction of what they actually will do.
The Starting Lineup
Point Guard – Jarrett Jack: Jack is the clear choice to take the starting quarterback reins after D-Will’s departure. The 10-year veteran has a track record of dishing 5-7 assists per 36 minutes while keeping turnovers in the 2.0-2.5 range.
More importantly, he has the savvy and toughness to run this team’s offense. Jack’s not a dynamically creative attacker, but he’s solid in pick-and-rolls and is crafty enough to attack opponents’ soft spots:
— SiriusXM NBA Radio (@SiriusXMNBA) August 28, 2015
Shooting Guard – Joe Johnson: The 2 and 3 spots are toughest to peg. Lineups with Joe Johnson and Bojan Bogdanovic offer abundant shooting talent, but they have not fared well when it comes to defensive efficiency. Five-man unit stats from 82games.com and lineup dashboards from NBA.com both indicate that lineups with Johnson and Bogdanovic together surrender bucketloads of points.
Should the Nets favor a more defensive-oriented lineup and sacrifice some shooting, or should they start their best pair of triple-getters and hope the defense improves?
Hollins should opt with the latter. Starting someone like Markel Brown ahead of Johnson or Bogdanovic would result in a much shakier scoring unit in the early stages of the game. Meanwhile, starting a shooter like Wayne Ellington would be an adequate offensive replacement, but not a worthwhile defensive adjustment.
Small Forward – Bojan Bogdanovic: As we addressed above, we’re keeping Bogey and Johnson together in the starting lineup because it’s their most potent wing combo. Bogdanovic can play smoothly off the ball when Johnson’s creating, and he can also attack off the bounce when the Nets need him to do so. Among Brooklyn’s returning 2-man combinations, Bogdanovic and Johnson were the only combo to average 100-plus points per game (minimum 700 minutes together) in 2014-15.
Ian Eagle of the YES Network talked to WFAN’s Evan Roberts about the expectations for Bogey in year two:
“They expect improvement,” said Eagle. “They don’t expect the Bojan Bogdanovic who was tentative at times last year, that was trying to figure out what his role was, trying to develop a niche in the NBA…By the playoffs you saw the capabilities and the way he can take over games offensively.”
Power Forward – Thaddeus Young: This is an easy call because Young is the most versatile and talented 4-man available. He can attack the rim, sink the occasional triple and compete on defense. And while Young has lost some athleticism, he’s a nice all-around contributor as a rebounder and passer.
Center – Brook Lopez: The only holdover from the New Jersey days remains Brooklyn’s anchor. Lopez had a healthy, productive 2014-15, and Hollins will need the same health and even more offense from him this season.
With Young and the wings spacing the floor, Lopez will do damage in pick-and-rolls and convert sporadic face-up touches. Defensively, he’s obviously not explosive or versatile, but his length is an effective deterrent when engaged:
#Nets biggest accomplishment this summer remains getting Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young to sign reasonable deals early in free agency.
— NetsDaily.com (@NetsDaily) July 2, 2015
Sixth Man – Wayne Ellington: A career 38 percent three-point shooter, Ellington is well-equipped to give Johnson a breather and stretch the floor as a perimeter weapon. He’s not an ultra-creative player, but he’s the most polished wing they have off the bench.
If the hyper-athletic Markel Brown or versatile Sergey Karasev prove to be capable three-point shooters, they’d actually be better fits as sixth men because they’re stingier defenders. Hollins should monitor and stay open to changing his sixth man:
Keep forgetting the Nets signed Wayne Ellington. A lot of backup minutes available if Brown/Karasev can’t improve their 3P%.
— devin kharpertian (@uuords) September 10, 2015
Interchangeable Forward – Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: Giving RHJ huge minutes would probably hurt the team’s offense. But it’d be equally detrimental (if not more) to err on the side of easing the rookie in and only offering sparing action. Hollins should give him ample experience with which to build for the future.
Hollis-Jefferson has the moxie to handle the pressure of 20-25 minutes per game, and the Nets should use him to give the squad an infusion of defense and end-to-end athleticism. RHJ can guard both wing spots as well as small-ball power forwards, so they shouldn’t have a problem finding scenarios to use him.
Big Man Rotation: Willie Reed is the only true center who can protect the rim in relief of Brook Lopez and out-rebound opposing centers. If he can execute and convert on offense, he should be the first big man off the bench. Thomas Robinson and Andrea Bargnani can step in at the 5 depending on the matchups, with Bargnani representing the most versatile offensive piece among them. Otherwise, those two can spend time at the 4 alongside Lopez.
When rookie Chris McCullough returns from his ACL injury (which may not be until the last couple months of the season), he should be gifted 13-15 minutes per game. That would offer him some experience and confidence to chew on before he enters his first full season in 2016-17.
Point Guard Rotation: Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan don’t have convincing track records, which is why rookie Ryan Boatright has an outside shot to make the roster as one of Brooklyn’s three guards. Only two of those three playmakers will likely be kept as reinforcements for Jack.
It’d be nice to see Larkin earn the backup job, and if the race is close between him and Sloan, Hollins should lean toward Larkin. The undersized speedster had a rocky campaign with the New York Knicks last season, but he might enjoy a mini-breakout in Brooklyn’s pick-and-roll schemes. Larkin thrived as a pick-and-roll creator in college, and he has a chance to be a surprisingly effective backup.