With the Brooklyn Nets’ preseason schedule in the rear-view mirror and the regular season just days away, it’s time to recap the biggest themes and takeaways from the past month.
There’s only so much we can glean from preseason action, especially when coach Lionel Hollins didn’t have anything close to a full rotation at his disposal. But six exhibition games (the Nets finished 2-4) and a handful of practices revealed some surprises, disappointments and a preview of the upcoming campaign.
Before training camp, it was already clear that Brooklyn was in a transitional phase and would land in the mid-to-lower tier of the Eastern Conference. But what have Nets fans learned during the past couple weeks to help prepare for the 2015-16 season?
1. Thanks to injuries, we still have a lot left to learn
Injuries affect every team, but the Nets are particularly banged up these days. As such, there’s so much we don’t know about newcomers or rotation combinations.
More than a half-dozen Nets missed preseason games, were kept out or left games due to injury. While those maladies have opened up extra audition opportunities for fringe players looking to crack the roster, the downside is that Hollins hasn’t been able to truly gauge his rotation.
The frontcourt has suffered the most notable derailments. Andrea Bargnani missed all of Brooklyn’s tune-ups with a hamstring injury, and it’s still unclear whether he’ll be ready for Wednesday’s regular-season opener (per Tim Bontemps of the New York Post). We also barely saw Willie Reed during exhibitions, as he underwent thumb surgery last week and is slated to miss six-to-eight weeks. Meanwhile, Brooklyn continues to patiently await rookie Chris McCullough’s return from ACL surgery in January.
The guard corps’ setbacks are mostly an assortment of minor bruises, strains and soreness, but the extended absence of Markel Brown and Sergey Karasev left us with more questions than answers about the rotation. Last week, Bontemps noted how the rash of injuries has hindered the club’s progress:
Practice time is even more important than game time for coaches during the preseason, and now the Nets could have up to half their expected final roster sitting out, missing valuable time to get comfortable with Hollins’ system. The fact Bargnani, Robinson and Reed are newcomers only makes that transition more difficult.
2. Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young are the most (or only) dependable pieces
With apologies to veterans Joe Johnson and Jarrett Jack, the most reliable cogs on the 2015-16 roster are clearly Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young.
Almost everyone else had underwhelming preseason performances or have unclear roles. The distribution of backcourt minutes, touches and combinations is far from solidified, but in the frontcourt, the Nets do know Lopez and Young will carry the lion’s share of responsibilities.
Lopez didn’t have an eye-popping preseason, but he averaged 23.0 points and 3.8 blocks per 36 minutes. While he’s still a below-average rebounder and a middle-tier defender, it’s great to see he’s healthy and ready to carry the offense. Danny Chau of Grantland.com reported that “Billy King and Lionel Hollins have called Lopez the team’s most explosive player during training camp.” We’re assuming “explosive” refers to the production more than physical burst, but the point is that he’s looking good entering the regular season.
Young took care of business during his five exhibitions as well, posting 17.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 52 percent shooting per 36 minutes.
He figures to be a pivotal weapon for Brooklyn, because Johnson may regress further and the creativity and facilitation of the new-look backcourt could waver. Hollins will depend on Young to attack, take advantage of mismatches and space the floor for Lopez.
3. Bojan Bogdanovic looks like he’s in a midseason swoon
If you watched Bojan Bogdanovic during the preseason, he looked more like a weary veteran in need of an All-Star break than a 26-year-old poised for a breakout year.
During the offseason, he played 15 exhibitions and EuroBasket games for Croatia, and his stint overseas included an ankle injury and concussion. The effects may have lingered into October, where he’s looked inconsistent and out of shape on both ends of the floor. Bogdanovic notched just 12.1 points per 36 minutes, shot 33 percent from the field and played uninspiring defense in preseason action. Hollins discussed the second-year swingman’s issues (per Bontemps):
What does he have to improve? I think one, he’s got to get his foot better, and he’s also got to get his conditioning better. I think he’s a little tired from playing all summer, and then he hurt his ankle, which has been bothering him all through preseason.
Brooklyn must proceed carefully with Bogdanovic. They need him fresh and ready to contribute crisply in the rotation.
4. Point-guard play is a mixed bag
The Nets’ 2015-16 ceiling may ultimately be determined by point-guard play. If that’s the case, fans should enter the season with a mixture of nervousness and excitement.
Jarrett Jack, who’s widely expected to start at the 1 spot, had an up-and-down preseason. His exploits included some scoring success, a sizable chunk of turnovers (5.0 per 36 minutes) and a scarcity of assists (4.1 per 36 minutes).
He’s the most proven point guard the Nets have, and he’s delivered quality playmaking in the past, but his playing style is often problematic. Devin Kharpertian of the Brooklyn Game explained the quandary during Thursday’s BBallBreakdown podcast:
He can score well in isolation, but that’s kind of not what you want your point guard to be best at.
Whereas Jack was a bit disappointing, backup floor generals Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan offered promising stretches.
Larkin churned out a few strong outings, including a 17-point, five-assist effort against the Detroit Pistons. His speed, pick-and-roll talent and quick outside shooting look ready for a significant role off the bench. Paul Mitchell of Brooklyn’s Finest explained how Larkin fueled the Nets’ offense:
Larkin found success by picking his spots in running dozens upon dozens of high screens with Lopez, and reading when to slip the pocket pass through as Drummond stepped up and when he should rise for the jumper with Reggie Jackson at his hip. He also made both of his three-point attempts…and generated four free throws by keeping his dribble alive, post-pick and roll.
That early pick-and-roll chemistry with Lopez is encouraging, although Larkin is ultimately just a high-level backup or spot starter. Meanwhile, Sloan actually posted a couple of higher single-game assist totals than Jack or Larkin, and he looks like a viable option at the back end of the rotation.
If you want lockdown defense, this isn’t your group. Jack is suspect in both on-ball and off-ball scenarios, and Larkin and Sloan are both quick but undersized. Their inability to consistently corral opposing slashers is one of the biggest problems facing Brooklyn’s defense.
In conclusion, we may not have learned anything new about the Nets’ destiny during the preseason — they’re a No. 8 or No. 9 seed at best, No. 12 or No. 13 seed at worst — but we discovered a little more about how they’ll get there.