Entering the 2012-13 NBA regular season, it was unclear what type of team the Brooklyn Nets were going to place on the floor. They created a reputable roster on paper, but chemistry was hardly one of their strong suits.
45 games in, we now find ourselves asking a previously nonsensical question—are the Nets legitimate title contenders?
At 27-18, Brooklyn presently ranks fourth in the Eastern Conference standings. They're 1.5 games behind the New York Knicks for the lead in the Atlantic Division and just three games behind the Miami Heat for first in the conference.
The Nets hosts the Heat on Jan. 30.
During the month of January, Brooklyn is 11-3. For what it's worth, they're also 13-4 since the firing of Avery Johnson. In January alone, Brooklyn has defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks. Their win over OKC came by a margin of 110-93.
And that win came in Oklahoma City.
While they lack the reputation of an elite NBA franchise, the move to Brooklyn has been kind to the Nets. They're finding their stroke on offense, smothering opponents on defense and securing victories at a high rate.
As we pass the halfway mark of the 2012-13 regular season, the Nets have the look of a true contender.
The question is, are appearances deceiving?
Dissecting the Defense
The Nets defense is elite. Sort of.
Thus far in 2012-13, the Nets rank fifth in the NBA by allowing just 94.4 points per game. This is a major reason the Nets rest nine games above .500.
Just don't think that's the only number that counts for something.
The Nets are 26th in opponent field goal percentage at 46.2 and 23rd in opponent three-point field goal percentage (36.7). They're also 23rd in opponent points in the paint at 42.7 per game.
To make matters worse, Brooklyn ranks 24th in opponent fast-break efficiency.
So how is it that Brooklyn is holding opponents to just 94.4 points per game with such high percentages across the board? Plain and simple, they do a masterful job of controlling the pace of games.
Thus far in 2012-13, the Nets rank sixth in opponent field goal attempts per contest.
With an elite point guard and a plethora of rebounders, Brooklyn has found a way to control the tempo of most games they find themselves in. This has enabled them to overcome their defensive woes and limit the opposition's attempts at scoring the rock.
The Nets rank 10th in opponent offensive rebounds per game. "One shot or nothing" is a healthy way to live in the NBA.
Star Power and Depth
The Brooklyn Nets are led by three-time All-Star Deron Williams and six-time All-Star Joe Johnson. With the two stars, the Nets have the potential for one of the top backcourts in the NBA.
Behind these game-changers is one of the deepest rosters in the league.
Williams is backed up by former Chicago Bulls sixth man C.J. Watson. Watson started 25 games for the Bulls in 2011-12, helping to lead the team to a 50-16 record as star guard Derrick Rose batted injuries. Behind Watson is rookie Tyshawn Taylor, who ranks third in the NBA in steals per 48 minutes.
At shooting guard, Johnson is supported by promising scorer MarShon Brooks and defensive specialist Keith Bogans. Both are capable of providing quality minutes and creating a spark off the bench.
At small forward, former All-Star and defensive terror Gerald Wallace leads Brooklyn on the defensive end. Wallace is backed by veteran Jerry Stackhouse, whose experience has proven to be of great value to all on the roster—that includes Wallace, who is a veteran in his own right.
At power forward, Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries make for one of the most powerful rebounding tandems in the NBA. The two average a combined 15.7 rebounds in 43.2 minutes per contest. Evans rests at 14.1 rebounds per 48 minutes, while Humphries sits at 12.9 per 48.
Adding European import Mirza Teletovic provides an extra spark on offense.
In the middle, Brook Lopez leads all centers in scoring, Player Efficiency Rating, Estimated Wins Added and Value Added. That is not considering an injury exception or a recently returned star—Lopez leads all centers in those categories.
Having Andray Blatche's PER of 22.46 behind him certainly doesn't hurt.
In other words, the Nets have stars in the starting lineup. They also have the proper mixture of veteran prowess and athletic explosiveness along their second unit.
As a result, Brooklyn has created that most important of assets in the NBA: depth.
The D-Will Factor
Thus far in 2012-13, Deron Williams is having a down year. By "down year," we mean to say that he's averaging 17.1 points and 7.8 assists.
Believe you me, there is room for improvement.
Even in his struggling state, D-Will ranks 10th amongst point guards in scoring and sixth in the NBA in assists. Unfortunately, Williams is also shooting 41.7 percent from the floor.
So why do we believe that he can turn this around?
Williams is a career 45.2 percent shooter from the floor. He shot 45.6 percent or better in every season he spent with the Utah Jazz, only to see a severe drop-off when he came to the Brooklyn Nets. Considering he is surrounded with significantly more talent in 2012-13 than he was in his first year-and-a-half in Brooklyn, improvement is likely.
Williams is one of the most polished pick-and-roll facilitators of his generation. He worked magic with Carlos Boozer in Utah, leading the Jazz to the 2007 Western Conference Finals.
With one quick glance at the starting lineup, one cannot deny how similar this Brooklyn team is to the '07 Jazz.
With Lopez and Blatche serving as a replacement to Boozer, D-Will should run the pick-and-roll to perfection. With Gerald Wallace playing the Nets version of Andrei Kirilenko, the defensive and fast-break support should be there. Joe Johnson just so happens to be a more well-rounded version of sharpshooter Kyle Korver. The question is, when will Johnson develop the necessary consistency with his stroke?
Assuming the chemistry hits 100 percent, the tag of "legitimate" will be placed upon the Nets. Until that point is reached, however, one thing will be perfectly clear: Brooklyn hasn't climbed the ranks to championship legitimacy.
Not just yet.