There are many ways to achieve inner peace, but for the Brooklyn Nets, there is only one: by winning...a lot.
Such is the expectation that naturally accompanies a team with a $100 million and an $80 million luxury tax bill. Adding Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko to a squad that already featured Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson makes the Nets a title contender, at least on paper.
But translating prospects into success in the NBA requires a carefully prescribed path of some sort, one that new head coach Jason Kidd and his staff are likely hard at work devising as we speak. The preparation figures to be hectic, as does the implementation of whatever scheme emerges over the course of an 82-game regular season and a lengthy playoff run.
For inspiration, Kidd and company would do well to turn to Buddhism and, more specifically, the Eightfold Path. The Buddha spoke of the Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Path, as a means of separating oneself from suffering and reaching a more enlightened state of self-awakening.
Likewise, the Nets' Eightfold Path, when followed closely, should lead them away from the suffering of defeat and toward a greater awakening of the expensive championship spirit that (presumably) lies within.
Step 1: Right Defense
Any discussion of what the Nets need to do to improve their positioning in the Eastern Conference, new roster or no, must begin on the defensive end.
Brooklyn was anything but dynamic defensively last season. The Nets ranked a middling 18th in defensive efficiency in 2012-13, surrendering 103.6 points per 100 possessions. They also checked in among the bottom half in the league in field-goal attempts and percentage allowed in the paint, opponent effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of three-pointers) and opponent offensive rebound percentage.
And it's not as though the Nets were forcing miscues, either. They forced turnovers on just 14.6 percent of their foes' possessions—the sixth-lowest mark in the NBA.
All of this, despite giving valuable starter's minutes to "defensive specialists" like Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans.
More troubling still is how poorly Brooklyn fared against the pick-and-roll, even with Brook Lopez's improved coverage. According to Synergy Sports, the Nets placed 29th out of 30 teams in defending the roll man in the pick-and-roll, giving up 1.08 points per play and on 56.1 percent shooting in such situations.
Oh, and have I mentioned that the Nets, per Synergy, were third-worst in post defense (0.9 points per play allowed)?
Clearly, Lopez wasn't cut out to be the lynchpin of a quality defense. Nor were Wallace and Evans all that capable of providing adequate support.
This isn't to suggest that the Nets were "Charlotte Bobcats bad" defensively. Rather, they were merely below-average on that end, which still isn't good enough to be considered worthy of legitimate title contention.
The arrivals of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko could change all that.
Of these three, Garnett is (and will be) the key to the Nets' improvement. For six years, he anchored a C's defense that never ranked lower than sixth in defensive efficiency, thanks to the principles—of taking away the middle of the floor, trapping pick-and-rolls on the sidelines, and helping and recovering—implemented by current Chicago Bulls head coach and former Doc Rivers right-hand man Tom Thibodeau.
Lawrence Frank figures to bring many of the concepts above to Brooklyn. Frank filled the role of defensive guru on Boston's bench during the season immediately following Thibs' departure to the Windy City. After a failed two-year stint with the Detroit Pistons, he'll now serve as the top assistant on Jason Kidd's staff with the Nets.
Luckily for Frank, he'll have KG at his disposal to anchor that arrangement—perhaps not to the extent that he did in 2010 (see video below), but still far better than would the leadfooted Lopez.
Garnett's length, leaping ability, mobility on his feet and signature intensity allow him to be an effective defender all over the floor. He can contest shots in the paint and at the rim with regularity, more so than Lopez usually could.
But what really allows KG to stand out from the rest is his footwork. He's excellent at defending the pick-and-roll and has proven to be equally effective at pestering players on the perimeter as he has in the post.
That ability to apply pressure at the point of attack should make KG a nifty complement to Lopez, who (to his credit) has learned to compensate for his lack of lateral quickness and foot speed with smarter positioning.
Step 2: Right Wings
Paul Pierce is no slouch in this regard. Pierce may not be the most athletic or fleet-of-foot wing in the NBA (even less so with his 36th birthday fast approaching). But what he lacks in those departments, he more than makes up for in strength and smarts.
As he always has. There aren't many players at his position who can contend with Pierce's sturdy frame (6'7", 235 lbs), which is tough to move when he's defending in isolation and contesting shots.
Pierce should be an upgrade over Gerald Wallace, whose precipitous loss of athleticism has proven particularly injurious to his once-sterling reputation as a defensive specialist.
In combination, Pierce and Garnett constitute a force of some reckoning. According to nbawowy.com, the C's limited the opposition to just 0.988 points per possession and an effective field-goal percentage of 0.471 whenever those two shared the floor last season.
The concern for the Nets, though, is to what extent their new arrivals can play at all. KG's legs, with their more than 53,000 minutes of wear and tear, have become the subject of an annual watch.
Pierce, on the other hand, has been nearly a picture of health since the start of the 2007-08 season. However, he clearly wore down last spring amid the added workload (and attention) of taking on Rajon Rondo's facilitation duties.
That's where Andrei Kirilenko comes in.
The versatile Russian, who arrived in Brooklyn this summer by way of a suspiciously inexpensive pact, is capable of spelling either of Boston's castoffs on the defensive end, though he's better suited to stepping in for Pierce. According to 82games.com, the former Euroleague Best Defender trophy winner held opposing small forwards to a below-average Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 13.9.
Step 3: Right Minutes
How Jason Kidd apportions playing time to the Nets' new arrivals will be crucial to keeping them healthy and effective up to and through the postseason.
Garnett hasn't averaged more than 33 minutes per game since he left Minneapolis and saw his share reduced to 29.7 minutes in 2012-13—his smallest since his rookie season. The Nets would be foolish to ask KG to put in more than 30 minutes of work per night and might even be better off keeping him at or under 25, if possible.
The fewer regular-season minutes for Garnett, the better. The same goes for Pierce, who set a new career low with 33.4 minutes per game last season. He'll need to have his minutes and his duties monitored carefully to make sure he has plenty left in the tank for a deep playoff push.
To that end, Kirilenko's role on the rotation will be vital, as will those of returnees Andray Blatche, Mirza Teletovic and Reggie Evans. The latter three will benefit more directly from KG's precautionary limits, especially Blatche, who was Brooklyn's top reserve last season (10.3 points, 5.1 rebounds in 19 minutes).
And if the notoriously flaky Blatche takes a few cues from KG's constant intensity, all the better.
Garnett, though, won't be the only big in Brooklyn on whom Kidd must keep a close eye. Brook Lopez missed all but five games in 2011-12 with a broken bone in his right foot that required the insertion of a new screw this past June, per Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated.
Centers and foot problems go together like Superman and kryptonite. Just ask Bill Walton and Yao Ming, who both saw their careers submarined by injuries to their lower extremities.
The Nets can ill afford to watch Lopez suffer a similar fate. The All-Star center established himself as the best and most consistent player in Brooklyn's employ last season. The Nets can still be a playoff team if he goes down, but any hope of challenging the Miami Heat atop the East would go right out the window.
Step 4: Right Guards
The same could be said of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, each of whom was slowed by injuries last season. D-Will's ankles were worn down by his duties with Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics, to the point where questions arose about the wisdom of his $100 million contract with the Nets.
But a bit of rest around the All-Star break turned out to be a tremendous help. Williams performed more efficiently than ever before during the second half of the season, per ESPN The Magazine's Beckley Mason. As for Johnson, he was reduced to a decoy by a late-season bout with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
Both should be fit in time for the fall. Still, their respective injury histories point to a need for reduced workloads for Brooklyn's backcourt. Unfortunately, the Nets are still a bit thin at guard, with only the 36-year-old Jason Terry, the perpetually shelved Shaun Livingston and the untested Tyshawn Taylor on the payroll.
On the bright side, Terry and Livingston are both capable of manning either backcourt spot. JET, for his part, has never missed more than eight games in a given season.
Terry should also have an easier time adjusting to his new situation in Brooklyn than he did in Boston. If D-Will and Johnson stay healthy, JET won't have to worry about being yanked between the bench and the starting lineup as he was with the C's. Moreover, he'll be playing for a guy, in Kidd, who understands his strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies from their days as teammates with the Dallas Mavericks.
Step 5: Right Picks
Of course, it'll be much easier for Kidd to keep his key cogs well-rested if the Nets score on (and blow out) inferior opponents as their sheer talent suggests they should.
Any offense Brooklyn runs would best be built around the pick-and-roll. D-Will has long been one of the elite proprietors of the league's pet play, dating back to his salad days with the Utah Jazz.
Last season, though, Williams checked in as just the 101st-most efficient pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Synergy Sports.
That drop-off was probably the product of a number of drags on Deron's game, including his bum ankles and the iso-heavy offense that Avery Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo ran. Just 18.3 percent of Williams' plays ended in a pick-and-roll of some sort, as opposed to the 21.2 percent that he finished in isolation, per Synergy.
That split mirrored Brooklyn's teamwide distribution between isolations, spot-ups, post-ups and pick-and-rolls.
The Nets will have the proper personnel to tilt those numbers further in favor of the pick-and-roll. Williams, Johnson and Pierce can all handle the ball and shoot well enough from three to demand respect from defenders. Garnett and Lopez, meanwhile, both sport the mobility to roll to the rim and the soft stroke to pop out for jumpers in the 18-to-20-foot range.
Pierce and Garnett come equipped with well-established chemistry in the two-man game:
As do JET and Pierce:
And Terry and Garnett:
Surely, Kidd will entrust Terry with the keys to the offense from time to time, particularly when Williams is resting, to partner with Brooklyn's bigs. How could he forget watching JET torture teams in tandem with Dirk Nowitzki for all those years in Big D?
The more possible pick-and-roll combinations the Nets run out there, the tougher they'll be to defend. And the more shooters J-Kidd has on the floor at any given time, the more space there will be for those pick-and-rolls to slice and dice opposing defenses.
Step 6: Right Solos
If used properly, the Nets' newest additions should elevate an offense that was surprisingly productive last season. Brooklyn ranked ninth in offensive efficiency in 2012-13, despite playing at the league's third-slowest pace in a stodgy offense whose spacing was so often compromised by non-factors like Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans.
Not that there won't still be ample opportunity for the team to run isolations. Joe Johnson is among the best in the business at creating shots for himself off the dribble. "Iso Joe" took solo opportunities 28 percent of the time during his first season with the Nets, scoring a solid 0.89 points per play on 44 percent shooting therein, per Synergy Sports.
Johnson's ability to hit bad shots late in the clock will come in handy when Brooklyn's offense inevitably breaks down from time to time. According to 82games.com, Johnson compiled a relatively respectable effective field-goal percentage of .470 on attempts (21 percent of his total) taken with three seconds or fewer left on the shot clock.
Kidd would also be wise to feed the ball to Brook in the post from time to time. Lopez sports an array of nifty moves—be they with his back to the basket or while facing up—that make the seven-foot, 260-pound behemoth an even tougher cover on the block.
It's no wonder, then, that post-ups constituted the plurality (28.7 percent) of Lopez's plays last season, or that he averaged a strong 0.91 points per play on the block.
Pierce figures to get in on the iso action on occasion, as well. He was moderately efficient in isolation last season (0.83 points per play). Surprisingly enough, he also ranked among the top 20 in the entire NBA on post-ups (0.95 points per play), thanks to his notoriously deep "bag of tricks":
Step 7: Right Cuts
But, again, isos aren't and won't be anything new for the Nets. As for what will be new, Brooklyn should expect to get plenty more scores off easy opportunities via cuts and fast breaks.
Part of this will be the byproduct of playing a better, more aggressive brand of defense. The Nets should rack up layups and dunks on their own end, so long as they wreak havoc and force turnovers on the other.
Jason Kidd, for one, won't likely ask his players to walk the ball up the court every time, either. So much of Kidd's success as a player stemmed from his proficiency in pushing the pace and orchestrating a fast break, particularly when he led the then-New Jersey Nets to back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals.
D-Will has shown himself capable of doing the same. The Nets, though, scarcely ran last season (10.8 percent of the time)—and for good reason. Gerald Wallace was Williams' only real running mate at the time, and even "Crash" couldn't get up and down the court like he used to.
Only time will tell if Andrei Kirilenko, at 32, still has the wheels for it. But if he does, AK-47 and D-Will should be able to rekindle some of that transition magic on which they so often drew during their five-and-a-half seasons together with the Utah Jazz:
All signs would suggest that he does. His 1.43 points per play in transition (on 75.8 percent shooting and 16.4 percent of his plays) stood as the 12th-most efficient mark in the NBA in 2012-13.
And when they're in the half court, the Nets can look to Kirilenko to make some nifty cuts to the hoop for even more buckets. He finished 69.7 percent of his cuts, 18.4 percent of which drew shooting fouls, for an astronomical average of 1.43 points per play (12th-most).
Step 8: Right Time
What Brooklyn needs, more than anything, to become a legitimate title contender is time, and plenty of it.
Time for Jason Kidd to get the hang of this whole "coaching" thing in the first season of his post-playing career. Time for players old and new to get acquainted with each other and with their surroundings. Time for the Miami Heat to fall from their perch atop the Eastern Conference.
Unfortunately, time isn't something the Nets have a whole lot of. Pierce will be out of contract after this season, at which point he could opt for retirement. Garnett's deal runs through 2014-15, though he may want to call it quits once his 38th birthday comes and goes.
And don't forget the promise that owner Mikhail Prokhorov made when he bought the team in 2010 and reiterated upon the opening of the Barclays Center in 2012: that his Nets would take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy within five years.
The pressure's on the Nets to deliver that championship, since this coming season will be Year 4 under that umbrella. Doing so in 2014 will be particularly tough, what with LeBron James and the Heat still at the height of their powers, Derrick Rose due back for the Bulls, Paul George reaching new heights with the Pacers, and Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks pressing for success.
Not to mention the cacophony of contenders out west or the Nets' own issues to sort out.
Don't sleep on 2015, though. By then, the Nets will have had time to sort out their issues and come together as a team. Jason Kidd will have a full season of coaching under his belt, the players will know each other better, and the whole organization won't be so swept up in a storm of hype.
Or not. After all, 2015 will mark the 60th anniversary of Brooklyn's first and only championship: the Dodgers' victory over the rival New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
Better get started on that Eightfold Path, then.
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