Post-2014 NBA All-Star Break Predictions for Brooklyn Nets
Which version of the Brooklyn Nets will show up for the final third of the NBA season?
That is the big question as the Nets, currently sixth in the Eastern Conference at 25-27, come out of the All-Star break.
Perhaps the Nets will harness some of their recent momentum and race past most of the East on the way to 45 victories.
Then again, it's equally plausible that they will succumb to injuries and inconsistency, falling to the bottom of the playoff picture—if not out of it all together.
There's certainly reason to believe the Nets will continue their upward trend. They are playing more cohesive basketball after an early-season funk, and have benefited from rookie head coach Jason Kidd's tinkering of the rotations.
With all that in mind, here are five predictions for Brooklyn between now and the season's conclusion.
Shaun Livingston Will Outplay Deron Williams
Some Brooklyn Nets fans are banking on a resurgent second half for Deron Williams, the team's $98-million point guard. Williams had an excellent post-All-Star Game stretch last season, averaging 22.9 points and 8.0 assists per game after the break.
The circumstances have changed, however. Williams is more banged up than he was last year, having missed 16 games already due to injuries to both ankles. His troubles are more than physical, as Williams has admitted that his confidence has been compromised by this up-and-down season.
“It's not my highest,” Williams said a few weeks ago via Tim Bontemps of the New York Post. “It's been tough... just being in and out of the lineups, missing two weeks here and there... It's just been a struggle.”
It probably doesn't ease Williams' mind that his team is doing just fine with guard Shaun Livingston running the offense:
|Shooting Percentage||Points/36 Minutes||Assists/36 Minutes||Starts||Nets Record in Starts|
Williams, even with his setbacks, still appears to be more productive on offense than Livingston. But Livingston, at 6'7", provides much better length on defense, and he is often tasked with guarding the opponent's best player.
The Nets can still start both guards at once, as they did Tuesday night against the Utah Jazz. In the contest, Livingston scored nine points on seven shots and dished out seven assists, while Williams scored 19 points on 15 shots and also picked up seven dimes.
Clearly Livingston continues to play an efficient and more complete brand of basketball. His resurrection, coupled with Williams' shaky confidence and shakier ankles, will allow him to assume the role of the Nets' most important backcourt player.
All statistics from Basketball-Reference.com
The Nets Will Finish Top 15 in Defensive Efficiency
The Nets got off to a dismal start defensively. Preseason predictors figured that the Nets' plus size at every starting position would give them an imposing physicality on defense. Instead, their lack of quickness led to easy threes and transition buckets for opponents.
In response, head coach Jason Kidd embraced a smaller, faster lineup that has paid dividends so far. By moving Paul Pierce from the small forward to the power forward, in turn pushing Kevin Garnett into the starting center role, the Nets have room for a quicker backcourt, anchored by the long-armed Shaun Livingston.
As a result, the Nets have been climbing the NBA defensive efficiency ranks, as measured at the end of each month:
(points per 100 possessions)
Even though the Nets still sit 21st in defensive efficiency, they are only a single point behind the Miami Heat (103.0 points per 100 possessions), currently ranked 16th. With a strong finish to the month of February, Brooklyn could conceivably hop up to 16th in the next few weeks.
Of Brooklyn's remaining 30 games, only 13 are against teams scoring more than the league average of 100.3 points per game. A combination of the Nets' improved defense and their upcoming opponents' subpar offensive abilities should allow the team to continue passing teams in defensive efficiency. Expect the Nets to be somewhere in the 10th to 15th range by the time the regular season closes.
All statistics from TeamRankings.com
The Nets Will Sign Jason Collins
It appears to be a beneficial swap for the Nets: Terry's skills have dropped off considerably, and Evans' offensive ineptitude makes him a liability, despite his penchant for grabbing rebounds. Meanwhile, Thornton is a very capable offensive player, once averaging over 18 points a game in the 2011-2012 season for the Kings.
The Nets failed to address their lack of size and rebounding before the deadline, though, and will now have to find another big man somewhere in free agency. Teams with physical frontcourts have bullied the Nets so far this season: Brooklyn is a combined 0-9 against the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls, all teams with powerful interior presences. Amongst all teams, the Nets rank 27th in rebound rate.
The free agent market for big men is not very deep, but one option is Jason Collins, who worked out with the team recently. Like Evans, Collins is an offensive black hole, but at 7'0" and 260 lbs, he would provide some rim protection in the paint while giving the Nets a much needed boost on the boards.
The obvious consideration for teams eyeing Collins is anticipating the media attention that would swarm to the veteran center, who would become the first openly gay active player in the NBA if he signed. However, it has been almost a year since Collins came out and in the interim, he has been replaced by Michael Sam as America's highest profile gay athlete.
As a result, Collins' arrival might receive less fanfare than it would have last season. Besides, the size-starved Nets aren't in a position to be turning down NBA-caliber centers.
The Nets Will Finish Fourth in the East with a 42-40 Record
The Nets are currently only two games behind in the loss column to the Toronto Raptors, who lead the Atlantic Division with a 29-25 record. Their goal over their remaining 30 games, obviously, is to pass the Raptors and secure the three-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Unfortunately for the Nets, the Raptors have one of the easiest remaining schedules in all of basketball. Toronto's remaining opponents have only a 45 percent winning percentage, and the Raptors will enjoy the luxury of their home court in 16 of their final 28 games.
Toronto's light schedule will make it difficult for the Nets to leap frog them in the standings, especially since the Raptors currently hold the head-to-head advantage.
Yet the Nets can still improve on their current sixth seed in the East. Their own strength of schedule is advantageous, as their remaining opponents only have a 46 percent winning percentage.
The Nets' gradually improving performance is also a sign that the team is better than their sub-.500 record might indicate. After going 10-21 from October through December, the Nets have posted a 15-6 record in the first two months of 2014.
The team has too many question marks, most notably the health of their aging roster, to inspire hope for a monster finish to the regular season. Given their upturn in performance in 2014, though, 17 wins in their final 30 games is a reasonable prognostication.
Their final position is harder to predict, due to the congested nature of the Eastern Conference standings (six teams are currently separated by only four and half games). Forty-two victories may be enough to secure the four-spot, although several fewer wins could spell a precipitous drop down the seedings.
The Nets Will Advance to the Second Round of the NBA Playoffs
Last season ended on a sour note for the Nets. Given an opportunity to advance to the second round of the NBA Playoffs, Brooklyn lost a Game 7 on their home court to the Chicago Bulls, ending their title hopes.
Don't expect the Nets to fail again in this year's attempt to pass through the first round. A major motivation for signing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce last summer was adding two veterans with extensive postseason experience. Even though the two are nearing retirement, they always seem to save a little bit of fire and energy for the playoffs.
Other trends favor the Nets in the postseason as well. They are emerging as an above-average defensive team, an integral component for success in the playoffs. They also have proven to perform well in the clutch, knocking off excellent teams like the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder during the final minutes of games in the past six weeks.
It helps that Joe Johnson has embraced the role of closer for Brooklyn, sinking two buzzer-beating game-winners already this season.
Their likely opponent in the first round will be one of the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors or Chicago Bulls. None of those teams would be pushovers, and the Bulls in particular have given the Nets trouble recently. In tight matchups, though, the Nets' experience and potential home-court advantage gives them a leg up.
The next round, on the other hand, would most likely be the end to Brooklyn's season. The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat have essentially secured the top two spots in the conference, meaning the Nets would draw one of those two giants of the East in the second round.
Even if the Nets find some positive momentum in the postseason, it's hard to imagine them finding four wins against either the likes of Paul George and the Pacers or LeBron James and the Heat.