5 Areas Brooklyn Nets Must Improve This Offseason
For Mikhail Prokhorov, the team's owner, that's not good enough. Prokhorov has long trumpeted a win-now philosophy, meaning the Nets must address their shortcomings this summer in order to make another title run next season.
Where exactly must the Nets improve? Here are five areas that Brooklyn should look to upgrade during the offseason.
No piece of the Nets' 2014-15 lineup is as unclear as their backcourt. Much was made of Brooklyn's starting backcourt this past season, a two-headed monster that featured Deron Williams' offensive playmaking and Shaun Livingston's suffocating defense.
However, both players are far from a guarantee to be on the court come opening night in October. Deron Williams recently expressed his frustration with the Nets, leading to the obligatory wild speculation about a potential trade that would send him elsewhere.
And even if the Nets do retain Williams, the team can't be sure as to his abilities. Williams will undergo surgery on both ankles Tuesday, adding even more uncertainty around a declining star coming off a mediocre postseason performance.
Livingston, on the other hand, will probably be wearing a different uniform next season. The Nets, financially hamstrung by their engorged salary cap, can only offer him, at best, about a $10-million, three-year contract.
Livingston, who proved in 2013-14 that he has recovered fully from a gruesome 2007 knee injury, will receive great attention from team's looking for a legitimate two-way guard. Nets fans may cling to the hope that Livingston has grown attached to the borough, but the truth is that he will find more money (and maybe a better title shot) elsewhere.
The Nets may be be able to internally solve part of this problem. If the team returns to a more conventional lineup, Joe Johnson could shift from the small forward to the shooting guard, with Marcus Thornton (one year left under contract) acting as a viable backup.
Still, the Nets will need to pick up a point guard who is not only capable of being a backup but ready to take the reins of the offense if Williams' ankles don't hold up. The Nets won't be able to pay some of the better point guards who will be available this summer, so Brooklyn will have to go hunting in the bargain bin.
A trio of veterans—Luke Ridnour, Ramon Sessions and Rodney Stuckey—should grab the Nets attention. None of these three players can singlehandedly run an offense, but each would fill the Brooklyn's growing backcourt hole.
For all the praise heaped upon Jason Kidd for employing a small-ball lineup, there were significant weaknesses to the coach's strategy. Chief amongst those was rebounding.
There's two ways to qualify the Nets' rebounding woes in 2013-14. Statistically speaking, the team finished second to last in the league in Rebound Rate, sandwiched between two doormats, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Or you could throw out all the numbers and simply rewatch this year's playoffs. The Nets were almost ousted in the first round by a Toronto Raptors team that outmuscled them in the paint for offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
Brooklyn's inability on the boards proved much more costly in the second round against the Miami Heat. The defining stretch in Game 2 came when the Heat grabbed three consecutive offensive rebounds, eating up almost two minutes of clock late in the fourth quarter and sealing a Brooklyn loss.
Now much of the Nets' rebounding woes were a result of missing their superstar starting center, Brook Lopez, for the majority of the season. That being said, Lopez isn't even a great rebounder when he's on the court anyway. He was averaging only 6.0 rebounds a game before he broke a bone in his foot last December, far from elite for a man standing 7'0" tall.
Kevin Garnett, once the king of the glass, won't be good for more than 20 minutes and five rebounds next season.
So who will come down with stray shots for the Nets? Hopefully a slew of candidates actually. First of all, if the Nets return to a more conventional starting five with Joe Johnson at shooting guard and Paul Pierce (assuming he resigns) at small forward, Brooklyn will naturally rebound better. The Nets may hope to pick up a big man in free agency, but their limited spending ability restricts their options. Perhaps Jeff Adrien, a powerfully built forward, would be a good choice.
Otherwise, the Nets must improve that aspect of the game internally. Mason Plumlee, who flashed promise as a rookie, is their best hope. Veterans like Mirza Teletovic and Andray Blatche (if he's still on the team) probably won't suddenly learn how to rebound better. Plumlee, on the other hand, just finished his first year banging bodies in the paint. He still needs to get a little bigger and perfect his timing and positioning around the basket.
Despite having a star point guard once known for his prowess in transition, the Nets were a terrible fast break team in 2013-14. Brooklyn averaged just over nine fast-break points per game in the regular season, good for 29th in the league.
This trend poses more problems than just boring basketball. By not having a transition threat, the Nets' offensive fortunes were tied exclusively to their half-court sets. Such dependence can lead to long droughts, as was a recurring problem for Brooklyn, especially in the playoffs.
In both the first and second rounds of the postseas, the Nets found fourth-quarter scoring very hard to come by, which sealed their fates in multiple losses. On occasion, reliance on Joe Johnson in isolation saved Brooklyn, but otherwise the team was in high need of some easy baskets.
Unfortunately, the Nets aren't likely to find a high-flying free agent cheaply. To remedy their fast-break woes, Jason Kidd will have to tinker with his lineups and strategies. The silver lining is that the Nets may already have the pieces required to cash in on some transition buckets.
Brooklyn played at a deliberate pace to offset the disadvantages of age and a lack of speed. While this plan worked a lot of the time, it severely hindered the team's ability to get out and run.
To create better balance and help shock the Nets out of scoring droughts, Kidd should lean more heavily on a unit more athletically capable of running fast breaks. Leave Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and their aching knees on the bench, as well as the slow-footed Brook Lopez. Run out Deron Williams, Marcus Thornton and Mason Plumlee, along with Andrei Kirilenko and Alan Anderson (or replacements for the latter two should they not return). Play aggressive, take a few gambles and push the ball off both makes and misses.
Now, this isn't a strategy meant to be deployed for the entire 48 minutes—the Nets would end up losing every game 150-110. But it is a solution to the team's abysmal fast-break game and its propensity to stagnate on offense. Kidd has shown a willingness to mix things up, and he needs to continue doing so to address the Nets' poor transition attack.
Although the Nets improved their defense as the 2013-14 season progressed, they had trouble defending the perimeter.
Several metrics indicate the ease with which opponents attacked Brooklyn's defense outside the paint. As B/R's Alec Nathan mentions in his article, the Nets were a below-average team at guarding pick-and-rolls, the bread and butter of the modern NBA offense. Brooklyn was 20th in the league in defending the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls, and 21st in defending the roller.
The Nets also had trouble guarding outside shooters. On shots of at least 24 feet, the Nets ranked 23rd in defensive field-goal percentage at 39.3 percent. Moreover, they allowed a 43.7 field-goal percentage on right corner threes (third worst in the league) and a 36.3 field goal percentage on above-the-break threes (seventh worst).
Brook Lopez's return should allow the Nets to defend the perimeter better. With Lopez at center, the Nets can shift their starters down a position to create a bigger lineup with a better presence in the paint. If Lopez and Kevin Garnett are manning the interior, Nets perimeter defenders can jump out more aggressively on shooters and funnel opponents toward their fortified frontcourt. Guys like Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson won't have to worry as much about clogging the paint and will subsequently be able to contest three-pointers more effectively.
Some personnel decisions could also help the Nets' defensive weaknesses. Andrei Kirilenko played only 14.4 minutes per game in this year's playoffs, despite being arguably the team's best defender. Jason Kidd should consider giving Kirilenko a slight bump in minutes next season if the Nets continue to struggle with perimeter defense. Kirilenko won't scare anyone on the offensive end, but his immense wingspan and solid basketball IQ make him a great presence on D, especially beyond the arc.
Nets Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has been very open about his win-now model, which has led to the Nets swapping draft picks for established veterans in recent years. This strategy's pitfall, of course, is that when the franchise fails to capture a championship, as Brooklyn did this season, it's left with a crowd of aging players and no young core to build around.
Brooklyn shouldn't change its blueprint. It can't, really, since most of its players are still under contract. However, while continuing to push for a 2015 title, the team should begin pursuing players who can be contributors on the next incarnation of this franchise. They can address this goal through free agency, or even the D-League—the Nets got good minutes out of Jorge Gutierrez this past season after calling him up from the Canton Charge in March.
But any real progress will be made via picks in the 2014 NBA draft. Brooklyn famously traded away all of their 2014 picks (and many of their picks in future drafts as well). They could still trade into this year's draft, though, and have interviewed several players with that possibility in mind.
According to Fansided.com, Nets brass has had conversations with Shabazz Napier, Deonte Burton, Spencer Dinwiddie and Thanasis Antetokounmpo. The first three players on that list are point guards, and the fourth is a lengthy forward and the brother of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the athletic Milwaukee Bucks rookie nicknamed the Greek Freak.
In interviewing these players, the Nets seem to be focusing on other areas mentioned on this list, namely improving their backcourt and bolstering their fast break.
This franchise's future will not turn on a single player. The Nets will pay the price of gambling on the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett last summer for years to come. However, if the Nets can elbow their way back into the draft this season, presumably somewhere late in the first round or somewhere in the second, they may pick up a player who can help rejuvenate their aging roster.