Even when their semi-desperate overtures to the Orlando Magic ended with Dwight Howard in a Laker uniform, the general consensus coming into the season was that the Nets would be big-time postseason players out east in their first year in Brooklyn. With the money that might have been Howard’s, GM Billy King was able to deal Deshawn Stevenson, a lottery-protected Rockets’ first round pick, and the pu pu platter and take on Joe Johnson’s max deal before re-inking Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, and, after a week of ambiguity and flirtation with Mark Cuban, Deron Williams as well. The result has been a bit of a mixed bag: Brooklyn is fourth in a weak Eastern Conference, but when you get a respected coach axed by lackadaisical play, you’re the second best team in your city alone, and the point guard you invested your future in on a maxed out contract can’t make the All-Star team, your season hardly feels like a success story. There’s some good, and there’s some bad.
The Nets have the capacity to be a really good defensive basketball team, mostly owing to the grit that a Crash Wallace-Reggie Evans frontline brings to complement Lopez, who is a more than capable shot-blocker at the rim. They’re fifth in the league for the season allowing a very respectable 95.1 points per game, but in the 38 games since Reggie Evans has replaced Kris Humphries in the starting lineup that number is down to 93.0. That figure projected across a full season would place them just outside the holy trinity of defensive basketball teams: Chicago, Memphis, and of course Indiana. The crazy thing is, they probably have the capacity to be even better than that defensively: Joe Johnson is the definition of a two-way player and routinely guarded the opponent’s best player in Atlanta, and Deron Williams has a sturdy frame and doesn’t yield much in the way of penetration.
Meanwhile, Brook Lopez, the guy who was subject to an Avery Johnson “coach can’t be out there holding your hand the whole time” rant after failing to grab a single defensive rebound in a loss last year, turned into an All-Star. It’s still baffling to me how a guy can fail to drag down ten rebounds per night at 7’0″ and 265 sans physically debilitating lack of coordination, but he’s putting up 19 a night for a team that’s still pretty perimeter-oriented, he’s pulling down a more-respectable 9.6 rebounds per 40 minutes, and he’s across the 2 block threshold for the first time in his career. According to Hollinger’s PER rankings, he’s tied with Tim Duncan as the fifth-best player in the league this year, which is an illustration of how far he’s come only slightly less definitively than it is an illustration of how numbers can be misleading. Like I said… there’s some good.
And then there’s some bad. First and foremost, I am inclined to hate every team ever that does in its coach by failing to play hard. Avery Johnson was the coach of the month for the first two months of the season, and then was fired the next when the Nets hit the doldrums. As LeBron James pointed out, that’s like trading the player of the month (which would be himself) for next to nothing (affter fifteen minutes of brainstorming on who PJ Carlesimo’s player equivalent is, I’m going with Scot Pollard). It speaks volumes about the team’s leadership that they would quit on a coach who as a player was the antithesis of the word “quit”. The only good thing that came out of that story was Avery Johnson Jr.’s expletive-laden twitter bashing of Nets brass, combined with the fact that his father was apparently fine with it.
Back on the team’s leadership. After three or so paragraphs of restraint, I have to do my blurb on Deron Williams. After all, a few years back there was a contingent of (brainless) people that legitimately believed that he was the best point guard on the planet. His last three full seasons in Utah, Williams put up 18.8 and 10.5, 19.4 and 10.7, and 18.7 and 10.5. His shooting percentage over that stretch never fell below 47%, and during the first of those season he actually shot 50%+ from the field. This year, he’s managed 16.8 points and 7.7 assists per night, he’s barely above 40% shooting, the Mendoza line of basketball, at 41.2%, and he failed to make the All-Star team for the first time in four years. John Hollinger’s most recent scouting report on Williams noted that “he has the ability to defend well but effort has nosedived in recent years.” What I’m trying to say with that mass of numbers is, the guy’s gone in the shitter. He’s not playing like the second team All-Pro that he once was. A team quarterbacked by Deron Williams is 27th in the league in assists.
As it stands now, the Nets’ playoff chances are pretty limited. If the playoffs started today, the Nets would play the Bulls, and a semi-healthy Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau’s stifling defense would mean their end. The same would happen if they were to slip onto the six or seven line and meet Indiana. I wouldn’t even like their chances in a seven game series against the Knicks… and man oh man would that be a bitter end.
But never fear, Nets’ faithful, I have a solution — and he’s somewhere off in McLeansboro, Illinois riding a tractor.
When people discussed the Boozer to Chicago signing, a lot of people, myself included, opined that he was probably the beneficiary of an offense run by Deron Williams. Perhaps we all approached it the wrong way: perhaps he, and Deron Williams as well, were beneficiaries of being on a team coached by Jerry Sloan. I mentioned that this Nets team is 27th in the league in assists. In Deron Williams’ last three years in Utah, the Jazz finished first, first, and second to Phoenix (when Steve Nash was the most valuable player in the league) in the same category.
Nets fans, beg management not to go with the guy Latrell Sprewell once choked as your long term head coach. Beg your superstar to beg his old coach for forgiveness, even though he cost him a job (people forget that Avery Johnson wasn’t Deron Williams’ first victim). Beg God that Jerry Sloan hasn’t gotten too comfortable in McLeansboro yet. And, when you start a hashtag, link this article, so that maybe I’ll have some readers who aren’t related to me.
I’m not one for comparing athletes to singsongy R&B performers (those who know me well — please forgive the preceding lie), but I loved the comparison that DJ Dunson made: what if Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams could have a Chris Brown/Rihanna moment? Yeah, Williams screwed Sloan, and yeah, it probably isn’t a good idea for him, but as he said recently, “Even if it’s a mistake, it’s my mistake to make.”
Maybe that was Rihanna. The point stands.
Seriously, I’d appreciate the hashtag thing.