The Brooklyn Nets are on a collision course with the Miami Heat if the current standings in the Eastern Conference hold up. The Nets’ 42-31 record is good for #4 in the East, which would make them the favorite to play the Heat in the second round. Furthermore, in a world where we’re looking for anyone at all who can make Miami sweat out a playoff series prior to the Finals, Brooklyn is getting some attention.
Today’s NBA commentary will focus on the Nets’ strengths and weaknesses, and evaluate whether they are the kind of playoff-tough team that can first, win a series, and second, put pressure on the favorite.
Brooklyn has legitimate star talent and in the NBA that’s always the first thing you look for. The backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, combined with the inside work of center Brook Lopez, give the Nets a foundation on which to build a championship-caliber team. They already play at a high level on the offensive end. Johnson and Williams combine for 34 points per game, they shoot a respectable 37% from three-point range, while Lopez gets 19 ppg in the low post. There’s not much in the way of scoring balance, but this core trio is enough to make Brooklyn a top ten team in offensive efficiency.
What the Nets lack is scoring depth—or really, any kind of depth at all. Gerald Wallace is a disappointment at the small forward spot, Kris Humphries hasn’t provided much of anything off the bench, and Keith Bogans is a mediocre backup guard. The most you can say for the bench or the role players offensively is that C.J. Watson hits 40 percent of his three-point shots.
Furthermore, this team does not play efficient defense. Brooklyn ranks just 19th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Opposing teams don’t bother messing around with the three-ball—the Nets face fewer attempts than all but two teams, which suggest the opposition is very comfortable working the offense inside the arc. The numbers suggest the strategy is working, and that shouldn’t happen when you have a shotblocker like Lopez as the anchor. Brooklyn likely needs some new complementary players, who understand the defensive side of the floor much better.
What Brooklyn does do very well is pound the boards though. Reggie Evans starts at power forward and has pulled in 10 rebounds a game. Andray Blatche comes off the bench and does the same thing. Put these two together with Lopez and you have a team that’s tied for second in the league in rebounding. It’s admirable, and it also underscores the need for better defense—when you can clean up misses like this team can, you’ve got to start forcing more of them.
Brooklyn’s star power, combined with their inconsistency on defense, would seem to make them a team that could both beat or lose to anyone. At least in the month of March, that was not the case. This team was in fact, quite predictable. They lost most of their road games to playoff teams—Denver, Utah, LA Clippers, Chicago, and took care of the games they were supposed to win. Brooklyn split a pair with Atlanta, although in this case it was the road team winning each time. Even though the Nets only went 8-7 for the month, they held steady in the #4 spot, a seed that would get them homecourt advantage in the first round.
The three games played against the Bulls and Hawks were instructive, and not just because these are the two teams directly on their heels in the standings (both are two back of Brooklyn in the loss column coming into Wednesday’s games). Brooklyn lost to Atlanta on March 17 in spite of a huge rebounding night from the team as a whole, and Evans in particular, because they allowed the Hawks to shoot 52 percent from the floor. The Bulls did the same in their victory early in the month. When Brooklyn got a win in Atlanta, they didn’t dominate the glass, but they did hold the Hawks to 42 percent shooting. There’s a lesson in there somewhere and it has something to do with defense.
Until the Nets get either more talented on defense, or take it with a greater seriousness, I can’t give them any reasonable chance against Miami—we’ll define “reasonable chance” as saying they could be expected to take a series to a sixth game, which would give them a chance to win at home and force a Game 7. I’m not there with Brooklyn yet. You won’t compete with Miami being soft on the defensive end. It’s more pertinent to ask how they’d match up with the Hawks or Bulls, and while I’m not yet sure who I’d pick in such a series, the lack of defensive skill bothers me here too.
What doesn’t bother me is Brooklyn’s long-term potential. The hardest thing to do in the NBA is to get a core group that can win a championship together and the Nets have that. It’s up to the front office and coaching staff to get the right complementary pieces in place, but the future is bright for the season-ticket holders at the Barclays Center.
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Miami has the #1 seed officially clinched and is closing in on the best overall record. New York and Indiana are in a tough fight for the 2-3 spots in the bracket, but both are assured of going opposite Miami. The next three would be the Brooklyn/Chicago/Atlanta group. Probably the worst spot to finish in that race is second and the #5 seed—you don’t get homecourt and you don’t get to go opposite Miami. At the bottom, the Celtics are struggling and barely holding on to #7, a game ahead of Milwaukee in the loss column, as both teams look to avoid the Heat in the first round.