A new calendar year has brought about a new season for the Nets
The Brooklyn Nets have dealt with injuries, a struggling new coach, and players looking past their expiration date. But a turn of the calendar has seemingly fixed all of that.
New Year's resolutions are mostly a waste of time and energy. It's not that they aren't good ideas but it seems fairly commonplace that our society lets them fall by the wayside a couple of weeks into the new calendar. You probably know one or two people who haven't stopped going to the gym or have managed to stave off the desire to eat food items with sugar. But mostly, New Year's resolutions are sitting in the corner with your new exercise equipment accumulating dust.
At the turn of the calendar, the Brooklyn Nets probably had a collective resolution to stop losing so many basketball games. They lost Brook Lopez for the rest of the season on December 20 and 11 days later found themselves with losses in six of their previous seven games. Their lone win in that time was over the hapless Milwaukee Bucks during that stretch. Veteran Kevin Garnett was a shell of the shell of his former self. Deron Williams' ankles were still hindering his ability. Paul Pierce wasn't providing much in terms of consistent production. Andrei Kirilenko had only played in five games.
Then something happened for the Nets. They adjusted to life without Lopez by getting Garnett into the much more comfortable center position. The team slowed down their pace a little bit, guys started hitting more shots, and the role players like Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, Andray Blatche, and Mirza Teletovic hit their stride in support of the veteran players. It truly became a collective effort.
The biggest change in the Nets' approach has certainly been Garnett. In the first two months of the season, the process and results of him being on the court made the viewing experience pretty awkward. He couldn't finish inside. He couldn't hit jumpers. He couldn't keep up on the perimeter with power forwards or small ball lineups. He couldn't justify being on the court over someone like Blatche.
Brooklyn's turnaround has seen a giant step in the right direction for Garnett. He looks like he belongs on the court now. It's possible his creaky body just needed an extra couple of months to limber up. His jumper looks less mechanical now and is much more fluid. His body is controlled and the touch around the basket is back. He's gone from shooting 36.4 percent from the field (36.6 percent midrange jumpers, 41.5 percent in the restricted area) in the first 28 games to making 57.7 percent of his shots (48.5 percent midrange, 65.0 percent restricted area) in the last 13 games.
Since the calendar turn, the Nets are now 11-4 (third best record in the NBA in this stretch) and surging back toward respectability in the East. Garnett playing the five where he can be more stationary and call out coverages has improved the defense immensely. Before January, the Nets gave up 104.5 points per 100 possessions with Garnett on the court. In the 13 of 15 games he's played since, that number has improved to 94.0.
When the Nets were going with a more traditional lineup of point guard (Williams), two wings (Joe Johnson and Pierce), power forward (Garnett), and a center (Lopez), they just weren't mobile enough to defend properly. It was the lineup they used the most during the first two months and it had a net rating of -4.9 points per 100 possessions. The offense was stagnant and the defense was slow to react. Since the adjustment to the Lopez injury, the Nets have played more small ball and the results are encouraging.
Their most used lineup this month is a modern creation of a slim, fairly mobile center (Garnett) with four perimeter players (Livingston, Johnson, Anderson, and Pierce). It allows them to move freely with their motion and spread the floor. It gives Garnett the room to operate both inside and out. It gives them shooting and playmaking. When they go to the bench unit (which until recently included Williams as he recovered from ankle procedures), they stay relatively small with Williams, Jason Terry, Kirilenko, Teletovic, and Blatche. Spacing remains the key and outside shooting rules the land.
Jason Kidd has gone from spilling drinks and reassigning Lawrence Frank to going without a tie (symbolic of changing, modern times in a way) and giving the team the kind of lineups on the floor that promote spacing and what the NBA has become: a mobile, perimeter-oriented experience.
Their most used lineup of Garnett as the anchor and the four interchangeable perimeter players is giving up just 91.3 points per 100 possessions to outscore opponents by 7.9. The bench unit I described changes the pace of the game, takes advantage of shooters and passing on the floor and blows the competition away with an offensive rating of 134.7 and a net rating of +23.3. Garnett has been re-packaged as the effective big man in Boston we saw the last three seasons after his athleticism declined while the lineups and attack have caught up to the times and embraced each player's skill set.
It won't get the Nets back to the preseason optimism of challenging the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers for East supremacy, but they've also distanced themselves from the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers in the East. A 21-25 record is nothing to pop champagne over but they're now 3.5 games out of the division lead behind the Toronto Raptors and they're climbing up the ladder in the conference (currently seventh).
The biggest upcoming question for them is how do they adjust their attack next season so that Lopez can fit into the good play going on around them. Garnett's rejuvenation isn't something that will last much longer with him at the end of his playing career. But with the amount of money invested in this team until 2016, they need to find a way to make the plan heading into this season work with the adjustments that have brought about success since their change in style.
Livingston has been a revelation with his playmaking, defense, and length allowing versatility. Teletovic has stretched the floor like few role players around the league. Anderson and Blatche have provided a steady stretch of basketball that give the high-priced veterans more rest to bring it down the stretch.
How do you maximize their efforts while keeping the $60 million-plus owed to Williams, the $48 million-plus owed to Johnson, and the $33 million-plus owed to Lopez properly invested in the present and future of this team? That's something Kidd and the Nets will have to resolve in the future. As for right now, they're just enjoying the new them.
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