Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Net Gain: Is Brooklyn A True Contender?

Is Brooklyn in the house? Gerald Wallace (left) and the Nets shut down
Carmelo Anthony (right) and the Knicks late en route to an overtime win.
      After completing a thrilling overtime victory against the Knicks 96-89 in the first "Clash of the Boroughs," the Nets jumped to a pleasant 9-4 record and sit atop the Atlantic Division over their cross-city rivals. This game was important for many reasons, but for Brooklyn, it meant a chance to make its presence felt around the NBA. Knicks fans will point to the injuries of Iman Shumpert, Jason Kidd and Amare Stoudemire, who seems like an afterthought because the Knicks started this season scorching hot, but the Nets claimed bragging rights and made a statement in their win Monday night. Riding a three-game winning streak, the Nets travel to Boston for a Wednesday night matinee against the division-rival Celtics, who lost to the Nets in Brooklyn earlier this season without All Star point guard Rajon Rondo. The Nets have had several key victories, but also some bad losses. After 13 games, do you believe the Nets are true contenders in the Eastern Conference? Let's break down Brooklyn and determine if they already are what they were built last summer to be...

Brook Lopez Is Ascending to "Elite" Status

      If you've been a Nets fan for at least the past five years and have truly gotten to watch Brook Lopez develop, you have to be excited about his future after the first 13 games of the season. Lopez had arguably the most well-rounded stat line of his career in the win against New York, totaling 22 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocks. Lopez is one of the NBA leaders in blocks per game and has grown into a better defender under Avery Johnson. He has become a versatile offensive weapon and the team's leading scorer. Lopez is playing like an All Star, and his continued growth will carry the Nets to new heights this season and beyond.

Jerry Stackhouse Has Proven Me Wrong

      During the off season, I ripped Nets General Manager Billy King for signing the veteran swingman. Stackhouse has bounced around in the league for the past couple seasons and I thought his arrival to Brooklyn wouldn't do much. He came in as a "player-coach" but has transcended that role better than I think anyone could have ever imagined. He has served as a sensational mentor and shooter for Brooklyn and I hope that when he eventually hangs up the laces, he becomes part of the Nets' coaching staff. Last night, Stackhouse had arguably his best game during his short tenure with the Nets, scoring 14 points and shooting 4-5 from behind the three-point line. He played crucial minutes down the stretch for Brooklyn and hit big shots throughout the game. I, for one, am certainly asking for a Nets Jerry Stackhouse jersey this Christmas.

Deron Williams Playing Well Through Injury

      His field-goal percentage isn't great and his three-point shooting is probably the worst of his career, but Deron Williams has shown he is the Nets' alpha dog and can do terrific things with a basketball in his hands. Williams has battled wrist, calf and ankle injuries since the preseason, but has performed admirably in the first 13 games of the season. He uses his impressive strength to man up against opposing guards and can usually take advantage of most of his matchups. Williams has stated that he is "fine" and the injuries are nothing to worry about, so Nets fans should not be worried either. If Williams can get fully healthy, keep leading the Nets to victories and improve his shooting percentages, he could become a legitimate MVP candidate. Maybe it's premature, but Williams did receive MVP chants near overtime's end against the Knicks.

Toughness: Something You Can't Teach, Unless You're Reggie Evans

     The Nets' acquisition of Reggie Evans has provided the fans and organization much joy. His swagger and toughness is just what the fans in Brooklyn love and as a result, Evans has become an integral part of the Nets rotation and a fan favorite. Evans has exhibited excellent rebounding and sound defense, which has rubbed off on his teammates. Brooklyn is the top team in points allowed in the NBA, according to stats from ESPN.com.

Joe Johnson is Yet to Find His Role in the Brooklyn Offense

      After two exceptional games against the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers, it looked like Joe Johnson was on the precipice of breaking out in his first season with the Nets. However, his shooting woes from before that two-game burst reappeared against the Knicks. Johnson scored a mere eight points on 3-12 shooting Monday evening against New York. Neither he nor head coach Avery Johnson seem too concerned, but fans remain scratching their heads. However, let's remember that it took time for even the Miami Heat to jell and the same case could be made for Joe with the Nets. The six-time All Star will look to bounce back against a former team, the Celtics, on Wednesday night. Teamed with a dynamic point guard in Deron Williams and several other scorers on the Nets, I'm sure Johnson will soon break out of his early season slump. When Johnson eventually finds his groove, it may help Brooklyn enough to capture its first Atlantic Division title in seven years.

Jay-Z's Controversial Tweet

      Last night, the Brooklyn Nets minority owner and rap genius took to Twitter to express his excitement about his (well, somewhat his) franchise. Considering Mr. Carter has tweeted only 36 times in four years, the Nets victory certainly meant a lot to him. Per his Twitter account:

"The city is under new management."

     As an avid Nets fan, this tweet helped me sleep even better last night, while Knicks fans were probably face palm-ing themselves after what is most likely a night they want to forget. Could this serve as motivation for Brooklyn throughout the season? I don't know about that, but it certainly adds fuel to the fast-growing fire in the Nets-Knicks rivalry.

Overall Assessment

      The Nets have achieved a surprising amount early in this season and they continue to improve. The main knock on Brooklyn this past summer was that they would not be a great defensive team, but if you believe that numbers never lie, the Nets -- at the moment -- are the best defensive team in the Association. Brooklyn has built a solid core of veterans and players hitting their prime. Their growing chemistry gives Nets fans even more hope for future success. The Battle of the Boroughs will go on for a long time, but for now, the Nets are winning in the early stages. The Nets have a tough week scheduled ahead in which they'll face Boston, Miami and Oklahoma City. If Brooklyn can win or compete at a high level in those games, they could jump into the elite echelon and get involved in the discussion of title contenders. As of now, however, the Nets have taken advantage of their weaker strength of schedule and are second place in the Eastern Conference. The Nets like to play at a grind-it-out type of pace and will typically slow into a half court offense. If the Nets can consistently perform like they have on defense and play at their tempo throughout the season, they will be a playoff team for the first time since the 2006-07 season. From there, as Kevin Garnett once said, anything is possible.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Keys for the Nets In Their First West Coast Trip

Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez (left to right) have led
the Brooklyn Nets to a fast 5-2 start.

      Early in the season, the Brooklyn Nets have started to make their own mark in the NBA. After a complete franchise overhaul during the past summer, the Nets showcased their new team in a season-opening victory against the Toronto Raptors. After two tough, unimpressive losses to Minnesota and Miami, the Nets have bounced back, beating Orlando (twice), Cleveland, and the Rajon Rondo-less Boston Celtics in their first appearance on TNT since January 2008. Brooklyn stands at the third seed in the Eastern Conference after two weeks and will embark on a road trip in which they will face the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. Here are key areas of focus for the Nets during their road trip and what they will need to do to come back home on a high note:

1. Interior Defense

      This is probably the most obvious, especially because the Nets have not been incredibly impressive against players like Andrea Bargnani, Nikola Vucevic and Anderson Varejao. In Sacramento, they'll have to face double-double machine and growing young star DeMarcus Cousins and an athletic rookie in Thomas Robinson. In the second game of the road trip, the Nets will be taking on the Lakers, who will be running a more potent offense under Mike D'Antoni. Steve Nash being injured certainly limits the pick-and-roll creativity, but the Nets will need Gerald Wallace back for this game to help Lopez and Kris Humphries defend All Stars Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the paint. In their last game of the trip, the Nets take on David Lee, Andrew Bogut and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are a very talented offensive squad and will look to incorporate their inside-outside attack at the beginning of the game. Lopez has averaged nearly three blocks per game this season and Humphries has been the tenacious big man on the glass that he has been during his tenure with the Nets, but both will need to step up immensely for the Nets to return home on happy terms.

2. Gerald Wallace's Health

      Wallace is Brooklyn's best defender and will be called on to cover several talented wings on the Nets' west coast swing including Tyreke Evans, Harrison Barnes and Metta World Peace. His health and productivity will be crucial during the latter stage of the three-game set, when the Nets play back-to-back games against the Lakers and Warriors, two much-improved teams.

3. Joe Johnson's Scoring

      Seven games into the season, Johnson has performed modestly, averaging 16.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists per contest. His field goal percentage is just under 39%, which is not exactly great for a player who will be paid $89 million over the next four years, but Johnson is still developing chemistry with his new teammates. However, he has stepped up in the final minutes of games and led the Nets to several solid victories. Johnson could have a particularly good game against the Warriors, a bad defensive team, but it will be more of a measuring stick to see how he plays against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Expect Johnson to progress throughout the season, but there's no denying this will be a critical stretch for the six-time All Star.

4. Brooklyn's Bench Mob

      Andray Blatche's self-proclaimed "Bench Mob" has been a strong suit for the Nets for much of the season. He, C.J. Watson, Reggie Evans and even Jerry Stackhouse have performed well and given the Nets a formidable, dependable second unit. In the Nets' close victory against the Celtics last Thursday, the second unit did not execute on offense or defense very well and let Boston take their first lead of the game in the third quarter. It will be an interesting sub-plot to see if Brooklyn's "Bench Mob" will be able to bounce back on the road trip.

5. Dwight Howard Faces Brooklyn

      If you have NBA TV on your television, you'll be able to watch the Nets take on the Lakers Tuesday evening on NBA TV's Fan Night game of the night. It will be the first time All Star center Dwight Howard gets a taste of the team he pushed to be on. It will be intriguing to see if Brook Lopez can battle in the paint against Howard. Lopez was the major trade chip in the Nets' multiple trade scenarios for Howard, but the Magic never wanted to deal Howard to the Nets. TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal has given Lopez high praise, saying he is better than Dwight Howard. That is probably a stretch, but nobody with knowledge about professional basketball can say that Lopez is a very promising, talented offensive center. But can he match up against Dwight Howard and the Lakers? We'll have to see.

6. Can Deron Williams Take Advantage?

      During the Nets' road trip, Williams will go up against Aaron Brooks, Darius Morris and Stephen Curry. It's nearly blatant to see that Williams should be able to rack up sensational statistics against these point guards. As the franchise player, he is expected to carry this Nets team on his back and I expect him to have a successful west coast trip.

      As the first west coast swing of the season, this will be an important time frame for the Nets. When they return to Brooklyn, they will face the New York Knicks for the first time in the Battle of the Boroughs. How do you think the Nets will fare on their first west coast trip? Leave a comment below with your thoughts and predictions!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Andrew Bynum Out Until 2013?

Bynum can produce, but he has yet to step on the court for the Sixers.

     According to multiple reports, Philadelphia 76ers All Star center Andrew Bynum -- the team's most prized trade acquisition over the summer -- will continue to be sidelined because of a nagging knee injury until at least December. ESPN's Brian Windhorst claims that Bynum will not be suiting up for the Sixers any time soon and projects him to resume basketball activities in five weeks. However, Philadelphia needs another additional one to four weeks to get Bynum in game-shape through training and conditioning exercises, which could possibly push the big man's debut date until after January 1, 2013.

     Bynum was part of the four-team trade that sent disgruntled superstar Dwight Howard from the Magic to the Lakers. In the trade, the Sixers dealt their on-court leader Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets, as well as Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless and a first-round pick to the Magic for Bynum and guard Jason Richardson, who has also been hampered by injuries through the first two weeks of the 2012-13 season. Fans, coaches, players and executives of the Sixers organization are counting on Bynum to step in and elevate the team into "title contender" status, but Philadelphia's hopes could be dashed if Bynum's right knee continues to trouble him. The Sixers are currently second in the Atlantic Division behind the only remaining undefeated NBA team, the resurgent New York Knicks.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Brooklyn Nets Win Season Opener

Deron Williams and Brook Lopez led the Nets to an opening night
victory against the Raptors.

      In their first regular season game at the Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets pulled off a gritty victory against their Atlantic Division rival, the Toronto Raptors, winning by a final score of 107-100. Here's some quick highlights and analysis of the game:

- Before the game, Deron Williams and NBA commissioner David Stern presented concise speeches to an exuberant Brooklyn crowd. Williams, Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace then exchanged jerseys with former Brooklyn Dodgers Ralph Branca, Joe Pignatano and the son of legendary Dodger Gil Hodges, Gil Hodges Jr.

- Deron Williams scored the first official basket of Brooklyn Nets history, hitting a 20-foot jumper from the left wing early in the first quarter.

- Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry has proven in the first two games that he can be an effective starter for the Raptors. In their first two games, he's scored 49 points, dished out 16 assists and collected 15 rebounds while also being a stout defender. Deron Williams is the better, flashier point guard, but Lowry has proven over the past couple seasons that he can be an effective starter and on-court leader and shall provide Williams good competition throughout the Brooklyn-Toronto matchups this year.

- Center Brook Lopez led the Nets in scoring with 27 points. However, he grabbed a mere five rebounds. After looking impressive on the glass in the preseason, Nets fans should hope that he doesn't revert back to his rebounding efficiency -- or lack thereof -- of the past two seasons.

- In only 16 minutes of play, Nets big man Reggie Evans grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds. Not one player on either team corralled more than ten rebounds in tonight's contest except Evans.

- After accomplishing a double-double in his first NBA game, Raptors rookie center Jonas Valanciunas struggled against the Nets, scoring two points and collecting three rebounds in a brief dozen minutes of play.

- The Nets dominated the Raptors in scoring in the paint 52-34.

- Nets guard/forward Joe Johnson, a six-time All Star, had a modest stat line in his Nets debut, scoring 14 points, grabbing five rebounds, distributing four assists and getting one steal in a team-high 40 minutes of play.

- After recently signing a 4 year/$40 million contract extension to stay with the Raptors after this season, guard DeMar DeRozan scored 25 points at the Nets' new home. Toronto General Manager Bryan Colangelo has been widely criticized after re-signing DeRozan, but Raptors fans hope that he can prove doubters wrong and consistently produce exceptional scoring numbers.

- Point guard C.J. Watson provided the Nets with a huge spark off the bench by scoring 15 points. He connected on three of his four three-point attempts. Watson also contributed heavily on the defensive side of the ball, getting one steal and two blocks in 28 minutes of play. He and star point guard Deron Williams showed exciting chemistry while on the court together.

- Nets forward Gerald Wallace suffered an apparent ankle injury late in the fourth quarter. The X-rays were reported to be negative and he is listed as day-to-day. His status for Monday night's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves is unknown.

      The Nets opened the season with a bang, starting their re-branding in Brooklyn with a symbolic victory. The Raptors endured for most of the game, but couldn't hold up in what would turn out to be their second consecutive loss. The Nets are 1-0 on the season and the Raptors are 0-2. Both teams' next games will be against Minnesota.

Have a question or comment about the Brooklyn Nets? Send me some feedback in the comments section below or shoot me a tweet on Twitter @TheSkiReport.