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.

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