As Bulls players begin to trickle in to the Berto Center to prepare for what could be a very special season, CSNChicago.com is getting fans ready to hit the ground running, too.
NBA training camps don't open until the end of the month, but from Monday through Friday up until Bulls' media day, we're discussing everything from Derrick Rose's comeback to the top competition in the Eastern Conference--with a twist.
CSNChicago.com has compiled the insights of anonymous behind-the-scenes league insiders (an assistant coach, a front-office executive, a retired player and an advanced scout), to go along with in-depth reporter breakdowns and complementary statistical analysis to ensure that diehard hoops fans are up to speed when the balls officially start bouncing.
Today’s Topic: How much of a threat are the Nets?
The Brooklyn Nets, it’s kind of an all-or-nothing year for them, so let’s see injury-wise and how their chemistry is, playing together with the additions that they’ve made and Jason Kidd in his first year as a head coach.
This source’s take on the revamped Nets was short and sweet, and also right on the money. But I’ll delve a little deeper into analyzing the team that the Bulls dispatched in the opening round of the playoffs.
Besides rookie head coach Jason Kidd, hired just after retiring from the crosstown-rival Knicks, it’s not like Brooklyn brought in a whole lot of unknown quantities. Talent isn’t the question, but whether the pieces fit together and how age and/or health affect the Nets are still to be determined. On paper, their likely starting lineup of future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce at the forwards, All-Star center Brook Lopez in the middle and the backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson might be the most formidable in the league, and with newcomers Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry and Shaun Livingston on the perimeter to complement big-men holdovers Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans, depth isn’t an issue either. Even Duke product Mason Plumlee could probably be a viable backup center for a lot of teams, but the rookie probably won’t see much action on such a loaded squad.
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Boston imports Garnett, Pierce and Terry bring the toughness and championship experience Brooklyn was missing, while Kirilenko provides versatility and a defensive presence on the wing and Livingston’s size at point guard could make for some intriguing backcourt combinations (with Terry, an undersized shooting guard, or even freeing up Williams to play off the ball), but each of the veteran additions come with durability concerns or in the case of the former Celtics, are simply aging. Still, with their overall talent level, there’s no reason for any player on the roster to be forced to log overly heavy minutes.
The key to Brooklyn’s success remains with Williams, who shouldn’t be tasked with carrying the scoring load with the potent wing duo of Pierce and Johnson, as well as instant-offense types like Terry and Blatche coming off the bench. If the playmaker can get back to his pass-first, high-assist Utah days, he could have a resurgent campaign after a mildly disappointing tenure since the Jazz dealt him to the Nets. One thing is for sure, with his close friend Kidd, arguably the best true point guard of his era, at the helm, he won’t have any built-in excuses and any perceived rifts would cement Williams’ reputation as a coach-killer, if it isn’t already. Pierce and Johnson are two of the best isolation scorers in the league, but shouldn’t have to work as hard for quality shots, though I can envision them being the go-to options in the clutch, given their respective track records for coming through in big moments.
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Garnett’s legendary intensity and devotion to defense are expected to transform a soft, porous unit on that end of the floor. The hope is his traits rub off on the laid-back, offensively-talented Lopez (and Blatche, a player whose skin he used to get under when they were opponents), a gifted scorer, but a mediocre rebounder and defensive presence, but Garnett’s passing ability—if not the rest of his offensive game, as he’s become more limited with time—should also help the team’s balance, as the other four starters are used to being their team’s focal points. Kirilenko’s all-around game could have a similar effect, as he should be the prime defender for elite wing scorers in the conference, such as Miami’s LeBron James, New York’s Carmelo Anthony and Indiana’s Paul George.
With a such a complete array of weapons, everything would seem to be in place for Brooklyn to make a run similar to Boston’s back in 2008, when Garnett and Ray Allen joined Pierce on the Celtics. However, the biggest difference, aside from the older personnel is Kidd’s lack of experience. Doc Rivers was a former player who didn’t serve an assistant-coach apprenticeship before becoming a head coach, but he had an important stint in Orlando and endured tough times in Boston before a combination of good fortune and excellent chemistry blended together for the Celtics’ title.
Kidd has always been billed as a future head coach, but the all-time great floor general didn’t have the benefit of even studying the game from the perspective as a broadcaster, which Rivers did before moving to the sidelines. He already has a positive relationship with Garnett, Pierce and Williams (the latter two also share an agent with him), the Nets’ three most dominant personalities, but it’s a tricky transition going from being equals to having to yell at them, cut their minutes and potentially mete out discipline.
I think Kidd will have a successful debut season and could eventually become one of the NBA’s top coaches, but it won’t happen overnight. There just seems to be too many variables, let alone strong competition, for Brooklyn to experience such a dramatic culture change and go from underachieving to living up to its potential in one fell swoop, not to mention the team’s older players beating Father Time and somehow avoiding the nicks that come with age at inopportune moments.
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I see the Nets being extremely competitive, hosting a first-round playoff series and advancing to the second round, but when it comes to fending off the Bulls, let alone the Pacers and Heat that might be too tall of a task. Perhaps a bigger concern in Brooklyn should be whether whatever progress they potentially make this season can be sustained moving forward, as Garnett and Pierce, a free agent next summer, aren’t getting any younger.
Focusing solely on the Bulls--though the same could be said for the other two teams--the chemistry, continuity and identity that has been forged over years of battling together as a group overwhelms straight-up talent, especially when factoring in the experience and bond with his players Thibs (again, the same goes for Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Indiana’s Frank Vogel) has built from past seasons.
From a matchup perspective, we already know that while Joakim isn't Lopez's equal as a scorer, his rebounding, defense and overall high activity level gives his center counterpart issues and although Carlos might not be able to dominate Garnett offensively, KG isn't torching his opponent on most nights these days anyway. Pierce is still very dangerous, but Luol has gradually eclipsed him in recent years, and Jimmy's defensive prowess won't make life easy for Johnson, who will in turn have to work on the other end to prevent the younger player from making significant scoring contributions.
At the point, assuming Derrick is himself again by the time a potential playoff matchup occurs, he's had a lot of success against Williams, whose usual size advantage doesn't come into play, and actually has a quickness disadvantage. When it comes to the benches, as deep and explosive as the Nets' second unit appear to be, the Bulls' top reserves--Kirk, Taj and Dunleavy--are as strong of a group as you'll find and by the postseason, rotations are typically shorter anyway.
Brooklyn doesn't have an obvious answer for Taj's athleticism and defensive presence, Dunleavy's ability to stretch the defense is problematic and Kirk's steady floor generalship, tough individual defense and subtle intangibles become even more valuable in the playoffs, while Nazr provides another capable big body. The revenge factor will be there for the Nets, but the Bulls' focus and determination, even with the likes of Pierce and Garnett on the other side, make a repeat matchup with Brooklyn a more appealing scenario than playing either the Heat or the Pacers in the postseason.
Tomorrow: Should the Bulls still be concerned about the Knicks?