Nets have plenty to be defensive about
Enter Campaign as Overwhelming Favorite to be NBA’s Worst Team
“We’re No. 30!” isn’t the rallying cry Brooklyn hoops fanatics have been waiting for since the Nets overhauled their roster, re-jiggered their front office and changed their head coach for the sixth time since relocating to the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues back in 2012.
But that’s exactly what they are stuck with as Wednesday night’s season opener against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden approaches.
The Nets will kick off their fifth season here as an overwhelming favorite to finish 2016-17 with the NBA’s worst record, something they haven’t achieved since the disastrous 2009-10 campaign in New Jersey, when they went an embarrassing 12-70.
Brooklyn, coming off an ugly 21-win campaign after three straight playoff appearances, has 10 new players on the roster, many of whom have yet to prove they can be difference makers at this level.
And new head coach Kenny Atkinson desperately needs them to make a difference if he and general manager Sean Marks hope to stay away from over-testing billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s newly discovered penchant for patience.
The Nets, who finished dead last in the NBA last season in opponents’ field-goal percentage (.479), and yielded an average of 106 points per contest, spent the preseason trying to adapt to Atkinson’s motion offense and relentless defensive approach.
The result: a 1-5 record, and the highest opponents shooting percentage and average point total in the league.
Following their preseason-ending 116-111 loss to the East River rival Knicks at Downtown’s Barclays Center last Thursday, night, Atkinson went as far as to say the team was “making progress.”
Progressing toward what at this point is anyone’s guess.
The Nets arrived here four years ago with plenty of hoopla surrounding a high-priced, star-studded roster that promised instant relevance in the chase for the Eastern Conference title.
But over those first three seasons, the furthest Prokhorov’s record-setting payroll got him was a trip to the conference semifinals in 2013-14.
That’s one playoff series win for a franchise that spent more to bring in players over that three-year span than any team in the history of the sport.
So now, with the money clearly off the table until next summer, and Atkinson and Marks in place to build an attractive foundation for potential free agents, the Nets are in rebuilding mode, and perhaps even relaunching mode as they target the Brooklyn audience with hope for a better future rather than win at all costs right now.
How that will play out over these first few months, when newly signed free agent point guard Jeremy Lin and long-time Nets center Brook Lopez try to figure out a way to attack NBA defenses, will be vital to attendance figures at Barclays, where three straight years of averaging 17,000 per night plummeted to just over 13,000 last year.
“I complimented them on their effort and despite the [1-5] record I think we’ve made progress,” Atkinson said.
“That’s going to be our message all year. Progress, development, improvement and we obviously have areas we have to improve in. Again, 10 new players. I like a lot of stuff I see, where we are right now is doing things a little more consistently.”
Progress, development and improvement are terms normally reserved for minor league franchises, like our Class A short-season baseball franchise in Coney Island.
But for the Nets, who are truly starting over from scratch this season, they will have to suffice for now as Brooklyn basketball tries to find a new identity and a new selling point to its followers.
“We want to play with pace and we want to play with the pass,” Atkinson said of his frenetic offense, which will surely test the endurance of the 7-foot Lopez, who missed the larger part of two of his first four seasons in Brooklyn with foot and ankle woes.
“It is definitely something I am not used to,” said Lopez, who led all Eastern Conference centers in scoring last season but averaged just eight points per night in Atkinson’s scheme during the preseason.
“This preseason has been a great advantage and tool and have been scrimmaging in practice as well so it is something I have been seeing every day now so I am definitely getting more and more comfortable with it.
Lin, not known for his defensive prowess, shined in the exhibition finale, putting up 24 points and handing out 10 assists to partly overshadow his eight turnovers.
“We definitely have to find ways to get stops consistently,” he noted. “Defensively we need to be more on a string. That takes time, no group ever showed up and they had that.”
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of this upcoming season is that the Nets can’t even win from losing.
If, in fact, they finish with one of the worst records in the league, their No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA Draft will belong to Boston, as per the now-infamous deal former GM Billy King made with Boston back in 2013 to bring Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn.
That puts even more pressure on Atkinson to live up to his reputation as one of the top player-development gurus in the game.
Good luck coach.
Nothing But Net: The Nets shaved their final roster down to 15 last week with the release of Yogi Ferrell, who averaged 4.3 points and 1.7 assists in three preseason games for Brooklyn. That means local legend Isaiah Whitehead, who guided Lincoln High School to both a city and state title before helping Seton Hall win the Big East Tournament, will be on the bench Wednesday night in Boston, potentially making his NBA debut as the first true Brooklynite to play for the Nets. … After visiting the Celtics, the Nets will return home Friday night to host the Indiana Pacers in their Barclays Center opener.
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