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Reviewing Brooklyn's 2014 Offseason

Outside of the Jason Kidd saga, the Brooklyn Nets experienced a relatively quiet offseason in terms of personnel changes. Their lack of cap flexibility made it difficult for them to add any impactful players and even retain their own free agents. The loss of two key contributors and the injury-riddled histories of their star players could cause the Nets to struggle to make the 2015 playoffs.

Where Did They Finish? 

After recovering from a dismal 11-21 start to win 33 of their last 50 games, the Nets won a tight 7-game series against the Toronto Raptors to make it to the second round of the playoffs. Their second round exit was surely not what management had envisioned when it assembled the $100 million roster. While the Nets won five fewer games in the regular season than the year before, the first round victory represented an improvement from the year before when the Nets were ousted in round one.

Kidd helped the Nets turn around their season by moving Paul Pierce to the 4 and giving more minutes to journeyman guard Shaun Livingston. The move helped Pierce increase his offensive output because he was able to utilize his quickness advantage over opposing frontcourt players. Furthermore, playing Pierce in the frontcourt and giving Livingston more minutes improved the Nets defensive length and speed. Their newfound ability to switch liberally made it hard for opponents to create mismatches.

What Happened This Offseason?

The major story of the Nets offseason occurred when Jason Kidd’s failed power grab resulted in his leaving Brooklyn to become the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. Unfortunately for the Nets, he wasn’t the only person who left, as Pierce and Livingston both bolted for teams that seem to have a better shot to compete for a championship.

Pierce and Livingston were the key players to the identity change that turned the team’s season around. Their net rating numbers from last season illustrate their importance to the team, as they each posted the best net rating on the team behind only franchise point guard Deron Williams. Losing Pierce and Livingston makes the Nets roster look a lot more similar to what it looked like in 2012-13 than to what it did last season.

How Will They Do Next Year?

The 12-13 Nets took advantage of the league’s third easiest schedule to win 49 games en route to the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference. Their success was powered by an offense that was ranked eighth in the league because of two main factors: offensive rebounding and free throw attempts. The Nets undoubtedly have more accomplished role players on the roster for the upcoming season than they did in 2012-13. However, the 12-13 roster included players who played complementary roles to the stars of the team, particularly in the frontcourt.

For instance, Reggie Evans led the league in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage in 12-13, which served both to bolster the offense and mitigate the effect of Lopez’s subpar rebounding at the Center position. Kris Humphries played a similar role by rebounding at a high rate off the bench. Andray Blatche also contributed by grabbing a lot of offensive rebounds and by getting to the free throw line at a steady rate. The role players on this year’s roster are not equipped to contribute similarly.

At his advanced age, Kevin Garnett is not able to provide the same constant energy on the glass as Evans and Mason Plumlee was not the same caliber of rebounder in his rookie year as Evans or Humphries. The changes in the frontcourt explain the Nets decline from 10th in the league in total rebound rate in 2012-13 to 29th last season. 

A major reason for the Nets success in 2012-13 was the sustained health of their star players. The ability of the role players to play a complementary role will be less important if the top players are not on the court. Joe Johnson does not have much of an injury history but the same cannot be said about Deron Williams or Brook Lopez. Here are their last three seasons in terms of games and minutes played and how those numbers translated to Nets victories.

Deron Williams

 

Games

Minutes

Wins

2011-12*

68

2484

27

2012-13

78

2842

49

2013-14

64

2059

44

Average

70

2462

40

Brook Lopez

 

Games

Minutes

Wins

2011-12*

6

169

27

2012-13

74

2253

49

2013-14

17

533

44

Average

32

985

40

*Extrapolated To Full Regular Season Because Of Lockout

It is difficult to expect Williams and Lopez to stay as healthy as they were in that 12-13 season considering Williams’ long injury history with the Nets and the struggles of big men with repeated foot injuries. If either Williams or Lopez is forced to miss a significant amount of time, it is hard to envision a scenario where new coach Lionel Hollins gets the Nets to improve their win total from last season. 

In conclusion, Pierce and Livingston were the key players that allowed the Nets to persevere through injuries and make the playoffs last season. Losing them means that the Nets must bank on the sustained health of their two star players in order to repeat their 49-win season from 2012-13. Even if they both manage to remain fully healthy, they still might not mesh with the players surrounding them as well as they did two seasons ago.

Prediction: Potential injury issues, a questionable supporting cast, a thinner roster, and a tougher conference will all combine to cause the Nets to finish somewhere between 8th and 10th in the East.

Thunder Facing Another Extension Dilemma In Reggie Jackson

Over the next month and a half, as players from the 2011 NBA Draft negotiate extensions on their rookie deals, none will have a more interesting decision to make than Reggie Jackson. After spending two seasons as Russell Westbrook’s understudy, Jackson was thrust into the spotlight by Westbrook’s knee injury in last year’s playoffs. While he couldn’t fill replace Westbrook, he more than held his own, emerging as a starting caliber player in his own right.

Last season, with Westbrook in and out of the line-up, Jackson started 40 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder and averaged 13 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 44% shooting. He moved back to the bench in the playoffs, where he was extremely effective in a more limited role. Much like James Harden two years ago, Jackson has to decide whether he wants to be one of the best sixth men in the NBA or whether he wants to run his own team.

Jackson was a late bloomer at Boston College, not emerging as a star until his junior season, when he averaged 18 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists a game on 50% shooting. Since there weren’t many other scoring options on his team, he primarily looked for his own shot, which raised questions about his ability to be a full-time PG at the NBA level. Seen as a guy stuck between positions at the next level, Jackson slipped to the No. 23 pick in 2011.

At 6’3 210 with a 7’0 wingspan, Jackson had elite size and athleticism for the PG position, but he was just another guy as a SG. In that respect, he wasn’t all that different from Westbrook, who was also seen as more of a combo guard coming out of college. Like with Westbrook, there were also questions about Jackson’s perimeter jumper - he shot 42% from 3 as a junior, but he was below 30% from beyond the arc as a freshman and a sophomore.

Jackson’s size, athleticism and scoring ability meant he would have a good shot of earning a spot in an NBA rotation, but he would likely need to improve as a shooter and a passer to earn a starting nod, especially given the competition at the PG position at the next level. As a late first-round pick, nothing would be handed to him, which he found out as a rookie, when he went back and forth to the D-League and barely got off the end of the bench.

Not only was Jackson playing behind one of the best PG’s in the NBA, his coach (Scott Brooks) had an unhealthy fixation with Derek Fisher. Fisher was brought in to Oklahoma City to provide veteran leadership and shooting in an extremely limited role off the bench, but Brooks gave him as many minutes as he could handle and then some. He was still stealing playing time from Jackson in last year’s playoffs, despite shooting 29% (!!) from the field.

Were it not for Westbrook’s knee injury, there’s a good chance Jackson would have been a complete unknown at the NBA level headed into his fourth season in the league. As is, he has still played in only 3,700 total minutes with the Thunder, around 600 more than Damian Lillard received as a rookie. In that respect, Jackson’s current situation is fairly comparable to Eric Bledsoe, who spent most of his first three seasons playing behind Chris Paul.

Like Bledsoe, Jackson has taken advantage of the opportunity to learn from the best in practice, gradually improving as a player in each of his first three seasons. His perimeter shot has improved by leaps and bounds, as he has turned himself into a respectable three-point shooter, shooting 34% from 3 on 4 attempts a game last season. Most importantly, he has become a much better decision-maker, averaging 4.1 assists on 1.8 turnovers a game.

As a result, Jackson is a complete PG without any glaring holes in his game. He’s an elite athlete with great size who can create his own shot, run point, stretch the floor, rebound at a high level and match up with both backcourt positions. In many ways, he’s a mini-Westbrook, a score-first guard who can impact the game on both ends of the floor. The problem is that since he’s still not a great three-point shooter, he needs the ball in his hands to be successful.

That’s an issue in Oklahoma City, where everything in the offense goes through Westbrook and Kevin Durant. There’s an opening in the starting line-up at SG with Thabo Sefolosha gone, but the Thunder will probably want a better spot-up shooter in that role than Jackson, whose a better fit as a sixth man, where he can dominate possessions on the second unit. Even if he closes games, there is a limit on how many shots and minutes he will receive.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being a sixth man on a title contender, but those guys don’t get paid like starters on average teams, much less good ones. That was the dilemma Harden faced two summers ago, when he was asking for a max contract with the Thunder. Instead of taking a little less to be a third wheel in Oklahoma City, Harden opted to be the man in Houston, where he makes $16 million a year and is a first-team All-NBA SG.

Jackson will probably never reach those heights, but why should a 24-year-old put a ceiling on his game? He’s more than ready to run his own team and there’s no way to know what type of numbers he would put up if he had a usage rating north of 25. He has said in interviews that he wants to be one of the best players in the world and that will never happen with the Thunder, where he will always be playing third banana to Durant and Westbrook.

If Oklahoma City doesn’t agree to an extension with Jackson, it will be seen as another indication of the franchise’s unwillingness to spend money, but it’s more complicated than that. Salary dictates playing time and position in the pecking order in the NBA and it’s going to be hard to for the Thunder to pay Jackson first or second option money when they have already maxed out Durant and Westbrook. There are only so many shots to go around in an offense.

In Harden’s last season in Oklahoma City, he was averaging 10 field goal attempts a game, 1 less than Jackson averaged last season. To be worth a max contract, he would have needed to be nearer to the 16-17 FGA’s he takes in Houston. He hasn’t won a playoff series with the Rockets, but he wouldn’t be seen as the top SG in the NBA if he was still the Thunder’s 6th man. To reach his potential, Jackson will have to spread his wings and leave the nest. 

USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

When Kyrie Irving started to heat up halfway through the first quarter, he removed any intrigue from the championship game of the World Cup. Team USA was up 35-21 after ten minutes and never looked back from there, which was really the story of the tournament. The Americans dominated with absolute ease, going 9-0 and winning by an average of 33 points a game, their highest margin of victory since the 1994 world championships.

They trailed only once at halftime - a group play game against Turkey which they ended up winning by 19 points - and they were never tested in the second half of a game. None of the teams they faced could stop them from scoring and none could consistently execute against their defense. Order has been restored to the basketball universe, as Team USA has won the last four major international tournaments and hasn’t lost a game since 2006.

The scariest part about their performance is that this wasn’t even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain. At the start of the summer, the three players expected to lead Team USA were Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George. Coach K was able to reshuffle the roster on the fly, with waves of shooters and defenders on the perimeter and three man rotation upfront of Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins.

Without Durant, Team USA opted to spread responsibility around and not run their offense through any one player. Six different guys - James Harden, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Irving, Davis and Faried - averaged in double figures in the tournament. The days of international teams wanting to zone the Americans and daring them to shoot from the perimeter have come and gone - Team USA shot 52% from the field, 57% from 2 and 40% from 3. 

While there were moments where the offense stagnated and individual players held the ball, for the most part, the Americans did a good job of spreading the floor, moving the ball around the perimeter and finding the open man. With Cousins coming off the bench and dominating second unit big men, averaging 9.6 points a game on 70% shooting, they even had the option of running offense through the post when the pace of the game slowed down.

That didn’t happen too often, though, as the US had only one game where they scored less than 95 points. When you consider that international games are only 40 minutes long, it shows you how effortlessly Team USA was able to put up points against the best teams in the world. At a certain point in each game, they started going from defense to offense and getting out in the open floor, essentially running every team they faced out of the gym. 

Defense was their calling card in this tournament, an impressive feat when you consider the NBA reputations of many of their best players. Four of their five starters - Irving, Curry, Harden and Faried - are guys viewed as weaker players on that end of the floor. Fewer minutes and smaller offensive roles allowed them to increase their effort level while a great defensive scheme by Team USA’s coaching staff put them in a position to succeed.

Given their overwhelming edge in talent and athleticism, you would expect the Americans to be a dominant defensively, but that hasn’t always been the case. Even when the US was finishing out of the top two in major international tournaments from 2002-2006, the problem was never a lack of athletic talent. Under the direction of Colangelo and Coach K, the American players buy into a team concept and execute at a high level on both sides of the ball. 

In 2014, the end result was a juggernaut that ran rings around the rest of the world. If you break down the roster individually, no one would take this version of Team USA over either of the teams that won gold medals in the last two Olympics, yet both groups had to pull out several games in the fourth quarter. A lot of that is because Spain won silver in 2008 and 2012 and lost in the quarterfinals in 2014, but you can only face the teams in front of you.

When Spain was knocked out of the tournament, they took almost any chance of drama with them. Before their upset loss to France, the Spaniards were playing about as well as Team USA, going 6-0 and winning by an average of over 20 points a game. On paper, the Spanish frontline of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka could have given the Americans some match-up problems upfront, but the way they lost to France throws cold water on that scenario. 

If Spain was going to be physically manhandled in their own gym and outrebounded 50-28 by a frontline of Boris Diaw, Joffrey Lauvergne and Boris Diaw, they were going to have a hard time keeping Davis, Cousins and Faried off the glass. The French didn’t even play that well in the upset - they shot 39% from the field and 25% from 3. If the US had used a similar defensive game-plan and shot well from the perimeter, they would have blown Spain out.

With their gold medal in the World Cup, the US automatically clinches a spot in the 2016 Olympics, which means they won’t have to play any qualifying games in 2015. That’s good news for international basketball, since Team USA’s presence tends to remove most of the drama from the proceedings, the ultimate tribute to how dominant they’ve been under Coach K. They are winning so easily these days the whole thing is becoming kind of boring.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Missouri Valley Conference

While it is unclear where Wichita State ranks nationally, they're the clear favorites to win the Missouri Valley Conference ahead of Northern Iowa.

The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

Boris Diaw served as Franceís primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense in their upset win of Spain. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Pacific-12

Arizona are the clear favorites to win the Pac-12 again in 2015 with UCLA, Stanford and Utah hoping for a place in the top-25.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Everyone in Spainís rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: American Athletic Conference

SMU and UConn are the co-favorites to win the American Conference, with Memphis, Tulsa and Cincinnati hoping to reach the Big Dance.

The Storylines Of The Basketball World Cup

Every national program involved enters this tournament with the goal of trying to make their country proud. For some countries, that means toppling the mighty U.S.A. For others, itís one last shot at glory. And a few programs lurking in the shadows are hoping to use this platform to announce themselves as the worldís newest global power.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big East

Villanova won the Big East last season and it hardly seems fair that they also have the most returning minutes. Georgetown will be hoping for a place in the top-25, while Xavier, St. John's, Marquette and Providence will be tourney bubble teams.

Why Eric Bledsoe's Max Contract Awaits

Once Eric Bledsoe gets more NBA games under his belt, thereís really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paulís brain in Derrick Roseís body. He's also already one of the best two-way players in the NBA.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Atlantic-10

The problem for teams in the A10 is that it can take longer to restock the cabinet. When talented seniors leave, teams in the A10 sometimes need a year or two to rebuild, while teams in the Power Five conferences simply reload.

Kyrie Irving's Transformation Starts With Admission He Needs LeBron, Cavs' New Vets

He wasnít a leader of men in his first three pro seasons, and he had erratic moments as an A-list star. And suddenly, here come LeBron James and Kevin Love arriving into a defective locker room, and no one needs them all more than Kyrie Irving.

15 Most Anticipated Games Of 14-15 NBA Season

The release of the NBA schedule lets us put some date on some of the more compelling matchups (no repeats) that will take place during the 2014-15 regular season.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: WCC

Gonzaga could become a top-10 team in the country, while BYU and Saint Mary's are hoping to merely make the NCAA tournament.

Grading The Deal: Cavaliers Trade For Kevin Love

Kevin Love was the best procurable player in the NBA for the Cavaliers, a top-10 talent at the age of 26 who will excellently complement LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: SEC

Kentucky and Florida are obviously playing for top seeds in the tourney, while Arkansas should comfortably be in the field. You can throw the next eight teams in a hat, and defend almost any ordering.

Why Monta Ellis Could Soon Be Searching For Next Change Of Scenery

Monta Ellis went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. But the holes in his game that haunted him with the Warriors and Bucks are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Mountain West

UNLV has talent. Wyoming should be strong defensively. Boise St., Colorado St., and Fresno St. should be strong on offense. And New Mexico has some quality players. But San Diego St. is the class of the league, and no one else is even close.

An Economic Argument For NBA Expansion

When considering in the benefits of a substantial up-front payment from the expansion fees (including factoring in the time value of money) and the threat of bubble in relation to team values, it would behoove the owners to reincarnate the Sonics and a second franchise.

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