• Nets at Hawks

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    lethalweapon3

    brook-lopez-joe-johnson-kg-e141573420649

    How Much Would YOU Pay?

     

    Run into random Brooklyn Nets fans at Philips Arena, where their winless team is preparing to face the Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, YES Network), and you’ll find they’re far more into it for the “BROOOOOOKLYN!” thing than the “Nets” stuff. If you manage to find some true-blue, bona fide “Nets” fans, you’ll know, because they possess a button, or a T-Shirt, that declares, “I WAS THERE FOR 0-18!” By now, it was supposed to be a point of pride, not irony.

    November 2009 was a rough time in the Meadowlands of New Jersey, notably for hoops fans just seven seasons removed from the last NBA Finals campaign at the Izod Center. Two seasons before, franchise face Jason Kidd was shipped to Dallas, in exchange for Devin Harris, fluff, and draft picks that would, one day, materialize as Ryan Anderson and Jordan Crawford.

    The 2009-2010 Nets were working to break their arena lease, vacate their swampy home of the prior 25-plus years, and relocate to sunny Newark. But it was becoming clear to those in the know that the Prudential Center would not be their final destination. A filthy-rich man-of-mystery was arriving from Russia, but not With Love for the Garden State. Meanwhile, the Nets rolled out the likes of Trenton Hassell, Josh Boone, Rafer Alston, Bobby Simmons and Yi Jianlian into their starting lineups, and the march to 12-70 futility commenced.

    At the hands of the Mavs’ Kidd, the Nets fell at home to 0-18, the worst start out of the blocks of any NBA team’s season in history. The latter-day Sixers genuinely try their darnedest to be this good of a flop. From the owner’s box to the stands and the sidelines, everyone affiliated with the Nets found themselves eagerly on the hunt for a new jersey.

    Speaking of new jerseys, you know, a lot of people like their sports uniforms the way they like their coffee. Change the look to Black, the thought in sports fashion circles go, and you instantly broaden your appeal. It worked, after all, in Los Angeles: you won’t get Nobody With Attitude to rock some yellow and purple hockey jersey, not unless it has LAKERS emblazoned on it.

    So, sure, things worked out swimmingly well for the L.A. Kings, in terms of merchandising and the results on the ice. But as coin collector Bruce McNall would advise, before you reach for the black yarn, it really, really helps to go get yourself a Gretzky first.

    On the hardwood, the NBA’s Nets moved to a grittier locale in New York City, dumped the goody-two-shoes tri-color scheme of New Jersey Americans yore, and projected to be decidedly in-the-black in the stands and on every balance sheet by now. But try as they might, Mikhail Prokhorov and his trusty general manager Billy King could not get themselves a Gretzky. And now that it’s clear the biggest name they could bring to the borough, seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson, isn’t even a Messier, things have gotten messier. With an announced crowd of 12,576 for Monday’s tilt with ex-coach Jason Kidd’s Bucks, there were more black seats than fans in black garb.

    Six of those seven mid-season appearances came for Joe in an Atlanta Hawks uniform. Now at age 34, Joe (9.3 PPG, 32.6 FG% through 4 games, team-high 32.8 minutes per game) has to find it a peculiar time. Barring some epic global catastrophe wiping out everyone not riding in a golden Ford F-650 limo truck, Joe is the second-highest-paid player in the National Basketball Association for the final time in his life.

    With the influx of new media-driven revenue to the league, Johnson’s near-$25 million hit to the payroll will soon go from “He’s Making What?” to “Oh, Sure, Sounds About Right!” among the next crop of lucky NBA free agents. He’ll be one of them, too, this summer, as his infamous Deal With the A$G Devil is set to expire. Knock a zero-digit off that annual salary, and he’ll be set to sign his retirement contract somewhere next summer. Maybe with a contender! Or, maybe back with Brooklyn.

    Unlike the baller above him in the Fortune 50000 rankings, Joe doesn’t need “mental-health days” off to gather his bearings. What he could really use is a hot-and-ready understudy waiting among the wings, and with all due respect, Bojan Bogdanovic (18.2 3FG%), Sergey Karasev, Markel Brown (33.3 FG%) and Wayne Ellington (21.4 FG%) aren’t cutting the deli mustard. After a promising offseason, playing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson more than the five minutes the rookie got in Wednesday’s home loss to – there’s that man again – Jason Kidd and the Bucks would help matters a lot.

    It is, indeed, a peculiar time for Joe. The man who rode in to Georgia on a white horse and traded him to Brooklyn, Danny Ferry now chills out in seats above him at Barclays Center, as an informal advisor sitting alongside his former trading partner at Nets games. Despite the losing, this particular King is making himself out to be more un-deposable as ever before, just yesterday bringing in Woodson/Drew-era Hawks assistant Bob Bender to join the scouting department alongside Danny’s pops. King is propping up his old associates (the Ferries, Bender, Randy “Throw Your Hands in the” Ayers, etc.) like soldier trees around the haunted house that has been his management regime.

    Brook Lopez was certainly there for 0-18. He was there for every unnerving minute of it, as a barely-drinking-aged second-year starting center, blessed with lofty expectations of a Drummondian scale back in 2009. BroLo has since survived the rug getting pulled out from under Avery Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo, endured the bailout by Coach You Know Who, and suffered through an early season of dog-housing and public critique by current coach Lionel Hollins. So, naturally, in his long-awaited summer of 2015 unrestricted free agency, he chose to come back.

    Why the heck not? After all, the rubles are good. Where else can you find an NBA locale with a syllable matching your first name, or one with an endless supply of comic book stores to fuel your fetish? Additionally, Brook (18.3 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 53.1 FG%, team-highs of 18-and-9 in the loss to Milwaukee) gets to stick it to his twin brother, Robin, by being considered the best Lopez hooping anywhere in NYC proper. Sorry, Felipe.

    Now armed with a $20 million-per-year contract of his own, Lopez shares a mindset with Pizza Rat on the NYC Subway: things may seem less-than-ideal around Brooklyn, but at least it’s a stable environment. He also knows that his team, however flawed, isn’t 0-18 bad. After all, they backed into the playoffs for a third straight season in 2014-15, and put a scare into the top-seeded Hawks in the first round.

    With a career-best 21.3 D-Reb% early on, Brook is certainly trying from the jump to avoid being the target of Hollins’ acerbic wit. His usage rate is thus far the lowest since 2010, while his assist percentage is momentarily at its highest level since 2012. Lopez will spend this evening engaging his Atlanta counterparts, Al Horford and Tiago Splitter, with his usual array of mesmerizing post maneuvers, and daring Horford (60.7 FG% vs. Brooklyn last season, highest vs. any opponent with at least 4 games) to outscore him at the other end of the floor with shots anywhere outside the paint.

    Alas, Lopez has only so many lighthearted stories about cats, Clinton, and comics to share with New York’s ravenous postgame media. And things can start to go "Page Six"-sideways in a hurry if the Nets (0-4) don’t pull off a victory this week, either tonight at the Highlight Factory or back home on Friday with the Lakers in town.

    A six-game stretch of road games, one featuring a trip to Golden State on the back end of a back-to-back, is broken up only by a visit from the Hawks in two weeks. Games number 15 and 16 are in Oklahoma City and Cleveland, respectively. Come up short in all these contests, plus Games 17 and 18 versus Detroit and Phoenix, and by Game 19, Brook would be staring at his smirking twin-bro Robin in Madison Square Garden, trying not to break the record no one outside of Philly wants, and having to field questions about “What was it like?” just six years ago.

    Flanked by returnees Thaddeus Young and Jarrett Jack, and joined by Andrea Bargnani and Thomas Robinson, Hollins’ team is constructed to win games with high-volume offense. Yet, so far, the only guys who consistently get to Brooklyn Nine-Nine are Andy Samberg and Terry Crews. Their offensive rating of 93.7 points per 100 possession ranks 28th in the league, making their defensive rating rank of 110.7 (27th in NBA) look a shade better. While they’ve given up triple digits in all four contests to this point, they broke 100 points in the season opener versus Chicago and haven’t met that mark since.

    In the absence of shot accuracy (Brooklyn’s 46.0 eFG%, 21st in NBA), a high-volume offense needs lots of possessions via pace (95.6 possessions per-48, surpassed by Miami last night and now 29th in NBA), aggressive offensive rebounding (20.8 O-Reb%, just ahead of Atlanta’s 20.6, 22nd in NBA), productive shots (17.4% of FGAs from 3-point range, 29th in NBA), and the ability to occasionally force turnovers (5.8 team steals per game, 25th in NBA) and score in transition. The sample sizes are small, certainly, but aside from board-crashing, there’s nothing to indicate these Nets have those elements in their lineups.

    With the disappointing Deron Williams now a distant memory, Hollins is putting a lot of trust in Jack (14.0 PPG, 41.5 FG%, 6.7 APG, 3.0 TOs/game), a momentary playoff hero in last year’s conference quarterfinal versus Atlanta, to lead the charge. But he might be better off shifting away from the former Yellow Jacket, who is nursing a hamstring injury, in favor of third-year guard Shane Larkin.

    The score-first, score-second Jack, a ten-year veteran, has never been much of a facilitator. As evidenced versus once-winless Milwaukee, things go awry when opponents take away Plan A from the Nets offense and the ball is in his hands. But it was the diminutive Larkin who found shots for Bogdanovic and provided the fourth-quarter sparks to give Brooklyn a puncher’s chance.

    Jack, Larkin, and former Hawk Donald Sloan will have their work cut out for them going head-to-head with Jeff Teague (probable despite a sprained finger from Sunday's action) and Dennis Schröder. Teague (19.8 PPG, 49.2 2FG%, 88.9 FT%, 5.8 APG; career-high six rebounds versus the heat) is providing more than enough glimpses of the All-Star form that made Atlanta a bear to reckon with last season. Schröder has been off-target in his last two games (4-for-15 shooting; 4 TOs in 16 minutes at Miami last night), but always has the penetrative drive that throws defenses like the Nets off their game.

    As Dwyane Wade can attest after yesterday’s game, the Hawks’ rangy defense, like life, comes at you fast. Thabo Sefolosha is likely to tag-in for the rehabbing Kyle Korver, and hopes to be the distracting force for Joe tonight that his choice of fashion was yesterday for viewers in Miami. Continued hustle from the likes of newcomers Justin Holiday and Lamar Patterson should create the hurried shots that work in Atlanta’s favor and grant Kent Bazemore (61.5 3FG% in last 3 games) a well-deserved spell.

    Both Atlanta (8.0 3FGs per game, 2nd most in NBA) and Brooklyn (7.8 per game, 3rd in NBA) have been giving up lots of three-pointers above-the-arc. But the opponents of the Hawks (34.5 opponent 3FG%) need 4.4 more shots per game to sink them, compared to foes of the Nets (41.3 opponent 3FG%, 2nd-most in NBA). If Jack and the Nets guards are unable to contain Teague and Schröder, there should be an abundance of good perimeter looks for Hawk teammates when the Brooklyn defense collapses.

    Jack’s fellow Yellow Jacket alum, Young, along with big men Bargnani and Robinson, will get plenty of chances to join Lopez in filling up the right edge of the box score.  But the versatile Paul Millsap (46.3 2FG%, 4-for-9 2FGs and 0-for-3 3FGs at Miami) should have little trouble raising his efficiency numbers against a Nets team whose opponents’ eFG% of 55.0% is the worst in the Association right now. Paul will also want to resurrect that free throw percentage (63.0 FT%, 4-for-8 FTs at Miami) when Brooklyn inevitably tires of giving up easy baskets in the paint and resorts to fouling to keep the clock from running out on them.

    It’s not all bad for the few true-blue Nets fans at Philips Arena tonight. If their team can’t pull it together tonight, or soon, they’ll be among the dwindling chorus of fans who could someday boastfully proclaim, “I WAS THERE!” when the Billy Kingdom finally collapsed.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3


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