For some fanbases, “wait ’till next year” is less a woe-is-me quip late in a dreadful season and more like the only reason to believe in hope before some seasons even start. After the NBA Draft, workouts and Summer League, the time preceding training camp is a time to believe in best-case scenarios. But which of those can come true this year?
Of course, not every team can have their best-case scenario. So today we’re highlighting the two expected to actually turn heads this year after finishing last season far out of the running. One of them even drafted in the lottery last June. We’re not promising worst-to-first, mind you — but we are believing these two, one each from the East and West, can make the playoffs in the first full season since the lockout.
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EASTERN CONFERENCE: BROOKLYN NETS
The question of which lowly team will make the postseason is a little clearer in the Eastern Conference than it is in the West. Indeed, given the existing talent disparity in the East, along with so few teams making significant upgrades during the offseason (some, namely Orlando, appear to have regressed), the smart money is on the literally new-look Brooklyn Nets to jump into the playoffs this year.
Let’s first recap the Nets’ final year in New Jersey. In 2011-12, the Nets went 22-44 and finished 12th in the East (24th in the NBA) — a staggering 28 games out of a playoff spot. Some of the advanced stats paint an equally unflattering picture: The team averaged 103 points per 100 possessions (ranked 23rd overall), and shot 42 percent from the field (third lowest in the league). On defense, they allowed opponents to score 110 points per 100 possessions (28th overall) on 47 percent shooting (third worst).
The depth of New Jersey’s struggles was unsurprising given its roster last season, which consisted of Deron Williams … and little else. According to 82games.com, the Nets’ most used five-man unit of D-Will, rookie MarShon Brooks, DeShawn Stevenson (replaced midseason by Gerald Wallace), Kris Humphries and Shelden Williams combined for a paltry plus-3 plus-minus rating in the 156 minutes they played together. (By comparison, the Miami Heat’s top five netted plus-108 points in the regular season.) Of this group, only Williams and Humphries had a player efficiency rating higher than 13, at 20.3 and 17.9 respectively.
So, what makes the 2012-13 Nets any different?
Besides the obvious move to Brooklyn, the Nets made several aggressive personnel decisions to improve the core. GM Billy King re-upped a few key players to long-term contracts, including swingman Wallace, Humphries, fifth-year center Brook Lopez, who spent most of last year on the injured reserve, and most notably Williams, the unrestricted free agent and All-Star point guard.
King also shocked many by trading Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams and two picks to Atlanta for Joe Johnson. Johnson, of course, is a six-time NBA All-Star and one of the league’s premier two guards. Last season, he averaged 18.8/3.7/3.9 in 35 minutes and ranked fifth among shooting guards in PER. Theoretically, JJ is an ideal fit in the context of the Brooklyn offense. He’s a legitimate perimeter scorer, and his range should extend defenses in the half-court, freeing up valuable space for Williams to create opportunities off dribble penetration.
Taken together, the Nets’ starting five now projects as Williams (PG), Johnson (SG), Wallace (SF), Humphries (PF) and Lopez (C). The Williams-Johnson-Wallace trifecta is easily one of the league’s most talented perimeter units. If Lopez, Humphries, and recent additions like Reggie Evans, Mirza Teletovic and Andray Blatche are able to provide meaningful contributions at both ends, the Nets are capable of winning 50 games or more.
(As a brief aside, one intriguing option coach Avery Johnson can try with this group is to play small. Last season, the Nets’ most effective unit in terms of plus-minus was Williams, Morrow, Gerald Green, Wallace and Humphries, which went plus-20 and outscored opponents 71.4 percent of the time — albeit in only 30.1 minutes of action. Now, however, the Nets could floor a more dangerous small-ball lineup of Williams, Brooks, Johnson, Wallace and Humphries/Lopez. We’ll see if the success Miami and Oklahoma City enjoyed last season employing a similar formula compels Johnson to go with the above combination more often this year.)
Despite these changes, questions still surround the Nets as they embark on their first season together in BK: What sort of chemistry will this revamped squad develop? Can they play together? Who plays defense? Can Lopez finally stay healthy, and if not, who replaces him? Finally, can potential meld into actual competition with Miami, Boston and Chicago for the Eastern Conference crown? Nevertheless, because of the top-heavy nature of the Eastern Conference — a fact only amplified by the departure of Dwight Howard from Orlando — it’s hard to imagine a playoff scenario that doesn’t include the Brooklyn Nets.