They made as many positive moves as any team in the offseason. They have a completely different team, with a great starting five and a pretty good three or four guys off the bench. I don't know how tested their depth is, but from a numbers standpoint they're good. They could end up winning the Atlantic Division. But the biggest thing is getting all these new guys playing together and figuring out their roles. It's going to be a big deal for coach Avery Johnson to get them all to trust one another and figure out how they'll play together.
Deron Williams has a chance to lead the league in assists per game with this team. The only problem is that Joe Johnson always dribbles it before he shoots it, so that takes away the assist. I would think Williams is going to have a pretty good year and play a lot freer knowing that he doesn't have score as much. There isn't anything he can't do as a point guard. One thing you might count against him is that sometimes he tries to make great plays instead of making the easy plays -- he'll make a three-quarter-court bounce pass that might be there but it's not the right time to try it. Being choosier about his turnovers is one negative, along with the fact that he can get in foul trouble because he's not the greatest lateral defender.
Williams and Johnson should do good things together. Johnson is a quiet enough guy. He gets paid like the king [four years and $89.3 million left on his contract] but he doesn't act like the king, while Williams want to be the centerpiece of the franchise. If it were a different person in Joe's spot -- someone like Carmelo Anthony, for example -- it would be more of an issue. But because Joe is more of a quiet guy, that should allow Deron to be who he wants to be.
Johnson's presence will help Williams get easier shots, and Williams will take pressure off Johnson by being able to push the ball and make shots. Avery is not going to be averse to isolating Joe. With the ball in his hands and a live dribble, Joe can shot-fake and go by you, shoot a floater, pull up or dribble at you for a long shot. He's effective doing that from the top or from the wing. He'd be even more effective if he ever became a more willing post-up player the way LeBron James has done. But that's not really a big part of Johnson's game. Defensively, Johnson is good enough to stay in front of people with his length. But I don't think he's great against screens.
[Chris Mannix: What to expect from the Nets this season]
They're going to have to get the ball to Brook Lopez, one of the best centers in the league. If Williams knows that Lopez can score against single-teaming, and that if Lopez is double-teamed he can pass out to Johnson for open shots -- well, everybody is going to like that. That's why I think this team can be at the top of the division during the regular season if it all comes together.
The one place where they don't have depth is the 5, so they're going to be a small team if Lopez is out. More important is that they have a legitimate 1 and 5. Lopez might be the second-best center in the East behind Andrew Bynum. Lopez is really, really big. He gets great position, and he has a variety of offensive moves. He can give you a jump hook, or he can face up and get a jump shot. It's hard to guard him with one man. He can shoot over people with a high release, and he's been well taught. Avery will want to get him post-ups, though it won't necessarily be direct post-ups. Instead, they may run side pick-and-roll with a screen for Lopez to get into the post, which means the defender is worried first about guarding Williams and then worried about the screen coming and then worried about Lopez getting into the post. They can run misdirection post-ups to help him get the ball without really having to fight all the time for it.
This could be the year that Lopez takes the next step. Last year Lopez got hurt [he played only five games because of a foot injury] and missed a chance to put up big numbers for a team that would have relied on him. If they have enough shooting and if their new guy from Europe, Mirza Teletovic, turns into the stretch 4 they're hoping he'll be, they'll be able to take pressure off Lopez. We'll also see if he continues to work on being a willing passer out of the post. He's on the right track there.
The one thing about Lopez is that he doesn't rebound well. He's not a great leaper and he's not getting as many rebounds out of his zone as you would like. The other thing you have to remember is that he's on the other team's scouting report. We're always going to focus on boxing him out because he's the biggest guy. He'll have one or two guys around him all the time, so he may not ever be a great offensive rebounder. But he should be getting more defensive rebounds. His effort to get them is not what you would like.
Gerald Wallace is one of my favorite guys. He loves to get out and run and create and put pressure on the defense, which will be good because Deron loves to push the ball. Wallace doesn't have to get shots from Williams because he can find his own shot, whether he's sprinting the floor or getting rebounds and steals. He can shoot and post up. If he's your third- or fourth-best player -- which he is here -- then your team is pretty good. He brings intensity every night. He may have only one or two more good years in him, but where he is right now makes him a great complement to their team. He can guard a 3 or 4. He's even going to be able to stay in front of LeBron.
[Ben Golliver: Wallace an X-factor in Eastern Conference]
Kris Humphries makes sense, too, because he'll be limited in what he gets to do. He can rebound and he's athletic enough to stay with lot of 4-men. Most important is that he can fill in if Lopez gets hurt because Humphries can battle with centers. He will get out on the break for Williams, and I think Williams will reward him for being the hustle guy or the hard roller for some easy layups. Humphries will need to be content with that, as opposed to making sure he gets three or four jump shots every game. However, one possible issue is that you'll have Lopez in the post and the defense sagging to him, because teams will be playing off Humphries at the same time they're playing off Wallace, who is more of a driver than a shooter. So it will be hard at times for Lopez to get easy shots.
The biggest issue is going to be MarShon Brooks and whether he'll accept coming off the bench. He's a talented and creative scorer. How content will he be as the fourth- or fifth-best player on the team? It's going to require a personality change for him. He needs to have ball in his hands a lot, and I'm skeptical he'll accept the smaller role.
I like their bench with C.J. Watson as a backup point guard and Reggie Evans as a solid guy behind Humphries and also playing some 5. Keith Bogans is a good defender who could help a lot. With that group, you'd like to have someone like Brooks to be the main scorer with the second unit and also play some with first group. If Brooks is willing to do that, he could make himself some money for his next contract.
[Ian Thomsen: Atlantic Division preview]
Josh Childress could be important to their bench -- but then he had a chance to be important for Phoenix the last two years as well. His confidence didn't appear to be very high in Phoenix, and now he's playing for Avery, who is a black-and-white guy. Childress might get a chance, but when he misses three or four layups and plays passively, Avery might write off him off right away. He could be in the doghouse quickly.
Andray Blatche still has a future in the league from a physical standpoint. He's a great teaser. He could be a great backup to Lopez if he is content to be that, but it's wait and see with him.
Avery is best with a veteran team, and that's what he has. But he is also very stubborn, and it is going to be interesting to see if he can be stubborn with all of these personalities. I'd compare him with Jerry Sloan, and after a while that style didn't work in Utah with Deron. But for this year they're definitely a top-five team in the East and they could win their division, though in the playoffs I don't see them beating Miami or Boston.