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Enemy: Brooklyn Nets
3SOB Prediction: 42-40

Photo: Brooklyn Nets Official Twitter

Photo: Brooklyn Nets Official Twitter

What’s up, Brooklyn?

Now there’s a face we know quite well in the world of Grizz-ness! After a year of biding his time as an NBA TV analyst in the wake of what was perhaps a premature departure from his Memphis post, the winningest coach in Grizzlies history has seized the opportunity to scoop the head coaching gig in Brooklyn. It was a shocking development in franchise’s trajectory to say the least, and to look ahead it may take some reflection backwards to explore how, exactly, we arrived at this point.

The 2013-14 season had all the makings of being the Brooklyn Nets’ year. With the cross-town Knicks spiraling out of contention and the Miami Heat taking a sobering step towards mortality, the stars had manifest in perfect alignment for the Nets to bring both the professional basketball scene in New York City to their doorstep and the Eastern Conference throne just inches from their grasp.

In recognition of the moment, they mortgaged about as much of their future as the ghost of Ted Stepien would allow, as they acquired twilight stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, brought in NBA A-lister Jason Kidd – fresh off retirement – to coach the team, signed defensive jack-of-all-trades Andrei Kirilenko to a suspiciously-below-market-value contract, and proceeded to rack up a legendarily extravagant luxury tax bill in billionaire owner Mikhail Prokorov’s name. Hey, what could go wrong?

Well as we know it, things did go wrong for the Nets in 2013-14. The early season optimism evaporated in a flash as the team fizzled to a 9-17 start, and any title hopes and dreams were subsequently eviscerated by the fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone in the right foot of All-Star center Brook Lopez. Kidd was able to redeem his rookie season at the helm by pulling the team together to accomplish one of the top finishes in the league dating from the flip of the calendar year, but the team ultimately folded as it ran into an overpowering Heat squad that was far more motivated to take care of business against the Nets than it proved to be in the regular season.

Which brings us up to this summer; where things seemed to be trending in the right direction for Brooklyn, until one day Jason Kidd – after looking around all bleary-eyed at Derek Fisher and Steve Kerr’s new arrangements - decided that he wasn’t brandishing nearly enough power by just manning the sidelines for the Nets. To make a long story short, now he’s setting up shop in Milwaukee after burning all bridges with the one organization that has gone completely out of its way to empower and honor him (and then some), while L-Train Hollins stations up in his stead. (Side-note: it’s too bad the actual L-train of the NYC subway system doesn’t actually stop near the Barclays Center)

Optimism has been fleeting in Kings County, especially represented by the fact that Pierce has defected for Washington via free agency, and the Nets have engineered a (relatively-speaking) more cap and youth friendly movement looking ahead, figureheaded by young assets such as Sergey Karasev (acquired from Cleveland in a 3-team trade), and Bojan Bogdanovic. Though I caution, I’ve learned once or twice in my day never to count out a Hollins team with its back against the wall. So as the Nets’ marketing team would say, “hello Lionel,” and welcome to BK.

What are they cooking with?

The roster of the Nets faces a definite shock with the loss of the iconic Pierce, but I did feel a number of times last season that the skillsets of he and Joe Johnson stood to override one another, and Johnson’s shooting percentages (TS%: 58.2 to 55.1, EFG%: 55.2 to 52.1) were actually better when Pierce was seated on the bench. Without an explicit replacement for Pierce on the roster, expect “Iso Joe” to continue to assume heavy-lifting scoring responsibilities on the perimeter. The loss of versatile guard Shaun Livingston is another blow in the departures department, but his productivity should be matched in multiple capacities with the addition of Jarrett Jack. Jack had a bum year in Cleveland last season, and won’t be half the defensive help that Livingston was (sorry, coach), but has a track record of being a more than effective option at either guard spot, and has earned the right to have it chalked up to one bad year on a miserable team — until further notice, that is.

It’s amazing that I’ve made it this far into this post without so much as mentioning the true focal point of the roster, Deron Williams. Strictly from a drama standpoint, the forthcoming relationship between he and Hollins has some serious firework potential, as Williams has developed a bit of a reputation as a serial pouter through his time with the franchise thus far, and Hollins just does not strike me as the type of guy to stand for it. How well Williams produces has waxed and waned in recent years – typically by the fault of nagging ankle issues – and how consistently his play stays on the right side of the ledger should directly correlate to how well he can stay healthy. He’s not the second best point guard in the league anymore, but when he’s on his game there are still few in the league that can keep up with him.

While Lionel will likely always make the headlines with his point guard preferences, I find myself most compelled with the options that the Nets have before them in the post. Hollins is not going to turn the Nets into the “Grit ‘n’ Grind Nets,” but much like the situation he was given to work with in Memphis, he will have (health forbidding) two of the most skilled big men in the game to lean on in Lopez and Garnett. With KG’s still-wizard-like – and I’m nottalking about the Pierce kind – pick-and-pop game and superior basketball IQ, he’s a great candidate to navigate the high post the way that Gasol does for the Grizzlies. Lopez, on the other hand, who was just cleared for full activity, has got the moves around the basket and money touch from 10-15 feet off the right block akin to that of a souped-up 7-foot Zbo. Regarding his bigs on the bench, whether the Nets new coach can embrace the 3-point prowess of stretch-shooting power forward Mirza Teletovic, may be the most intriguing story of all. I also wonder if he will love second year big Mason Plumlee as much as Coach K does for the team USA roster, and if I know Lionel like I think I know Lionel, I’m inclined to say that he will.

How do the good guys stack up?

Quincy Pondexter in his signature game of the 2013-14 season. Photo: Nelson Chenault / USA Today Sports

The Vibe Behind Enemy Lines

To gauge how they feel about the matchup on the Nets’ side of the basketball world, I reached out to my good friend and local Nets fan Ryan Rivard, a New York City filmmaker who could literally throw a rock at the Barclays Center from his Brooklyn office. While not basketball-related, you can check out his work over at Ryan-Rivard.com — you won’t regret the click.

Ryan Rivard: Last year when the Memphis Grizzlies took on the boys in Brooklyn, the leading scorer for the Grizz was Jon Leuer. They lost.

The Brooklyn Nets were strong playoff team that went toe to toe with the Miami Heat, despite that same black cloud that used to hover over the Boston: “will old age catch up to Kidd and the gang?” Some of that veteran experience has gone elsewhere. With the loss of Paul Pierce to the Washington Wizards, the Nets quite possibly lost their veteran anchor who had the most impact of all. And Jarret Jack is no replacement anchor. Not to mention, losing key role players like Andray Blatche and Shaun Livingston have shaken the waters for Brooklyn.

Yet they managed to minimize the damage. Despite having no first round pick, the Nets picked up a steal in Markel Brown at No. 44 from Oklahoma State. How could anyone forget this dunk? And the forecast is looking like Kevin Garnett will return for — perhaps his final – NBA season, who will continue to produce in crucial moments as long as Brook Lopez is there to give him relief.

Brooklyn has some soft spots this year, making them a little more vulnerable than last season. That, and the Grizzlies need someone to score more points than Jon Leuer.

The Vibe at 3 Shades of Blue

Josh Coleman: The Nets had the Grizzlies’ number last year, taking both games from the Boys from Beale Street. Now, they bring in a new coach who is, shall we say, somewhat familiar with Memphis and its players. While the matchup between Dave Joerger and Lionel Hollins will undoubtedly get most of the press, it is the players who will ultimately decide these two contests.

Brooklyn has one of the few frontcourts that can match up with Memphis, although there are question marks about the aging Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez as he returns from an injury that cost him all of last season. Once, it was a given that Deron Williams was one of the Top 2 PGs in the league, but now you can easily make the argument that as he has fallen off, Mike Conley’s progression has put them in the same neighborhood. Conley certainly had a better season last year than his counterpart.

With Paul Pierce defecting to Washington, the Nets are now slated to start Jarrett Jack at SG, which is a matchup that Memphis should be able to exploit, as long as whomever is guarding Joe Johnson keeps their head in the game. Hollins will have his squad primed for this series, so both games will likely be tough, gritty contests. I’m expecting the home team to win each game for a series split.

When Do They Square Off?

1/14/15 – Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY – 6:30 PM CST
2/10/15 — FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN – 7:00 PM CST

What Do Y’all Think?

Cast your vote below and reach out on Twitter @StevieDanziger to discuss more on the matchup!

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