Brooklyn, of course, hasn’t had a professional sports team since the Dodgers left town for Los Angeles in 1957, and the Nets have made a very conscious effort to push their brand in their new sporting landscape. Back in the summer the Nets organization took out a series of ads on billboards across the borough. Basketball fans driving around the city got to see billboards that read, “Hello Brooklyn. I’m #8, Deron Williams, three-time all-star and father of four”, and Brook Lopez declaring himself, “Batman’s biggest fan”—although I’m sure they would’ve rather known Dwight Howard’s favourite superhero.
The Nets haven’t limited their promotional drive to ads and concerts, however. Perhaps one of their biggest public relations assets is owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire who truly exposes the futility of having a ‘soft’ salary cap (he doesn’t care one bit about paying the luxury tax), has been far more outspoken as his team have settled into their new home. Prokhorov claims that the Nets are in the third year of a five-year plan (what is it about Russians and five-year plans?!), which will culminate in them winning the NBA title.
Just as brazenly, he recently referred to Knicks owner, James Dolan, as “that little man”. Now to be fair, given that Prokhorov is 6’8”, most of his fellow owners probably do seem ‘little’. But Prokhorov’s jab was directed not simply at Dolan, whom Knicks fans themselves have called a lot worse, but at the Knicks organization in general. Prokhorov and the Nets don’t simply have an eye on carving out their own slice of ‘territory’ in The Big Apple, but also on taking advantage of a market that for too long has been dominated by a mediocre product. Most Knicks fans are incredibly loyal and wouldn’t dream of jumping ship, but the Nets want them to at least be aware of their presence, and let them know that the option exists.
On November 1st the Nets will have a chance to back up all the bluster, as the Knicks make that short journey across the Brooklyn Bridge to face their noisy neighbours. That game, given the context, will be much larger that its marginal impact on the standings will indicate. The Nets will be desperate to get off to a good start, and beating the Knicks will stoke an already raging debate about who is now the alpha-dog in NYC. But the Nets have bigger ambitions than simply outpointing their underachieving neighbour—they’ll be expecting to go a long way this season.
Most analysts agree that the Nets should be a shoe-in for the playoffs this year—anything less would be disastrous. Whether they can challenge for an NBA title is a different story entirely, however.
Given where the Nets found themselves at the end of last season—failing to lure Dwight Howard at the March deadline and with Williams unsure about his future—they should feel extremely good about their off-season. Granted, they couldn’t make a deal for Howard, but the moves they did successfully complete have turned them into an elite team in the East.
The most important of these moves, of course, was re-signing Deron Williams. Williams, who at times looked as though he was ready to sign with the Mavericks, is vital for this team moving forward. He’s the face of the franchise, a top-3 point-guard in the NBA, and their best player by a mile. Last season D-Will appeared uninterested. His numbers were fine, but you got the sense that he’d checked out mentally by a certain point in the year. He was like Michael Jackson playing with a bunch of Titos, and he clearly found it hard to get motivated playing for a team with no chance of making the post-season.
This season will be different, of course. Williams has a genuine all-star, in Joe Johnson, to compliment his talents. Johnson, although one of the NBA’s more infuriating players to watch, is a prodigious talent and should thrive playing with an elite point-guard. In Atlanta, Johnson took too many touches, dribbling around aimlessly at times, but in Brooklyn he’ll see less of the ball—and that’s a good thing. The Nets are Williams’ team. Johnson will play second fiddle and won’t be expected to always be THE guy—a pressure he floundered under in Atlanta. With Williams penetrating and dishing him the ball, Johnson won’t have to work anywhere near as hard for his points, and should be a far more efficient scorer.
On the frontcourt the Nets have some nice, very serviceable pieces. Gerald Wallace, although slowing down, offers decent secondary scoring and will be asked to guard the opposition’s best perimeter players. Brook Lopez missed the majority of last season with injury and although his rebounding (or lack thereof) makes him the punch line to many jokes, his offensive skills make him immensely valuable.
What’s more, power forward Kris Humphries compensates for Lopez’s lack of defensive aptitude. Humphries is like a ‘Bizarro World’ version of Lopez. He’s limited on the offensive end, but is a gritty player that can rebound well. The two players compliment each other nicely. Off the bench the Nets can also call on Reggie Evans to pick up some of the defensive slack—and to punch opposition players in the kidneys, or whatever else he does.
Outside of the starting core, the Nets will hope that young talent, MarShon Brooks, realizes some of his potential and becomes a dangerous 6th man scoring option, while the intervention project that is Andray Blatche, could go either way.
The Nets will challenge for a top-4 seed in the NBA, but it’s highly doubtful that they will be able to knock the Celtics off the top of the Atlantic division, or challenge the Heat and Pacers for Eastern Conference supremacy. On paper they may be a more balanced team than their cross-city rivals, but the enigma that is Carmelo Anthony—terrifying brilliant at times—always leaves me with a feeling that he could take his team further than their general dysfunction warrants. The Nets don’t quite have a player that can win games on his own, the way Melo can.
Regardless of how they fare, the Nets are a welcome addition to the sporting landscape of NYC, and they have the personnel to make the post-season and win a playoff series. Their rivalry with the Knicks should be one of the more intriguing NBA storylines over the next few years. But talent-wise, chemistry-wise, and character-wise, they’re not a top-5 team in the NBA as of yet. Prokhorov may have to wait until the final year of his five-year plan, or until he adds some other pieces, for his dream of an NBA championship to become a reality.