Brooklyn’s roster looks great. But can it gel by the playoffs?
According to the man himself, it’s been more than 18 years since Mikhail Prokhorov greased his last palm. The impulse to bury the need for patience and luck under a skid of $100 bills, though, has been a defining characteristic of the billionaire Russian metal magnate’s tenure as majority owner of the Brooklyn Nets. This season, the team will shell out upwards of $102 million in player salary—almost $15 million more than their closest competitor, the New York Knicks. For all that money (and another $87 million in luxury tax) they’ll get size, bench depth, interior defence, playoff experience and a starting line that boasts all-star calibre talent from positions one to five. But will it be enough to buy them a championship?
Last year’s Nets had no trouble winning in the regular season. They finished second in the Atlantic with a very presentable 49-33 record and managed to put a healthy amount of distance between themselves and the 12-70 abomination that chewed through three coaches in 2009–10. But in the first round of the playoffs, against a gritty and defence-oriented Bulls team, they came apart. Despite a wealth of on-paper advantages—not the least of which being Derrick Rose’s bum knee—Brooklyn fell behind 3–1 in the series before losing a tight game seven at home. In the deciding contest, Bulls centre Joakim Noah abused the Nets inside, pouring in 24 points (on 12-of-17 shooting) to go with 14 boards and six blocks.
Chicago reminded the Nets that the grind of the playoffs demands toughness, experience and elite team defence. So on July 12, Brooklyn GM Billy King went out and got all that—shipping five players and three first-round picks to the Celtics for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, and adding free-agent forward Andrei Kirilenko on a bargain two-year deal.
Garnett’s impact on the defensive side of the ball is hard to overstate. He is at once a one-man brick wall and a deft, screaming conductor, capable of shutting down his man while directing multiple teammates in coverage. With KG on the floor last season, the Celtics allowed just 96.2 points per 100 possessions, a number that was both better than Indiana’s league-best mark and 8.4 points lower than when he sat. His bulgy-eyed presence alone makes Brooklyn a contender.
Pierce and Kirilenko aren’t as transformative, but both add value. Pierce’s one-on-one stopping power has slipped with age, but his offensive game has an old-man-on-the-playground craftiness that’d probably allow him to put up 20, foul his man out and hit the fourth-quarter dagger on any given night well into his fifties. Kirilenko, meanwhile, brings length, excellent hands and a lurching effectiveness on both sides of the ball. His ability to come off the bench in either the three- or four-spot will give the Nets crucial lineup flexibility, gifting freshman head coach Jason Kidd opportunities to rest Pierce and Garnett.
Kirilenko and the former Celtics haven’t walked on to a team devoid of stars, either. Seven-footer Brook Lopez established himself as a giant among men last year, earning his first all-star nod and finishing the season as the only centre to crack the league’s top 30 in points per game (he ranked 12th). Joe Johnson watched his shooting percentages fall across the board, but remains a dangerous isolation and crunch-time scorer (with 30 seconds or less on the clock and the game within three points, he was an unbelievable 8-of-9 from the floor). And Deron Williams rebounded from a middling first half of the season to look something like the big-bodied, ankle-breaking point man he was in Utah.
So the talent is there. But the question that faces all store-bought super teams remains: How fast can Brooklyn gel into a cohesive unit?
Last year’s Lakers provide the most recent cautionary tale, but the South Beach Three’s debut season also contained its fair share of hiccups—and neither run ended in jewellery. Where the Nets are different, says one Eastern Conference executive, is their incoming stars have nothing left to prove. Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, LeBron James and Chris Bosh all arrived ringless on teams with established champions. In contrast, says the exec, “Pierce and Garnett are the new guys [in Brooklyn] and they’re already champions. At this stage, they’re only going to judge themselves by how many games they can win, and really, how many playoff games they win. I don’t think ego is going to be [an] issue.”
The more pressing challenge facing Kidd and his staff, then, may be how best to split minutes and shots amongst a group of players whose contracts and talent suggest they should be getting plenty of both. Williams and Johnson are both most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and Lopez—the team’s leading scorer—will need touches at the basket. Pierce, too, warrants looks and remains one of the game’s great closers, but priority one will be keeping him and Garnett fresh and healthy for the playoffs, where they’ll really earn their keep. A deep bench unit—led by Terry, Kirilenko and the suddenly relevant Andray Blatche—will help in that regard, but there’s still a lot to figure out when it comes to the flow of the offence.
Ultimately, the difference between an incredibly expensive championship and an equally pricey second-round playoff exit will rest on Brooklyn’s ability to get past the Pacers, Bulls and Heat. Indiana has the size and depth to stand toe-to-toe with the Nets; Chicago returns much of the core that bounced Brooklyn last season and gets a huge boost on the offensive end with the return of Rose; and Miami is Miami, always and forever (or at least until the end of this season). Thanks to Prokhorov’s bank account, Brooklyn now has the roster to contend with all three, but at some point these things just come down to luck. You can buy a team, a stadium and enough talent to fill both, but no amount of money can buy off age, injury and chance.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.