Heat check-out line

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
10:52
AM ET
Serrano By Shea Serrano
ESPN.com
Archive
Writer and illustrator Shea Serrano and his collaborator, Sean Mack, put their spin on the NBA.
Heat CartoonShea Serrano and Sean Mack
Previously: Indy's horror show »

Weird, wild stuff

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
10:42
AM ET
By Devin Kharpertian
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Jason Kidd, Deron WilliamsAP Photo/Bill KostrounThe Nets sketched a high-priced blueprint for success. But they didn't get good until things got weird.
The Nets sit right in the middle of Brooklyn’s tangled identities. They play in Barclays Center, an arena plopped in the middle of downtown Brooklyn and built within the last decade. Look north of Barclays Center and you’ll see a smattering of the borough’s few skyscrapers and luxury high-rises; walk two blocks south and you’ll be smack-dab in traditional brownstone country, where original and transplanted locals alike fuel the borough’s neighborhood vibe.

“We’re In,” the Nets’ preseason slogan boasted, affirming the team was both all-in on their quest to win a championship and in Brooklyn for good. Now, their playoff slogan is “For Brooklyn,” demonstrating the team’s “pride” in their home borough, and their desire to win for their city. It’s a tough sell, since the team still practices and has their primary offices in New Jersey, and not one player on the roster actually lives in Brooklyn.

Nevertheless, the team assured us that Brooklyn meant “uncompromising confidence.” On the heels of last season’s first-round playoff loss when the team openly bemoaned a lack of “toughness,” they traded for Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They boasted five All-Stars and future Hall of Famers in a strict, positional lineup flush with veterans. They assembled an all-star cast of assistant coaches, led by Lawrence Frank, to sell Jason Kidd as a head coach.

But Brooklyn is a city at its best when it’s not a city, and the Nets are a brand that’s best when they’re not a brand. In a down-and-up season, things worked out best for Brooklyn when they bucked convention and went quirky, chipped away at their shiny new shield and got weird.

When All-Star center Brook Lopez went down for the season with a right foot injury, Kidd ultimately chose 6-foot-7 point guard Shaun Livingston to replace him, playing two point guards and pushing career small forward Paul Pierce to power forward. The change put a backup on a minimum salary in a rare spotlight, pushed a Hall of Famer of 15 years at one position to a brand new role, and turned the Nets into a versatile, “long-ball” team that fired 3-pointers at a higher clip and forced more turnovers than any team in the league.

This season, the Nets went from 10-21 in 2013 to 34-17 in 2014, only losing four of their past five games as Livingston sat with a toe injury. It seems crazy that the team played their best once they lost their best player, but that’s exactly what happened when the Nets adapted.

On a bench praised for veteran presence, it was rookie Mason Plumlee, who was supposed to spend the season in the D-League, that made the most waves, earning a rotation spot over veterans Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans. The 24-year-old even started 19 games when Garnett went down with a back injury.

They buried and eventually traded Evans, a reckless rebounder who started a career-high 56 games and all seven playoff games under P.J. Carlesimo last season. The Nets subsequently became one of the league’s worst rebounding teams … and kept winning games nonetheless. Blatche, who played a key role in the Nets’ first-round series against the Chicago Bulls last season and was the team’s no-doubt first big man off the bench, may not even have a role in this year’s playoffs.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
AP Photo/Jason DeCrowPaul Pierce, stretch-4! A non-traditional lineup in the new year dug the Nets out of an early-season hole.
The team played their best offense with the energetic Plumlee throwing down alley-oops, scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions in the 284 minutes he played with the other four starters, and the rookie provided perhaps the highlight of the season, denying four-time MVP LeBron James at the rim on a potential game-winning dunk in Miami to help the Nets complete their season sweep of the two-time NBA champions. Plumlee, the 22nd overall pick in last year’s draft, leads qualifying NBA rookies in player efficiency rating (PER) and has started more games than any other rookie on a playoff team.

No one on the team came to eccentricity more naturally than Kidd, the rookie coach learning on the job. He made his first splash on the court in the rare literal sense, commanding to second-year guard Tyshawn Taylor “hit me,” knocking his drink onto the floor and giving the Nets a bonus timeout. He coldly dismissed Frank after one too many disputes, deciding he didn’t need the planned route to build a winning team. He stopped wearing ties. He stopped shaving. He stopped trying to prove he deserved a spot as an NBA coach, using blasé cliches as passive weapons in press conferences. He won two Eastern Conference Coach of the Month awards in the last four months thanks to his team’s newfound energy and two-way punch. All because things didn’t go as planned.

The Nets have undergone the most successful re-imagining of a sports franchise ever in two seasons, evolving from the afterthought laughingstock of the Eastern Conference to a lavish “brand,” an unflappable cultural cachet that goes beyond the court and infiltrates music, fashion and business. They’re a symbol of Brooklyn’s Manhattanization, with a record-breaking $190 million spending spree to fill their roster and enough sponsors to fill every second of their home games, while still taking time to honor Brooklyn’s history and heroes.

They sold themselves on their hype, on the promise of greatness because of their giants. Except the Nets, in typical Brooklyn weirdness, were only at their best once outside circumstances knocked them out of their failing, made-for-TV box and forced them to explore unconventional, creative solutions.

Devin Kharpertian is the managing editor and founding editor at The Brooklyn Game. Follow him, @uuords.

Kings of the north

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
10:00
AM ET
By Seerat Sohi
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Amir JohnsonDave Sandford/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter nearly two decades of indifference, Canada is finally starting to embrace the Toronto Raptors.
There’s a Montana’s located about five minutes from my place in Edmonton. It’s a homely Sunday afternoon joint, the kind of place that usually broadcasts four different hockey games at once. Mid-March deviation from the NHL is never anything more than an empty nod to the the NCAA, so finding a booth to the tune of Raptors vs. Nets in the background was a signal I took with cautious optimism: The tide of Canada’s sports culture may be turning.

The Toronto Raptors have attempted to sweep the nation before, to varied success. Alternate road jerseys tacked with maple leafs and the moniker “Canada’s team” can take an organization only so far; certainly not the 3,000-kilometer gap between Toronto and Vancouver. It’s especially tough in Canada, where the zenith of sporting and patriotic fervor elicits images of Terry Fox, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby’s famed Olympic goal.

Without a strong philosophy or a winning team, the Raptors have constantly lacked a force for fans to hitch their wagon to. The Vince Carter era is underscored more by his leaving Canada than it is his tenure in it. Chris Bosh didn’t think he could get NBA League Pass north of the border (he could). In their 19 years, the Raptors never eclipsed 47 wins. Since marketing themselves as Canada’s team in the 2008 offseason, they haven’t even made a playoff appearance.

Canadian NBA devotees outside of Toronto share a certain degree of passion for the Raptors but align themselves with a separate cause: LeBron vs. Durant, Boston vs. Los Angeles, Steve Nash vs. universe.

The Raptors don’t have the benefit of history. It’s easier for Lakers fans to swallow Kobe Bryant’s freshly penned albatross when viewed through a veneer of certainty, but Raptors fans have never been able to reference the team’s greatest hits album and think, “Yeah, we’ll trust you guys.” The smart money tells them to invest their emotions in a less precarious place.

The Raptors’ identity has always been “the Canadian team,” but like most forms of Canadian identity, no one really knows what that entails. But there are benefits to not having any preordained expectations to live up to.

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, one of the smartest basketball minds on the planet, has creative authority in an organization that is a blank whiteboard. On Dec. 6, with the Raptors looking at a 6-12 record after five straight losses, Ujiri traded Rudy Gay, the high-priced star wing brought in before last season’s trade deadline by the previous regime. The seven-player deal netted the Raptors Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes, John Salmons and a chunk of savings.

Since the trade, the Raptors have evolved. They’re more than just that team north of the border. Rather, one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference, outscoring opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions, sixth in the league since Dec. 8. DeMar Derozan is a candidate for most improved player, Kyle Lowry is having a career season. While Tyler Hansbrough’s tenacity appeals to the conservative hard-hat West, Toronto waxes poetic on DeRozan’s silky smooth post repertoire. Now, if only they retained Mickaël Piétrus. …

[+] EnlargeBanners
John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SportsThere isn't much good NBA history in Toronto. But these Raptors are using that to their advantage.
The Raptors’ offense is simple, yet not unlike the San Antonio Spurs', the wrinkles make it effective. It’s hard for opponents to stymie pick-and-rolls when Amir Johnson is so adept at slipping screens; or maybe it’s Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough discretely floating into open space. Vasquez delivers pick-and-roll passes like it’s pizza for Hedo Turkoglu. DeRozan has transitioned from an abysmal passer to one who’s slightly above average, taking whatever the defense throws at him in stride -- be it in the form of a 30-point barrage or a cerebral read-and-react outing. While other squads would develop complicated tactical maneuvers for the various types of coverage DeRozan is prone to seeing now, the Raptors rest their laurels on just knowing where to be. It has paid off. The Raptors’ offensive rating has gradually increased with their chemistry, peaking at 112 in April.

Toronto is bringing back the dearly missed purple dinosaur jersey as an alternate next season, marking the first time since 2006 that a Raptors uni won’t be accentuated by Canada’s red and white. The Raptors’ latest rebranding effort, featuring an advertising campaign and a #WeTheNorth hashtag, skews dramatic with its fire pits and snow-filled arenas -- the climate is hyperborean, though DrakeWeather.com can tell you it’s not that cold in April -- but it works because of the substance behind it. Finishing the regular season with a franchise record 48 wins and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Toronto is brimming with excitement to face the Brooklyn Nets in Round 1.

If a deep playoff run is really as imminent as some fans hope, the Raptors might just permanently latch onto a semblance of identity, something to get fans across the border to tune in on Game 1 of 82, not in a mid-February win streak. After all, if memories breed fandom, Raptors fans have few that aren’t accompanied by a I-missed-the-good-cable-in-America-esque sting.

Canadian sports culture will always be defined by the nation’s dispersed Hockeytowns but it’s still a heady time for hoops fans north of the border. Just ask the slew of portable basketball nets swarming driveways in suburbs all over Canada, some of them flanked by the occasional patch of ice: Nike has yet to produce the preeminent “Be Like DeMar” commercial but Canada’s basketball culture is growing with this team; by no explicit maneuver, Canada’s team.

Seerat Sohi writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow here, @DamianTrillard.

First Cup: Friday

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
6:18
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun: Experience. Talk to 100 different basketball fans with a rooting interest in the Raptors-Nets first-round playoff series and chances are somewhere between 90 and 100 will tell you it’s the single biggest factor that will decide the series. ... It was downright funny, not to mention enlightening, to hear DeMar DeRozan deconstruct the whole experience disadvantage. “I mean, it ain’t like it’s rocket science or nothing,” DeRozan said about the game of basketball in the post-season. “Everybody keeps talking to me like, bringing it up like it’s rocket science or I’ve got to know trigonometry or something. You just figure it out. You just go out there. I’ve been playing this game long enough, I’ve been in the league long enough, been in a lot of situations, so it shouldn’t be hard.” And if you are Masai Ujiri or Dwane Casey, that is exactly what you want to hear from one of your key, young, players.
  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: But after Brooklyn lost four of its final five regular-season games to fall out of the fifth seed — and a meeting with playoff-tested Chicago — and into sixth and a matchup with inexperienced Toronto, Jeff Van Gundy saw something else. “Yeah, they tanked to try to get to Toronto, OK,” the ESPN analyst said Thursday on a conference call previewing the playoffs. Van Gundy also thinks the Nets may not have been wise to fall into a matchup with the Raptors, who won a franchise-record 48 games en route to their second Atlantic Division title. “Well, it’s really interesting,” Van Gundy said. “The Nets absolutely tried to get to [the Raptors] by resting their guys and moving games down the stretch, so this is a very unique situation. You have a third seed who’s really good, and you have teams who are trying to win to get to them and lose to get to them."
  • Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram: If some of the players indeed did not like Del Negro, that does not seem to be the case with current coach Doc Rivers. By the time some of the team’s top players were done talking about him at a recent practice, one got the feeling Rivers is like E.F. Hutton. When he talks, players listen. “I mean, the Xs and Os and the things on the court, they speak for themselves,” said Blake Griffin, who is having an MVP-type season under Rivers. “But the mental side that he brings, just his experience as a coach and almost his stories he tells and the way he reads basketball situations, I think is interesting and unique. “Every time he speaks during practice, for me it’s a learning experience whether it’s a short speech that he didn’t put much thought into, or whether it’s something that he really wants to bring home to us.” Darren Collison echoed that sentiment. “He’s been there, done it all,” said Collison, whose team will take on Golden State in a Western Conference first-round playoff opener at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Staples Center. “Every time he talks, it’s as if he’s done it before. That’s always good for a young team that’s never done it before.”
  • Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle: It's about time this came to a head. Stephen Curry and Chris Paul have a long history of friendship, even living and working out together for a month before Curry entered the NBA, but the Warriors-Clippers rivalry has put a strain on their relationship. More than anything, it's still about respect - but there won't be a more entertaining individual matchup in the upcoming playoffs. By all measures, they are the two top point guards in the NBA, one of them likely to be a first-team all-league choice (conceivably, both could make it, although Houston shooting guard James Harden is a strong candidate).
  • Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman: Teams that play lax defense don’t last long in the NBA postseason. So as the Thunder awaits the arrival of the Memphis Grizzlies for what promises to be a bear fight of a first-round series, one question trumps all others. Can the Thunder flip the switch? Can the Thunder shake off the doldrums of a regular season that has grown long and irrelevant to a team that knows it has championship pedigree? Kendrick Perkins said he didn’t know. Scotty Brooks avoided the question. Kevin Durant said yes.
  • Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: It has been a frustrating ride that saw Wade miss 28 games this season, mostly for a maintenance program for his balky knees. And yet through it all, including being limited to a maximum of 24 minutes in each of his three games this past week, Wade believes he is in a better place than a year ago, when his knee issues had him out of the lineup just four games into the postseason. "It's a lot better than going into it last year," he said, with the team given Thursday off before beginning playoff preparations Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena. "Now hopefully move on from that, and have a better first round health-wise than I did first round versus the Bucks last year, when I had to miss that game up in Milwaukee. So I look forward to Game 1 and hopefully not having any setbacks."
  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: Gary Neal did his best Thursday to describe how different this will be for the seven Bobcats who have never played in the postseason. “It’s so different, first off, just because it’s the best 16 teams in the league,” Neal said. “Beyond that, the intensity is so different. Every possession, every shot, every turnover goes to another level.” Neal started talking about this shortly after he joined the Bobcats for the playoff push. He mentioned after one sloppy game that mistakes that might be acceptable in Game 57 of the regular season will get you beaten in Game 7 of a playoff series. That’s any playoff series, much less one against defending NBA champion Miami.
  • Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News: The Spurs have never been less reliant on one player. Indeed, they just became the first team since the ABA/NBA merger in 1976 to not have a single player average at least 30 minutes per game. (Parker led at 29.4.) If they go on to win it all, they’ll also have the lowest leading scorer of any champion since the merger. (Parker again, at 16.7.) But the Spurs also know that keeping Parker in one piece and productive is a top priority as their postseason begins on Sunday with Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against Dallas. “We’re going to need Tony,” Manu Ginobili said. Parker, who will turn 32 next month, actually played two more games than he did last season, 68 to 66. But despite his sixth All-Star nod, his latest campaign has been interrupted by a seemingly endless series of stops and starts. Between rest and injury, Parker was never available, let alone fully healthy, for more than 15 games in a stretch.
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: Allow Monta Ellis to step in as Mr. Sunshine. "The standings,” he said, “are zero-zero.” While it’s hard to argue with his Mississippi public schools education on that one, any unbiased person would look at the facts and determine that this is a mismatch of epic proportions. OK, Mark Cuban isn’t unbiased. And he doesn’t see it as a huge mismatch. But the owner knows what the evidence suggests. “We haven’t played well against them, certainly,” Cuban said. “But I just don’t think in general teams look at any other team as being unbeatable. I don’t think anybody’s afraid of anybody.”
  • Michael Lee of The Washington Post: John Wall used to scribble, “playoffs,” on his sneakers before each game to remind himself of the shared goal within the Wizards organization. The Wizards reached that goal two weeks ago, so Wall decided to go with a new slogan: “We made it.” The new message doesn’t reflect complacency or satisfaction with an accomplishment that’s relatively modest, considering the flimsiness of the Eastern Conference this season. To Wall, it’s a declaration of what the Wizards can accomplish by sticking together, sharing the ball and staying committed on the defensive end. “Playoffs was our goal as a team,” Wall said. “We made that part and now just put, ‘We made it’ on there and see how far we can keep going. See what the next step takes us.”
  • Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald: The playoffs are for superstars. When teams play seven games in a row, they quickly learn every play, every move, every adjustment. That's usually when the games come down to giving it to your best player and hoping the defense can't stop him. The Bulls had this last year with Nate Robinson. Now the offense requires precision. Set a screen for D.J. Augustin and hope the defender gives him room to shoot. Or get it to Joakim Noah and hope he can either drive and dish, or hit someone on a backdoor cut. It's certainly possible the Bulls could beat Washington in the first round and give Indiana fits in the second round. They'll just have to do it with a non-tradition style.
  • David Barron of the Houston Chronicle: The arrival of the NBA Playoffs means that things are about to get a lot tougher for the Rockets and a lot easier for some fans. The first four games of the Portland-Houston first-round series will air on TNT (Games 1, 2 and 4) or ESPN (Game 3), making them available to hundreds of thousands of local households without access to Comcast SportsNet Houston, the team’s primary regular-season network. Fan excitement already is building in anticipation of Sunday’s series opener, particularly in the wake of Thursday’s pronouncement by ESPN. ABC analyst and former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy that the Rockets are his pick to win the NBA Finals. “I’m going to pick the Western Conference winner, and I’m going to stick with Houston,” Van Gundy said.
  • Jason Quick of The Oregonian: On the court they have shoved each other. Exchanged words. Drawn simultaneous technical fouls. And each fouled out in the same game. Off the court, they have expressed opinions about the other’s actions, little of it complimentary. But behind the bravado and name-calling between Portland point guard Damian Lillard and his Houston counterpart, Patrick Beverley, lies a substantive matchup that could very well dictate this first-round playoff series. It’s strength versus strength, with Lillard’s explosive offense against Beverley’s tenacious defense. ... Who wins the battle for space and freedom will likely go a long way in determining who wins the best-of-seven series, which starts Sunday in Houston. “I’m looking forward to the challenge," Lillard said.

TrueHoop TV Live: After Dark

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
9:12
PM ET
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
ESPN.com
Archive
Get ready for the NBA playoffs! Join Amin Elhassan and friends at 10:30 p.m. ET for the latest edition of TrueHoop TV Live: After Dark.


Brett Brown's playoff preview

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
9:09
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The head coach of the 76ers expects a rematch of last year's finalists.

video

Penn Station: Thunder duo lack synergy

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
11:54
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
In a new feature, Penn Station, ESPN NBA analyst Tom Penn uses some advanced stats to show that Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook are fantastic, but lack a certain synergy typical of championship duos.
video

What the NBA can learn from other sports

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
10:50
AM ET
By Michael Regan
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
videoMichael Regan is the head of sports science at Catapult, an Australian athletic tech company.

Athletes can have all the desire, all the technical ability, all the intangibles, all the game metrics, but if they are physically incapable of performing to their potential, how good can they actually be?

This is where basketball, among other mainstream sports, can learn from others. This is where the war between old-school and new-school is being waged.

Australian Rules to live by

Australian Rules football is a free-flowing game with no offside and incredible demands on the players. Athletes regularly cover 10 miles in a two-hour game and are required to participate in full-contact tackling and bumping, jump repeatedly, sprint very often and do it all once a week.

The current leaders for distance per game in the NBA (Chandler Parsons, Jimmy Butler and Nicolas Batum) move at an average of 127 yards per minute of game time. When you factor in all the stoppages -- timeouts, free throws, etc. -- it’s closer to 80 yards per minute. An elite NFL safety playing both defense and special teams works at about 50 yards/min, including stoppages.

An elite Australian Rules athlete is required to work at 140-plus yards/min, including stoppages.

Yet, despite the high toll a game takes on the body, Australian Rules football was for a long while stuck in an “old school” way of training. Coaches knew that players needed to run long distances, so preparatory sessions sometimes involved running half-marathons. Benches were used only in emergencies.

For the better part of 40 years, these beliefs went unchallenged and teams progressively pushed their athletes harder. But the advent of athlete-tracking technology changed all that.

Data clearly showed that instead of a sport in which athletes run for a prolonged periods at submaximal intensity, it was actually a series of moderate, high- and very-high-intensity runs. The days of half-marathon training were over, and the days of high-intensity training, recovery strategies, new interchange/rotation strategies and “shock-horror” resting players had begun.

Introducing new substitution strategies and the increasing acceptance of player resting have paid major dividends in the sport over the past five to 10 years, so it was a welcomed sight for Australians to see those practices implemented by the San Antonio Spurs.

The more revolutionary idea still to be embraced in the NBA, though, is shifting the way elite players are substituted. Instead of the best athletes playing a 25-minute continuous period, then getting the last five minutes before the end of the quarter to rest, Aussie Rules teams started to look at what would give an athlete the best chance to repeatedly sprint. Which means resting the player often, for short periods of time. By playing in shorter blocks, their physical capability could be increased at the end of the game by as much as 20 percent when compared to longer rotation strategies.

While this method is hard for some athletes to embrace, teams had proof that their performance was better this way, pointing to their increased distances, higher percentage of work covered at high speed and their increased output on the traditional stat sheets.

As more teams caught on, a wave spread through the league, to the point where the governing body had to slow the game down to prevent collision injuries and level the playing field.

Too much practice makes imperfect

What Australian Rules football doesn’t have is the same schedule demand.

European soccer, though, is setup pretty similarly to the NBA, with its athletes required to play multiple games per week with little to no recovery in between.

In an average week you can expect a European soccer player and an NBA player to cover similar distances. Training time is also limited in both, as full practices are eventually phased out and replaced by shootarounds (NBA) and pregame warm-ups (soccer) for technical/tactical preparation.

But teams have begun to quantify the demands of these sessions, which have historically been viewed as very low-intensity work. In both sports, some have been shocked by the pregame workload on some of their athletes, with some teams and players participating in workouts that amount to playing a quarter of a game.

Tracking data has shown that time on legs has a tremendous load effect on the athlete. Taking lazy jumpers for an hour and walking through plays might not sound all that arduous, but it actually creates a larger load than anticipated. The athlete is better off doing shorter, more intense sessions, and then being given more time to work through their recovery, nutrition and rest protocols in preparation for a game.

But the leagues approach this problem differently. English Premier League (EPL) teams have an extensive series of monitoring programs and protocols in place to understand the physical, emotional and psychological profile of the athlete and use the full picture on athlete well-being to inform decisions on practice and game minutes. If a practice lasts for 60 minutes, elite players with heavy game loads might be required for only the core team drills and be on modified training for the other parts of practice.

The future of basketball

So where does that leave basketball? The answer to that is that it is evolving -- and quickly.

Should teams be shortening rotation length? Teaching players to use recovery time in game better? Limit practice minutes? Rest players? Accurately monitor true physical performance in games?

Whatever the answer is, teams need to realize there isn’t some magic solution. Every human is different -- from their personality to their injury history to genetics to tactical/technical ability.

The truth lies in the balance of objective numbers, subjective coaching and the knowledge of the person.

First Cup: Thursday

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
5:43
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune: There is no chance — zero — of Rick Adelman returning as Timberwolves head coach next season, according to one of the team’s decision-makers. Look for an announcement to that effect soon. Two college coaches mentioned as candidates to replace Adelman, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, aren’t likely to take the job because of their popularity and security at their respective schools. The Wolves could be a playoff contender next season with the personnel additions they made this year, but Izzo or Hoiberg probably won’t move unless offered a fantastic contract with big money. ... I still think Flip Saunders, Wolves president of basketball operations, wants to coach. Even though Taylor says he prefers to have the team president and coach be two different people, I think Saunders could talk Taylor into letting him coach.
  • Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: Nick Young has been coy the whole season about the meaning of his "Swaggy P" nickname, specifically the "P" part. Everybody will have to wait awhile longer, apparently. "I've got a book coming out in July," he said. "I'll let you all know." The book title? "The Mystery of the 'P,'" Young said, adding quickly, "Made that up just now."
  • Bob Finnan of The News-Herald: The Cavaliers’ franchise faces several major decisions this summer. None is bigger than the five-year, $80 million maximum extension the Cavs are expected to offer two-time All-Star Kyrie Irving. "Obviously, I’m aware I can be extended this summer,” he said after the Cavs’ 114-85 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on April 16 before 19,842 at Quicken Loans Arena. “It’s a big deal for me if they do offer me that. It will be exciting. I’ll make the best decision for me and my family. That’s what it will boil down to.” Irving doesn’t sound like someone who wants out. “I’ve been part of this, and I want to continue to be part of this,” he said. “We’ve made some strides in the right direction, especially as an organization. I want to be part of something special. I don’t have a definitive answer to that right now.” The offer is expected to come on July 1.
  • Michael Hunt of The Journal Times: Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry gave every indication that they are committed to keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee. The joyful reception they received in the BMO Harris Bradley Center atrium to announce the ownership transfer stood in stark contrast to the funereal atmosphere that enveloped the sale in 2006 of the Seattle SuperSonics to an Oklahoma City investment group. Contrary to what the new owners said that day, everyone in the room knew the Sonics were on their way out of Seattle. No one trusted the carpetbaggers who eventually rustled the team away. There was no such sensation after out-of-towners Edens and Lasry said they'd ante $100 million toward a place for the Bucks to play at least 41 times a year and concerts and shows to occupy another 200 nights in the building. There is no reason to doubt their sincerity at the moment.
  • Dave Dulberg of ArizonaSports.com: While the Phoenix Suns have made it very clear that re-signing Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker are at the top of their wish list this offseason, retaining the services of veteran forward Channing Frye is also a stated priority. After missing all of 2012-13 due to an enlarge heart, Frye became the only Sun to not only play but start all 82 games this season, averaging in 11.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in the process. ... Frye signed a five-year, $30 million contract back in July 2010, however the 30-year-old holds a player option for the fifth year worth $6.8 million. So the question is, will he pick it up this summer? "I don't know, you'd have to ask Channing," Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Burns & Gambo Wednesday. "We'd like to have him back either way. If he picks up the option, that's great. It's remarkable. He's going to be the one guy who is going to start every game for us this year."
  • John Reid of The Times-Picayune: Dell Demps declined to say specifically what areas he intends to address to improve the roster. But Demps did say he plans to be creative to add more talent around forward Anthony Davis, who emerged as an All-Star in just his second season. The Pelicans struggled to get a consistent effort at both the center and small forward spots. ... Demps said they won't pursue a maximum-money free agent like they did last summer with Evans, who agreed to a four-year, $44 million offer before the Pelicans acquired him in a sign-and-trade deal from the Sacramento Kings. ... Demps didn't rule out the possibility they could pursue trying to acquire a pick in the upcoming June NBA draft, which is expected to be one of the strongest in several years.
  • Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee: The season is over. Now on to to the top priorities for the offseason. That begins with Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas. Gay can become an unrestricted free agent by opting out of his contract that is due to pay him $19.3 million next season. Even if Gay does opt out, the Kings will try to keep him. ... Thomas will be a restricted free agent after the Kings make him a qualifying offer. Thomas can then sign an offer sheet with another team, which the Kings could match, or agree to a new deal with the Kings.
  • Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post: So you want to label the Nuggets 2013-14, ending with their first missed playoffs in 10 years, as a "terrible" season? Nuggets coach Brian Shaw won't go that route with you. "People can talk about the fact that we didn't make the playoffs. They can say we've had a terrible year," Shaw said. "I don't think we had a terrible year. We had an unfortunate year. We had to endure a lot of injuries. At the same time, there was a lot of positive that came from this year." Indeed, the Nuggets, who finished the season Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center with a 116-112 loss to the Golden State Warriors, won't actually go down as having one of the worst records in franchise history. The 36-46 mark was just kind of blah after the team won 57 games a year ago. The two overarching reasons for a below-average season are simple ones: injuries and effort.
  • Jody Genessy of the Deseret News: Utah's double-overtime victory at Minnesota was an exciting way to finish a rough 2013-14 season, but it might come back to haunt the Jazz a bit at the NBA draft. By virtue of Utah's win and Boston's season-ending loss to Washington, the Jazz and Celtics finished tied for the fourth-worst record in the league at 25-57. This means Utah and Boston will split their lottery chances, resulting in each team having a 10.35 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick and a 33.5 percent chance of finishing in the top three.
  • Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News: Greg Monroe admitted the chemistry wasn’t right with the players all season along, marked by the additions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, along with the integration of Andre Drummond to a full-time starter in his second season. Monroe but when pressed about what exactly was the issue, wouldn’t elaborate. “I would answer your question but I don’t want to go further than that.” Chauncey Billups has the ear of virtually everyone because of his status in the NBA and in a young locker room, while Smith has never been afraid to speak his mind. Whether Monroe truly wanted to say something when things began to go sour or not remains in his thoughts. “Negative comments always get more attention, or anything that’s slightly controversial,” Monroe said.
  • Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: The weeks and months ahead will be as important to the organization's future as the 82 games that were played. There is the June draft, in which the Sixers now have two first round picks and five second-rounders. There will be free agency, trade talks and competition in two summer leagues in which the new rookies and injured Nerlens Noel will give a sample of what next season may hold. "It is so complicated," Brown said of getting ready for the offseason. "I will be led by Sam [Hinkie, the general manager]. I've gone through a very system-oriented process for the past 12 years with an organization [San Antonio] that has proven that they've made way more good decisions than bad decisions. That is Sam's strength. I've got faith in Sam. It is a very large reason why I'm here.
  • A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com: Danny Ainge on trading Rondo who is set to be a free agent in 2015. DA: “Listen there’s no one person that’s more important than the whole organization. We need to be good because we all want to be good. I want my coach to stay, I want Jeff Green to want to be here, I want free agents that are out there looking at us play to want to play here. I want fans to want to come to the game, ya know everybody wants to win, but not just for one player, not just for one person. We all want to win and that’s what we are trying to accomplish."
  • Marc Berman of the New York Post: Mike Woodson said he still hopes to talk to Phil Jackson about remaining as head coach next season, but wouldn’t say if he will help the Knicks team president conduct exit meetings Thursday and Friday with the players. Woodson said he’d like to find out his status “soon” and he likely will in the next 48 hours. Woodson is not expected to be retained to finish the final year of his contract and almost assuredly coached his final game Wednesday in a 95-92 win over Toronto, going out on a four-game winning streak. That Woodson said he “won’t comment’’ on whether he’ll join Jackson for the exit meetings spoke volumes about his tenuous status. ... Woodson has one year left on his pact at about $3.3 million.

TrueHoop TV Live, 2 p.m. ET

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:58
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
It's the regular-season finale of TrueHoop TV Live! Join the conversation with Ethan, Tom and Amin at 2 p.m. ET.

Bogut-less in April

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
10:54
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Andrew BogutRocky Widner/Getty ImagesWith Andrew Bogut sidelined, the Warriors will need to alter their approach in the playoffs.
Warriors fans will grouse about what could have been against the Spurs last season in the Western Conference finals, but in reality, Golden State had no shot of winning that series. It wasn’t just because the Spurs were great, which they were and continue to be. It was because Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry were spent.

After the series was finished, both gingerly limped to their exit interviews. They had been pushing through searing foot ailments, buying breaks from the pain with injections. The end brought more relief than regret because there was little else to give. The end also brought hope, because imagine what this team could be at full health. Curry and Bogut might have walked like old men sauntering off into the sunset, but their pain-stricken accomplishments promised new beginnings.

Now we’ll never really know what this team could have been, as Bogut will be sidelined indefinitely. His ribs suffered the effects of what may as well have been the chestburster scene from "Alien." We might have an idea based on what transpired this season, but with Bogut out, we won’t see a fully realized Warriors squad in the playoff crucible. That’s a shame.

This isn’t like the time David Lee got injured in last year's playoffs. Carl Landry was a capable Lee understudy, and the Nuggets couldn’t punish Golden State for going small. The outlook is a lot bleaker this time around, especially if the Warriors face the Clippers.

DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin already had the ability to crush Golden State on the boards before Bogut went down. Now Golden State will be relying on Jermaine O’Neal, a solid backup but also someone who jumps once in the time it takes Blake Griffin to jump twice.

Matchups aside, it’s difficult to replace someone with a fair claim to “best defensive player in the conference.” O’Neal can replace some of that rim protection, but it won’t really be the same. Bogut is a bit of a contradiction because his fragility belies an intimidating presence on the court. He’s a confrontational shot-blocker, often latching an offhand paw on his opponent while spiking the shot back from where it came. His offense might be even scarier, as he sets the kinds of screens that would get him fined by Roger Goodell.

Bogut will do anything to win, personifying team play with his defense, passing and willingness to take on physical contact. But he doesn’t exactly fit the bill of “team guy” in sense of office politics. The Aussie is a bit of a loner in this setting, and he’s blunt with assessments of teammates.

In February, Bogut had a bizarre clash with coach Mark Jackson over whether the center had injured himself sleeping. While Bogut never openly criticized Jackson after the oustings of assistant coaches, his “He’s the coach. He makes the decisions. We’re not silly enough to believe anything else” comments didn’t exactly mirror teammates’ glowing praise of their embattled leader.

Now that embattled leader, someone who evangelizes on the benefits of off-court harmony, is tasked with proving that togetherness can compensate for the loss of a 7-foot mercenary. Jackson has an exceedingly tough job, but there are ways in which Golden State could pull off the improbable.

In yet another playoffs, the Warriors must shrink themselves in pursuit of an upset. Small ball worked against the Mavs in 2007 and against the Nuggets in 2013. The future looks grim in 2014, but at least there’s a general precedent for success. Here’s the blueprint for an upset.

Lee in his old Knicks role
[+] EnlargeDavid Lee and Stephen Curry
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe pressure is on David Lee and Stephen Curry to step up in Andrew Bogut's absence.

Lee, the occasional fall guy for GSW shortcomings, gets an increased role doing what he does best: slipping screens and diving to the rim as a small-ball center. This ultimately isn’t a sustainable way to go long term, but such lineups can put up points in the right situations. If Lee is healed coming off this latest back injury, expect him to perform well offensively in the playoffs.

More Draymond Green

Draymond Green should see more time, especially at the 4 spot. Jackson has already said that he likes the Lee at center, Green at power forward lineup and that he will use it in the playoffs. This look makes for an intriguing playoff experiment, especially if Andre Iguodala plays within it. Green and Iguodala have comprised a vicious defensive one-two punch this season. Can they do it with almost no rim protection in the background? The Lee-Green-Iguodala-Klay Thompson-Curry lineup held opponents to a stingy 89.2 points per 100 possessions over the 105 minutes they shared.

Jermaine O’Neal as Bogut facsimile

It’s the backup’s time to shine. O’Neal is Bogut’s opposite in terms of locker-room demeanor -- hand him a mike and he could be mistaken for Jackson’s agent. Now he has the chance to step up for his coach in a huge way.

The Warriors need O’Neal to be a hero, but to pull it off, he must cool it with the hero ball. O’Neal’s 2001 isolation post-ups are fine when he’s sharing the floor with Marreese Speights and Jordan Crawford. When he’s getting minutes with Curry, he needs to be more of a screener, less of a scorer. O’Neal doesn’t screen as severely as Bogut, preferring to evade contact and dive toward the rim. For the Warriors to score at a series-winning pace, they have to adjust O’Neal’s role.

Defensively, O’Neal is just fine. He’s not quite Bogut with the rim protection, but he’s not far off.

One big to rule them all

I’ve long been a proponent of “Bogut, plus shooters,” but the truth is that Golden State’s one-big lineups seem to thrive no matter who the big guy is -- as long as it isn’t Speights, I should say. It might be tempting for Jackson to use two traditional bigs against lineups of size, but Golden State cannot pull off an upset as a conventional, weaker version of itself. To win, the Warriors need to stretch and prod the opposition’s traditional approach.

Stephen Curry needs to do cool dribbling stuff and hit ridiculous shots

Duh.

It’s unfortunate we’ll never get to see that battered 2013 playoff team realize its potential in the 2014 playoffs. That hope is dead. In its place, the possibility remains that Golden State can once again shock the world. It’s unlikely, but it’s probably no more unlikely than Bogut finishing a season wire to wire.

NBA's worst-dressed coaches

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
9:47
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Henry Abbott and Amin Elhassan break down the the worst-dressed coaches in the league.

video

First Cup: Wednesday

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
5:47
AM ET
By Nick Borges
ESPN.com
Archive
  • Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News: The Nets (44-37) can still clinch the fifth seed with a win in the season finale Wednesday in Cleveland or a Wizards loss in Boston. But during a strangely defiant postgame press conference, coach Jason Kidd said for the first time that it doesn’t matter where the Nets finish. “Fifth, sixth, same thing,” said Kidd, whose team has lost three of its last four. “You know, we’re going to play Toronto or Chicago. You play 82 games to get a seed and we’ll be fifth or sixth.” Kidd said he’s still unsure who would play in Cleveland, but he seemed to go for it against the Knicks — playing Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson each at least 21 minutes before the bench filled in for an extended garbage time. Regardless, as Kidd noted, their first-round opponent will either be Chicago (48-33) or Toronto (48-33), who are competing for the third seed.
  • Al Iannazzone of Newsday: Tyson Chandler had high hopes for himself and the Knicks this season, but both failed to live up to their expectations. Chandler broke his leg in the fourth game, and never regained the form or mobility that made him the Defensive Player of the Year two years ago. As for the Knicks, Chandler couldn't -- or wouldn't say -- exactly what went wrong, but he knows something was missing. "It never felt right," Chandler said before the Knicks played the Nets Tuesday night. "In all honesty, it never felt right throughout the season. We had some bright spots but never where we were on the level that we should have been." The Knicks, who were eliminated from the playoff race Saturday night, play their final game of the season Wednesday night against Toronto. Then an offseason filled with questions will begin. Chandler is signed for one more season, and said he wants "to be part of this program," and that "the future is bright." But Chandler could be one of the Knicks' few trade assets.
  • Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News: Coach Gregg Popovich has backed away from previous jokes that he’ll be following Duncan out the door. And general manager R.C. Buford, who alongside Popovich and Duncan has helped establish the Spurs as one of the most stable organizations in North American professional sports, has every intention of overseeing the process. “I’m incredibly happy where I am,” Buford said. “If somebody tells me they don’t want me around here anymore, then I’ll have to worry about where I go next.” Buford’s comment was part of an extensive podcast with Grantland’s Zach Lowe, in response to why a team in a larger market wouldn’t simply throw a ton of money at he or former understudy Sam Presti, now the architect in Oklahoma City. But like many of his colleagues, particularly Popovich and Duncan, Buford treasures working in a smaller market where distractions from the task at hand — winning championships — are kept to a minimum.
  • Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald: James and Wade have played 1161 minutes together this season (well below last season’s 1932), making them the Heat’s ninth-most used duo. The Heat has outscored opponents by 6.3 per 48 minutes with James and Wade on court together, which ranked only eighth-best among the Heat’s 15 most-used tandems. By comparison, the Heat outscored opponents by a larger margin when James was paired with Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Chris Andersen or Rashard Lewis (but not Wade). Over their first three seasons together, the Heat outscored teams by 11.8 per 48 minutes with James and Wade on the floor together in 2010-11, by 13.6 in 2011-12 (best two-man pairing on the team) and by 13.8 last season --- much higher than the Heat’s overall plus/minus those years. The difference this season between the Heat’s overall score differential (plus 4.9) and the James/Wade one (6.3) was much narrower.
  • Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer: Clifford and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau worked together for Jeff Van Gundy with the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. If their teams aren’t mirror images, they’re certainly reasonable facsimiles. The Bulls have won eight of their last nine and are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the third-best record in the East. The Bobcats are 0-3 this season against Chicago. ... The Bobcats will either finish seventh in the East and be matched against the Miami Heat, or finish sixth and face the Toronto Raptors. Either a Wizards victory at Boston or a Bobcats loss to the Bulls locks the Bobcats matchup against the Heat. ... Clifford figures that however Wednesday turns out, the Bulls should sharpen the Bobcats’ focus. “This is a big game for them and they’re good,” Clifford said. “That’s exactly what we need.”
  • Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com: When asked today if the two needed to talk before the series began in order to clear the air, since all this was just a simple misunderstanding, Lillard rebuffed that notion. “I don’t think it’s necessary,” Lillard responded. “I don’t have no beef with the dude. He’s competing just like I’m out there competing and that’s it. There’s nothing to hash out because we’re not best friends. We don’t know each other off the floor. There’s nothing really to hash out. But I respect him as a player, but the radio and all that stuff, that’s not my style. It was unnecessary.” There’s clearly respect from both sides. Beverley was disturbed that Lillard didn’t give him his due credit as he made that clear in the radio interview. Lillard didn’t feel he was criticizing Beverley’s play with his comments, but contends that radio interview was over the top. He says this series isn’t going to be about them. He stresses it’s the Portland Trail Blazers versus the Houston Rockets. He wants to do his part to the best of his ability, but most importantly, he wants to get the win.
  • Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News: Fate has dealt the Mavericks a favorable set of cards. One of their primary stated goals — winning 50 games — coincides perfectly with their nobody-wants-to-say-it goal: avoiding San Antonio in the playoffs. They can accomplish both with one, final regular-season victory Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies. “Yeah, 50 wins is a great accomplishment in this league,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “I think we took 50 wins for granted a little bit there a couple of times when we just did it in a row a few times. We won 67 one year. You just think 50 wins is easy to get, but it’s really not. There’s a lot of good teams in this league that make you work. It means that you do a good job closing out games, especially on the road, finding ways to stick around and win at the end. That’s what this league is all about.”
  • Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail: Let’s try to play that one out at home. Mrs. Lowry: ‘What are we going to do with the dump-truck load of money you’re getting in July?’ Lowry: ‘What money?’ Lowry wants the money. He’s thought about the money (which will probably land in the $36 million (U.S.) over three years range), but he also wants to feel loved. That’s what they all really want – more than team pedigree or the chance to win. It’s a universal desire. The upcoming playoffs are not Lowry’s chance to win over Toronto. We’re past doubting. The playoffs are Toronto’s chance to prove it deserves him. “I’m happy,” Lowry says, trying to drill down to what this season means. “I’m not satisfied, but I’m happy.” That works for the Raptors as well. They should be happy with this season. Unless it’s capped by Lowry choosing to re-up in Canada, there is no satisfaction to be had from it.
  • Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: The Orlando Magic's game tonight at Amway Center will close their 2013-14 season. It also could mark the end of the team's Jameer Nelson era. Nelson might not be with the franchise next season. Although he's about to complete just the second year of a three-year contract, his salary for the 2014-15 season is only partially guaranteed. If the Magic waive him before July 15, the team would owe him only $2 million instead of $8 million. ... "I'm very cognizant it could be my last home game," Nelson said. "It's not up to me. It's up to the team. It's the team's option. I would like to still be here and finish my career here. I have a lot more years left in me. ..." ... A league source said the Magic haven't made a decision on Nelson's future.
  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: The Suns were a massive underdog to accomplish what they did this season, more than doubling victory expectations. The bigger upset might be which Suns player will be the only one to start every game of it. Channing Frye will start his 82nd game Wednesday night at Sacramento, completing an amazing journey of career restoration after an enlarged heart kept him from a year of basketball and most activities. Frye went from not knowing whether he would be cleared for this season to aiming for a December return to starting opening night and keeping the job. Frye, 30, will be the first Suns player to start 82 games in a season since Amar'e Stoudemire in 2009-10. Frye has never played an entire season in his eight-year career but did play 81 in 2009-10, when he was suspended for a game for fighting Danny Granger. After the ultimate health scare, he proved to be the sturdiest starter.

Nobody wants to be 'Most Improved'

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
10:49
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The Most Improved Player often goes to non-famous players, but according to Amin Elhassan, the award also never goes to the right player.

video

Better off Brook-less?

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
10:34
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Brook LopezNed Dishman/Getty ImagesBrook Lopez may be the Nets' best player. The Nets may also be better off without him.
Despite going 33-15 since Jan. 1, the Brooklyn Nets will end the 2013-14 season with a worse record than they had last season. Still, these Nets were a success. If this season’s team couldn't fully overcome a disastrous 10-21 start, it did accomplish something more meaningful than a higher seed: It found an identity.

Last season, the Nets were numbingly predictable. They routinely beat up on bad teams and faltered against tough competition. It wasn’t a question of character -- they played hard. For all of their veteran players, the Nets didn’t play like a clever, cagey team. Against the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, they were undone not by their willingness to battle on the boards with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, but by their inability to contain Marco Belinelli in the side pick-and-roll.

It wasn’t just the X’s and O’s. Last January, Howard Beck, then with The New York Times, wondered: “Who defines the Nets? Who is their driving force, their conscience, their soul?” In that same article, Beck referenced Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as players who offer their team definition. They stand for something, whether it’s Pierce’s pump-up-the-crowd bravado or Garnett’s manic intensity.

Now that Garnett and Pierce have joined the franchise, it’s hard not to notice the changed vibe in the Nets’ locker room. Before Deron Williams emerges from the showers, Pierce holds court, lobbing trash talk across the room at teammates, endearing himself to local media and fans with ready wit and a gravelly voice.

Garnett is something of a basketball mystic. In October he explained to reporters the benefits of a diversely talented team: “How you would write a story is different from how you would write a story or how this lady would write a story. You might be able to chug a gallon of milk quicker than she can. I don’t know. We all have our strengths, is the point I’m making.”

Brash, quirky and serious all at once. It’s that sort of vibe that connects the Nets with their fan base, as does a two-month home winning streak.

On the court, this comes through in the team’s unorthodox playing style: with a switching, reaching, deflecting defense (the Nets force turnovers more frequently than any team but the Heat and Wizards) and an offense that moves the ball and fires away from deep (the Nets have increased their 3-point attempts every month except one).

It’s that upward trend in 3-pointers and wins that reminds us of the elephant in the walking boot at the end of the bench. It’s working now, but the reality is this team wasn’t built with Pierce’s special brand of funky, stretch-4 hoops in mind. It was built for Brook Lopez, the best low-post scorer in the NBA.

Listed at 7 feet, 275 pounds, Lopez is a mammoth who almost always demands a double-team from 12 feet and in. Before he went down for the season with yet another foot injury, he had a 25.5 PER (which would rank seventh-best in the NBA) and career numbers in every meaningful offensive category. And at 26 years old, he’s still getting better.

But after breaking his right foot twice and missing 185 games in the past three seasons, it’s impossible not be skeptical about Lopez’s future with the Nets, especially with two more years and about $33 million left on his contract.

He was immensely valuable to last season’s squad, but removing Lopez from the equation this season clarified everything. Lopez is not a role player; he needs to ball to make a real impact. Even when he was playing well, catering to Lopez put players like Pierce in unfamiliar roles. All of Lopez's touches have been distributed among Nets shooters, while their big guards (Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston and Williams) take turns attacking mismatches on the low block Lopez used to occupy.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesSince Lopez's injury, the Nets have embraced the bravado brought by Paul Pierce and others.
Lopez’s injury also made way for Mason Plumlee. The rookie forward is the type of high-flying, tip-dunking, LeBron-blocking big man that perfectly complements the Nets’ switching defense. To get the most out of Lopez, a team must slow it down and really grind out games through the post. Plumlee is simply a better fit for how the Nets are playing now on both ends.

Things are going well, but the question persists, even on the horizon of another likely first-round series with the Bulls: How long can the Nets pursue their current strategy?

Their opponent on Tuesday, the New York Knicks, know what a delicate brew good NBA chemistry can be. Last summer they lost Jason Kidd to retirement and replaced Chris Copeland and Steve Novak with lesser shooters who have hardly played in the second half of the season. After winning 54 games and the East’s No. 2 seed last season, the Knicks this year will watch the first round from home.

There are no guarantees that Brooklyn’s current run of strong play will continue, with or without Lopez. The Nets aren’t exactly spilling over with young talent. Pierce and Garnett will be out of the league well before Lopez turns 30. Livingston’s injury struggles are well-documented, and Andrei Kirilenko hasn’t played 70 games since 2008.

The Nets could consider moving Lopez to upgrade their talent on the wings or improve long-term roster flexibility. Would post game-centric Denver be willing to trade Danilo Gallinari and a pick for a premier post presence? Would a couple of first-round picks get it done? The Nets have only one of those in the next three drafts.

When the Nets went “all in” by bringing in high-priced aging talent, the assumption was that Pierce & Co. were a luxury, but worth it. Overpriced, sure, but they would be a vital upgrade. Instead, they’ve contributed to a philosophical overhaul. In more ways than one, the Nets got more than they bargained for.

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