TrueHoop: Brooklyn Nets

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 Brooklyn Nets’ preseason slogan boasted, affirming the team was both all-in on its quest to win a championship and in Brooklyn for good. Now, the playoff slogan is “For Brooklyn,” demonstrating the team’s “pride” in its home borough, and the Nets' desire to win for their city. It’s a tough sell, since the team still practices and has its 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,” the Nets traded for Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They had 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 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 the Nets 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 Pierce to power forward. The change put a backup on a minimum salary in a rare spotlight, pushed a Hall of Famer with 15 years at one position to a brand new role and turned the Nets into a versatile “long-ball” team, firing 3-pointers at a higher clip and forcing more turnovers than any team in the league.

This season, the Nets went 10-21 in 2013 and 34-17 in 2014, losing only four of their past five games as Livingston sat with a toe injury. It seems crazy that the team played its best after losing its 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, who 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.

The Nets 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. They 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 nontraditional lineup in the new year dug the Nets out of an early-season hole.
The Nets 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. 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 second-year guard Tyshawn Taylor to “hit me,” which knocked his drink to the floor and gave 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 clichés as passive weapons in news 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 reimagining 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 at their best only after 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 partner at The Brooklyn Game. Follow him, @uuords.

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.

Shopping with the Big Ticket

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
3:26
PM ET
Serrano By Shea Serrano
ESPN.com
Archive
Writer and illustrator Shea Serrano and his collaborator, Sean Mack, put their spin on the NBA.

KG CartoonShea Serrano and Sean Mack for ESPN
Previously: Solve this puzzle, Sixers »

Hello Brooklyn? Are you there yet?

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
11:32
AM ET
By Jake Appleman
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Deron WilliamsElsa/Getty ImagesThe Nets finally have a team worth watching, but is anybody in Brooklyn seeing beyond the brand?
Tucked into one of the far corners of the Nets' lifestyle store on the concourse at Barclays Center is a rack of misplaced basketball uniforms: white Jason Kidd home jerseys from the team's New Jersey days. Surrounded by as many sartorial options as you can imagine being associated with one NBA franchise, the Kidd jersey, already marketed as vintage, calls back to a time when the Nets were little more than an unpopular basketball team with a beautiful fast break.

Now it’s hard to know what qualifies as the Nets. Brooklyn is still the chant. Brooklyn is still the buzz word, still the brand. When the home team obtains possession at Barclays Center, it is noted emphatically that it is “Brooklyn’s ball!” Brooklyn is told to stand up before the fourth quarter. Brooklyn is asked where it is at during timeouts.

Such localized promotion made sense in the franchise’s first season in the borough. The Nets’ roster was an overpriced collection of relatively anonymous personalities, which allowed for Brooklyn to become the overriding theme. In year two, the peddling of the Brooklyn brand has advanced beyond necessarily being bound by basketball.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekWith wins in 20 of their past 22 home games, the Nets are giving fans something to cheer about.
“People don’t have to be a fan of what happens on the court, but guess what: They wear our hats, they wear our jerseys,” Elisa Padilla, the Nets' senior vice president of marketing said. “We’re a lifestyle brand. We’re cool. We’re hip.”

This is strange thing to hear in late March, with Brooklyn’s team having won 14 straight games in front of the paying customers at Barclays Center. There are few cooler outcomes than having the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2014 (30-12 as of Monday), or responding to a lump-of-coal performance on Christmas Day by winning 21 of 23 at home.

The on-court product isn't without its flair, either. Funky, smaller lineups add entertainment value, mismatches wreak havoc and the Nets launch 3-pointer after 3-pointer with enjoyable nonchalance. In the locker room, there aren't many things funnier than Kevin Garnett calling Joe Johnson “Joe Jesus” after another late-game rescue job, or Garnett lustily talking about his jump shot like a booty call.

“I want it to be that when I dial it up, I want her to pick the phone up,” Garnett said after rediscovering his midrange game in a win over Golden State in January. “Tonight, I dialed and she was right there, answering like she’s supposed to.”

It doesn't get much better than Paul Pierce's noting that he’s been clutch since he was 2 years old or joking about shopping for mojo at Costco. Andray Blatche even dubbed himself “Young Seymour” because he wants you to "see more" of him.

The resurgence of Shaun Livingston and relatively seamless integration of Jason Collins are two examples of rare stories ingrained in the Nets' turnaround. Not many teams can lose arguably their best player to a season-ending injury and become, almost overnight, better and much more interesting.

From consistently blown out early in the season to dominant home team -- with a slew of lineup changes in between -- it seems at times like the only immovable aspect of the Nets is the Brooklyn branding. This is odd to observe because the way the Nets have won lately might have a dulling effect on the intrigue generated by their style of play and fun sound bites. Shooting the lights out early in games has inhibited the type of overall noise, rooted in momentum swings, that can energize a building. With their play practically encouraging fair-weather fans to check out merchandise on the concourse, the Nets haven’t trailed in the second half of 11 of their 14 straight home wins.

But these specifics are finite within the construct of a sport, a team and its evolving narratives. If any of the aforementioned storylines don't interest you -- and even if they do, really -- the Nets' marketing team would like you to latch on to a vague conceptual cool, in part because marketing the Nets is harder than marketing Brooklyn. Brooklyn has been told to stand up for decades now, and the consistent response, at concerts and in board meetings, has been vertical and affirmative.

The Nets’ play will unpredictably ebb and flow, and the basketball brand has less historical cache than the endlessly romanticized borough. To see it as something of a futuristic pie chart, a basketball team can’t always sell consumers (present and future) a positive reflection of themselves in the way that a nice hat can, even if basketball itself is one of the most historically organic things about the place that has been transformed into a brand.

That brand likely means something different to each Net, none of whom live in Brooklyn because the team’s practice facility remains in East Rutherford, N.J. Players readily accept the work identity, and team executives passionately note that there shouldn't be much different about the perception between some of the Knicks commuting into Manhattan from the suburbs and the Jets trekking out to the Meadowlands from Long Island. Except that the Knicks sell the Knicks and the Jets sell the Jets. These Nets commute from New Jersey or lower Manhattan into a still-developing alternate reality, one with a circular space-age scoreboard and enormous slices of cheesecake frequently taking center stage.

[+] EnlargeBrook Lopez
AP Photo/Seth WenigThe Nets were 12-4 in March without Brook Lopez, but the merch is still front and center in Brooklyn.
A New Jersey native who still lives in the Garden State, Padilla can relate, but she doesn't mind the dichotomy.

“The geographic location is neither here nor there for me,” she said. “I’m a true marketer.”

Despite internal discussions of pushing more Nets-branded merchandise in the future in place of borough-based swag, Brooklyn appears to remain the driving force of the brand for the foreseeable future. Padilla repeatedly noted that the Brooklyn brand is in its “infancy stage,” (part of a five-year plan hatched upon arrival), and that Brooklyn is the first priority from a marketing perspective, something to be grown no matter what happens on the court. The Nets’ playoff slogan per a press release sent out on Monday? "For Brooklyn."

“We’re still saying hello to people,” she said.

It would just be a shame, then, if the Nets’ 2014 on-court success, at times lost behind the ambiguity of a black-and-white promotional curtain and a cynical big-city news cycle, said goodbye before reaching the maximum number of basketball-inclined consumers.

Jake Appleman is the author of Brooklyn Bounce: The Highs and Lows of Nets Basketball's Historic First Season in the Borough.

Openly gay player not so distracting

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
9:35
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Jason Collins
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
In Brooklyn, Jason Collins is making history evidently without harming the team.


NBA front office people, even the ones who swore they were socially progressive, fretted -- in various unattributed conversations -- that if they signed an openly gay player like Jason Collins it might be good for humanity, but bad for the team.

Why? Because the issue of the gayness would be a distraction.

The real-life research into that assertion is underway in Brooklyn, and the early returns are that there was never anything real to worry about.

Stefan Bondy reports in the New York Daily News that -- while Collins has endured the taunts of one unnamed opposing team "knuckelhead," (in Collins' words)-- it's tough to make the case Collins' public sexuality has harmed the Nets in any way.

Still a fringe rotation player whose main job is delivering fouls, Collins’ No. 98 jersey became the top seller on NBA.com, even as the media attention has died down to the point that he’ll leave a practice or locker room without an interview request.

Perhaps more than anything, the blending in will be the lasting legacy of Collins’ trailblazing stint which was put off until after the All-Star break, in part because of fears around the league that he’d be a distraction.

The Nets (35-31) certainly don’t seem distracted. They’re 10-3 since signing Collins, winners of 10 straight at Barclays Center ahead of Friday's game there against the Celtics.

“Not just for myself, but I think for everyone. This shows that ‘distraction’ is B.S. That it’s about the team, it’s about the sport,” said Collins, who signed for the rest of the season last week. “I hope this shows all players that you can still have your life off the court and not have to hide anything. And still have your life on the court or on the field or on the ice, I guess, in hockey. That’s a credit to my teammates and the entire Nets organization from ownership to coaching to teammates to everyone.”

The Truth about it

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
2:38
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
How have the Brooklyn Nets turned a Brook Lopez injury into the East's best record since January 1? Tom Haberstroh points to the power of Paul Pierce.

video

Collins' extraordinary day, ordinary game

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
1:30
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Not 10 seconds into Jason Collins’ pregame news conference inside Staples Center, it was clear he was distinctly uninterested in answering questions about the historic and cultural import of the night. Collins had spent a good part of the day playing catch-up with the Brooklyn Nets’ coverage schemes and play calls, and the self-portrait he sketched sitting behind the low table inside the visitor’s hockey locker room was of a guy on a 10-day contract, and little more.

Collins made mention of his quality of life since he came out publicly last April -- Life is so much better for me -- but for the better part of 10 minutes, Collins spoke in largely clinical terms about learning the Nets’ playbook and his conditioning. He’s well aware that his game subsists on a diet of sturdy screens, pick-and-roll defense, guarding the post and issuing fouls as necessary. That’s stuff that requires mastery and 12 hours isn’t a lot of time to process.
[+] EnlargeJason Collins
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesKeeping Chris Kaman off the boards? All is back to normal in one sense for Jason Collins.

On the surface, Collins’ reluctance to acknowledge the symbolism of the evening seemed not so much disingenuous as a little distorted. But the thing you have to appreciate is that most well-adjusted gay people rarely think about their sexual identity in the confines of their job. Collins understood from the outset that the best way to service the cause was to play quality minutes as a backup big. He wants to prove that the NBA’s first openly gay player is on the court because he still has something left to contribute.

Collins’ pregame message turned out to be prophetic, because when he took the floor with 10:28 remaining in the second quarter, it was all about the basketball.

It was difficult to handicap going in how the Staples Center would react when Collins checked in. The Lakers crowd is composed of a lot of westside money and show biz pros, among the bluest voting audiences in the NBA. These are image-conscious people and it was easy to imagine that they’d shower a hometown guy who’d broken a barrier with a rousing standing ovation.

But those who wanted a sentimental, politically satisfying Aaron Sorkin screenplay instead got a grainy Frederick Wiseman documentary utterly devoid of drama. There was a smattering of supportive applause and a few standers, but many couldn’t be bothered to look up from their phones.

Collins then went to work and it was vintage unvarnished Collins. Nets coach Jason Kidd wanted a backup center who talked on defense, and that’s what Collins proceeded to do, calling out directions from the back line like a veteran big man. He fouled like crazy -- five in 11 minutes of court time. On the offensive end, he appeared rusty and his timing was off. He missed his only shot and fumbled a pass from Deron Williams while rolling to the bucket.

On the positive side of the ledger, Collins also plastered defenders with screens. After the game, he recounted with a broad smile his favorite moment of the night -- witnessing Lakers point guard Jordan Farmar kvetch to the officials that Collins was setting moving picks. For guys like Collins who perform janitorial duties, this is among the highest compliments.

How did it feel for Collins? It felt like I’ve done this thousands of times before. This doesn’t discount an enormous milestone for one of the last realms of American life where a gay man has to think twice about being himself. But if it seemed prosaic, that’s because it was.

And this is how we make sense of it: The context of Collins’ appearance tonight was a huge deal, even if the event wasn’t.

Jeremy Lin on Jason Collins: 'A big step'

February, 23, 2014
Feb 23
3:33
PM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
Archive


Two years after Linsanity, the month that took him to dizzying heights never before reached by an Asian American player in the NBA, Jeremy Lin offered his perspective on Jason Collins, the first openly gay player in the four major American professional team sports.

"I think it's definitely a big step," Lin said after the Houston Rockets' morning shootaround before their game at the Phoenix Suns. "The game is evolving. You see a lot of different people breaking barriers in a lot of different ways. This is just another one of those."

Collins signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. But Collins won't just be playing for the Nets ... or for himself ... or for his family. Collins now carries the hopes of the gay community with him, an additional responsibility that Lin handled as a representative for Asian Americans.

"It was definitely not easy," Lin said. "For me, if I didn't have faith, in terms of my Christianity, I'm not sure how I would have been able to handle it or understand it or process it. For me, I try to think of it as living or stewarding God's platform. That's kind of how I approached it."

Only a handful of reporters faced Lin as he spoke, a big drop off from the media throngs he attracted when he averaged 21 points per game at the height of Linsanity in February 2012. Lin is averaging 13.1 points per game in his second season with the Houston Rockets and recently moved to a reserve following the return of Pat Beverley from injury. Just as Collins will receive more attention than the typical player on a 10-day contract, Lin has found that he can't recede completely into the background.

"When I'm with my friends and family back home, it's as normal as it will ever be," Lin said. "But I think I'm getting used to a lot of the changes."

Monday Buzz Bullets

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
6:23
PM ET
By Staff
ESPN.com
EASTERN CONFERENCE

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Splitting the difference

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
11:12
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Shaun Livingston and Deron WilliamsUSA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesShaun Livingston has defied all expectations, while Deron Williams struggles to live up to them.
Almost seven years removed from the catastrophic knee injury that could have led to amputation, Shaun Livingston’s admirable, arduous transition from young phenom to wizened role player is the feel-good story of the Brooklyn Nets' season. Yet his bright play when all expectations of the once-presumed future superstar seemed to have vanished only underlines the struggles of the Nets' current superstar to live up to his massive contract.

Left for dead when Brook Lopez was lost for the season to yet another foot injury, the Nets are 14-5 since the calendar flipped to 2014 and have a realistic chance at snagging home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The positive momentum began with Livingston starting while Deron Williams recovered from a tweaked ankle. With his ranginess and vision, Livingston played a crucial role in the Nets' suddenly staunch defense, even taking on Kevin Durant when they beat Oklahoma City on the road at the end of January.

In reality, only Kevin Garnett has had a more positive on-court influence on the Nets than Williams, even during this hot stretch. But "more helpful than Shaun Livingston" isn't exactly what a team hopes for when they shell out a $98 million contract. Expectations frame accomplishment. It's flat out more fun to root for the best version of Livingston we've seen in a while than the current version of Williams.

Back in 2007, the season of Livingston's catastrophic injury, Williams was riding on the superstardom jet stream. In his first playoff appearance and just his second season as a pro, Williams led the Utah Jazz to the Western Conference finals, where he averaged 25.8 points and 7.8 assists in five games against the San Antonio Spurs.

If it now seems ludicrous that Chris Paul and Deron Williams were once destined to battle for supremacy atop Point God Olympus, remember that Paul still has yet to reach the playoff depths Williams did as a 24-year-old.

What has happened to Williams' game in his three seasons as a Net is both obvious and elusive. Injuries are mostly to blame; this we know. He has fought through a bum shooting wrist, and ankles that gave him so much pain he could barely get up and down the stairs of his apartment. But the dimensions of his injury history also resist our compassion. Williams' pains don’t stem from a hippocampus-searing incident that easily explains his struggles to any fan who has been paying attention. We rarely know as much as we think about the athletes we see everyday, but Williams is especially inscrutable.

You want to talk about injury stories that elicit empathy, talk about Shaun Livingston.

Despite the bad contract and disappointing record, Brooklyn fans want to embrace Williams. When fully healthy, he's capable of running the show like no other point guard in the East. Following a pain-reducing, platelet-rich plasma treatment around last year's All-Star break, Williams averaged 22.9 points and 8 assists on 62.2 percent true shooting percentage in the season's second half.

One can imagine Deron Williams, likable New York star. As he reminded Paul in December, Williams still has the nasty handle of a classic New York point guard. He lives in a fantastic penthouse apartment in fast-paced Tribeca rather than the more typical suburban McMansion. Since their adopted son was diagnosed with autism, Williams and his wife have become outspoken advocates for autistic children. Even his occasionally truculent relationship with the media is the kind of grouchiness New Yorkers can get behind. But the series of injuries that are just debilitating enough to hold him back, but not severe enough to keep him out, has made it difficult to form that connection with a fan base still figuring out who the Nets are and what they’re about.
[+] EnlargeWilliams
AP Photo/Kathy WillensHis play may not match the wild visions elicited long ago, but D-Will has fueled the Nets' bounce back.

Now, as the Nets claw their way to respectability, Williams' contributions aren't the story. He is not the most important player on his team -- that would be Garnett -- though he certainly makes them better. He's the proverbial 40-degree day.

Heck, when Williams was healthy enough to re-enter the lineup, he did so as a substitute so as to preserve the good vibes of the Livingston-led starting unit. Now imagine Paul ever, ever in a million moons coming off the bench for Darren Collison.

In the past week, there have been worrisome signs that Williams, who is once again starting and playing major minutes, hasn't shaken the ankle problems that prevent him from shaking defenders. Sunday against Detroit, on the second night of a back-to-back, Williams' movements were dulled. The unfortunate fact may be that Williams' ankles need the Dwyane Wade treatment: rest on back-to-backs and more than 32 minutes of action only on special occasions. Facing the Pistons' porous defense, Williams failed to record an assist in 25 minutes of play.

Meanwhile, Livingston has a career-best player efficiency rating of 14.3, which is slightly below league average. No matter. Livingston is triumphing over the image of him writhing on the hardwood in Los Angeles. Expectations frame achievement.

For Williams, nagging, debilitating injuries may have put his 2007 high-water mark permanently out of reach. No one expects the Nets to be in a conference finals, and rightly so. There's something especially cruel about his decline, how its subtlety resists a compelling narrative of redemption. Maybe that's why no one wants to talk about it.

Learning to love the Brooklyn Nets

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
10:58
AM ET
By Reihan Salam
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
NetsAP Photo/Kathy WillensYou can't buy love, not even in Brooklyn. But as one longtime resident says, the Nets are now theirs.
Before the Nets moved to Brooklyn, I knew almost nothing about professional basketball, or basketball in any incarnation. I understood that it was a sport in which tall people excelled, and as someone who stands well below the median height, I spent very little time playing it. I certainly remembered Michael Jordan from my youth, when his shiny head was all but unavoidable; as a dark-skinned man with a shaved head, I suppose I have him to thank for being so smooth and aerodynamic. And I was vaguely aware of an indestructible, headband-wearing man called "The LeBron," who for all I knew was some kind of myth or legend, like Sasquatch.

Yet when I first heard that a professional sports franchise was planning to move to Brooklyn as part of a multi-billion dollar real estate transaction, I was intrigued. The reason is that I am, and have long been, a Brooklyn nationalist. Marty Markowitz has nothing on me. When I get my facial tattoo, it will be a map of Kings County across my forehead.

If Brooklyn didn't have a team, I thought to myself, all of the other professional sports franchises in the world could burn to the ground. Though I was born decades after the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, I grew up with a sense that a grave injustice had been done to my city -- a crime that would one day be avenged.

In the 21st century, Brooklyn pride has become an irritating cliche. But in the 1980s and '90s, it meant something entirely different. It was about thumbing your nose at a world that didn't give us the respect we deserved. We Brooklynites were nobodies, treated as part of an anonymous expanse of mediocrity, crime and poverty ringing Manhattan's Emerald City. This despite our proud architectural and cultural heritage, and our history as a separate and distinct city that competed with, and often bested, New York until we were conveniently swallowed up in an 1898 election that was almost certainly rigged.

So how could I not love the Barclays Center, the beautiful alien vessel that is home to the Brooklyn Nets? For all my enthusiasm about the arena, basketball was still baffling to me as recently as this past offseason. I started to read about the Nets, and about the sports more broadly, when they first moved from New Jersey. Intellectually, at least, the game started to make sense. Professional sports are the way Americans talk about all kinds of things such as business, race, class and modern medical miracles. Reading about the Nets organization gave me some sense of what I had been missing by avoiding pro sports my entire life. Even so, my connection to the team was more intellectual than visceral. At my first Nets game, against the Orlando Magic almost exactly a year ago, I brought reading material, just in case I got bored. The game wound up being pretty fun, and the food was excellent. Even so, I wasn't quite hooked. I read an article or two amid the cheering fans.

I did, however, pay pretty close attention to the team’s activity during the offseason. I knew just enough about the NBA to know that the arrival of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett was a huge deal. Luring Andrei Kirilenko and two and a half legendary Celtics made the Nets’ Russian paymaster look like some kind of Svengali. A totally respectable team was now being discussed as a serious title contender. When one of my friends, a die-hard NBA fan, suggested that we buy half-season tickets, I decided to give it a shot. This team was destined to make noise, and I figured I ought to be a part of it. Another friend warned that just as the Lakers failed to build a superteam out of aging, dysfunctional parts last season, the Nets would disappoint. But if the Nets were truly terrible, I could still support the city I love while catching up on my reading and enjoying a wide array of gluten-free snacks.

Going to the games changed things. For whatever reason, I started thinking of the players as real people, and I couldn't help but root for them on a personal level. When Shaun Livingston, who suffered an injury that should by all rights have been career-ending, played exceptionally but unflashily well at the start of the season, it occurred to me that it must have been a pretty big deal for him. When he had a slump, I felt the sting. And when he came roaring back during Deron Williams’ most recent injury spell, I was happy to see that Livingston's feisty, intelligent play wasn't a fluke.
[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett
Jordan Johnson/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe ups and downs of two aging Hall of Famers is something any Brooklyn sports fan can relate to.

Garnett has had a storied career, and he could retire tomorrow and be extremely proud of all that he's accomplished. All the same, I imagined that he was plagued by the sense that his body and his instincts were failing him early on in the season, and I really wanted him to get his confidence back, not least because I'm keenly aware of my own aging. His explosive play the past few weeks have been a source of more fist-pumping excitement than I have any right to expect.

My Celtics fan friends had always boasted of Pierce’s loyalty, so I knew that he’d struggle to find a place on a new team. His bad days became my bad days while his flashes of brilliance gave me an adrenaline boost. I couldn't identify with Joe Johnson, who seems almost supernaturally cool, but I was glad he was there to be a steady, solid performer even as the rest of his team flailed.

Then there were the players with something to prove, such as Mason Plumlee, who became another bright spot during some of the more dismal stretches of the season. You could tell how proud he was of making a name for himself. Andray Blatche has been making a fool of all who've doubted him. Apart from hitting a healthy percentage of his attempted 3-pointers, Mirza Teletovic laughed in LeBron James’ face (“I grew up in the middle of the Bosnian civil war, son.”). Not only is Teletovic thrilling Brooklyn fans, he’s putting his home country on the map, which has to be a huge source of pride. And though Alan Anderson isn't necessarily great at pro basketball, his eerie resemblance to Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan is enough for me. This could be the most lovable team in the NBA.

Then there is the raw power of being in an enormous room full of people shouting “Broo-klyn” at the same time. These are my people. Yes, our team has been pretty terrible until recently. Yes, we have the worst mascot in the NBA. But whether it’s fans from the Jersey era who've stuck with the team or former Knicks fans who are sick of Jimmy Dolan and want to give Brooklyn a shot, or people such as me who are still extremely confused by foul calls (I do know that the refs are always biased against us), we’re sharing in this crazily intense collective energy. It is weird, and it is glorious. When I'm not at the games, I’m checking the score. And when I go to the games, I’m leaving the reading material home.

The NBA's "global money machine"

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
1:49
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
In Forbes' 2014 ranking of team values, the NBA is said to have become a "global money machine," with almost every team making money and franchises like the Knicks, Lakers and Bulls worth more than a billion dollars each. Editor Kurt Badenhausen explains.
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10 Things To Know: Christmas games

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
4:36
PM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
"I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game.” -- Stan Van Gundy

Despite concern among the mustachioed and unmustachioed alike, the NBA's Christmas Day lineup has become a holiday unto itself.

With football occupying a large portion of the viewing public's attention as the calendar year winds down, the first month-plus of the basketball season tends to be more of a warm-up for most. Christmas Day, then, has become something of an unofficial start to the season for late arrivals over the past few years, and the league has welcomed all with open arms by providing a smorgasbord of premier, nationally televised matchups.

To prepare for the full slate at hand, here are 10 things to know about the 10 teams hitting the NBA hardwood on Dec. 25.


1. The Kobe-LeBron rivalry is over before it began

The puppets are always the first to know.
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In 2009, just before LeBron James officially established his MVP bona fides and Kobe Bryant proved himself on a championship stage without Shaquille O’Neal, their clash over the same rarefied air space defined the NBA. James’ Cavaliers and Bryant’s Lakers were emerging as the league’s controlling elite, and with the two seeming predestined to meet in the NBA Finals at some point in the near future, if only because we deserved such a matchup from the basketball gods, Nike launched an ad campaign featuring plush likenesses of the All-Star wings sharing the same apartment to capitalize on the momentum.

But arguing over excess chalk dust on their Muppetized loveseat likely will be the only important postseason meeting between the two in their careers. What at one point seemed an unavoidable collision course turned into two highly accessorized ships passing in the night. Their seven-year gap between human and basketball years simply led to unparalleled peaks, and now what we’re left with to show from all the debating, hyping and hoping, besides the residual effects from the careless rearing of poor Lil’ Dez, are two Christmas Day blowouts in favor of James’ team, in 2009 and 2010.

The appetite from the league at large, though, remains unsatisfied. Why else would Heat-Lakers be plopped on the schedule this offseason right in the middle of Bryant’s recovery from an Achilles injury, instead of, say, Heat-Pacers? If market size does indeed matter so much, why not choose the Los Angeles team contending for a title?

Given James and the Heat's otherworldly production and Bryant and the Lakers' current struggles, both physically and personnel-wise, the rivalry that figured to end as an all-timer will never be the same, even if what we got never seemed enough.


2. The master

Twenty-eight is old in basketball years, but Chris Paul has probably seemed that way for some time now. LeBron James is 28, too, but his mass appeal keeps him at the forefront of the youth culture, even amid all that family-man branding. Blake Griffin (24) and DeAndre Jordan (25) feel like they’re decades apart from their point guard. In his own way, the reserved Kevin Durant (25) does, too. There’s always been an extreme poise emanating from Paul, whether it’s assuming control of the offense by sheer food-chain protocol or wrangling his chubby-cheeked son in the Clippers’ locker room. Even at his flashiest, knifing through lanes with precision dribbling, it’s all about seizing complete control.
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Indeed, Paul can dazzle, but he’d rather pull it back and process a situation. While centers stretch out to the arc and coaches push the pace to Ferrari-like speeds, Paul is content in his Volvo, getting exactly where he needs to go without any complications.

But with a roster built to get up and down more so than in his previous two seasons in Los Angeles, Paul has had to soup things up a bit. After playing at the 25th-fastest pace in his first season and the 19th-fastest in his next, Paul’s Clippers now rank eighth, among the Houstons and the Denvers. That plus the added slack taken on after the injuries to J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes have led to a hit in his shooting numbers, which surely nags him, but he’s never been more efficient as a Clipper, and most of his other stats are up (rebounds, assists) or near highs (points) for his stint in L.A., too.

The proliferation and growing public consumption of analytics only deepen the appreciation for the decidedly old-school game manager. The passing data from the SportVU tracking system is a virtual shrine to his mastery of the position: He leads all others in assists per game, total assists, secondary assists (tied), assist opportunities, points created by assists and points created by assists per 48 minutes. There’s only one other category, passes per game, in which he ranks second.

What’s old is new again, or maybe it’s the other way around. But the Clippers are looking forward again after some early hiccups, and Paul is again on track to finally capitalize on the window he has in his prime years, however long it may last.


3. A pair of aces
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Each cut to the rim, each stroke on his wizardly mane, each up-and-under move to draw a foul will probably always sting a little back in Oklahoma. There's no replacing a James Harden, even if the kiddies being groomed in the second unit are beginning to look like important pieces in the Thunder's championship quest. But the two dynamic superstars still lurking on the wings certainly haven't slowed down in their sixth season together.

According to our friends at ESPN Stats & Info, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are currently the highest-scoring duo in the NBA for the third consecutive season, with 49.7 points per game between them. Only four other duos in league history have accomplished that for three straight seasons or more, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen the last to do so from 1989 to 1993 with an NBA-record four.


4. It’s gotta be the sleeves?

First, a few words from LeBron James on the shimmering, Y2K-influenced sleeved jersey each team will don for Wednesday’s five-game slate, via the Miami Herald’s Joe Goodman:
LeBron said in pregame that the Heat’s shooters “are already upset about” the Christmas jerseys.

LEBRON: "I can’t have my shooters out there worrying about some sleeves and not shooting the ball."

Shooters are a neurotic bunch. Ray Allen, the greatest long-range threat in history, is more programmed than any player at this point: He follows the same warm-up routine, eats the same pregame meal, shaves his head at the same time. He once told Jackie MacMullan that he has “borderline OCD.” Anything that alters that ritual could pose an issue, and imagined or not, those teeny compression sleeves present just enough foreign element to unravel what is largely a life of repetition for the modern pro basketball player.

The Warriors, then, would be among the teams most likely to feel such an effect. Golden State has built its brand around its deep shooting, and currently ranks second in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage and among the league leaders in percentage of shots taken from 3.

But after serving as the lab rats for adidas’ grand sleeved experiment last season, the Warriors have sported white, home jerseys with the new look and shown no apparent ill effects from it. In the four games they’ve broken out the sleeves in 2013-14, the Warriors have shot 46.5 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from 3, which is right on par with their season averages of 46.2 and 40.2 (and among the more ridiculous stats ever published).


5. An exercise in sadness, Part A

Brooklyn knew it was operating without a net. You don't hand out draft picks like grocery-store coupons without feeling the pressure, the doubt of it all, even with all those barrels of cash to wipe your brow. And somehow, that self-awareness only makes the crash landing of the Nets' championship hopes, all the way down to fourth from the bottom in the putrid Eastern Conference, that much more gruesome.

Here's a look at all the grim and grisly carnage thus far.







6. Behold: The Sultan of Swag

At this point, Kobe Bryant’s snarling underbite is a tradition that ranks right up there with the more menacing characters of Christmas-season story time. The 17-year veteran has played in more Christmas Day games (15) than anyone else in NBA history and has accumulated the most career Christmas points (383). Really, what use is a Christmas ham these days without a dozen contested midrange J's to go with it?
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This year, though, your yuletide bombardiering will come not from the itchy trigger finger of Bryant, who is expected to miss five more weeks with a knee fracture, but courtesy of the “Swag Mamba,” Nick Young, who in his first season with his hometown Lakers enters the Christmas spotlight for just the second time.

The cockatooed sixth-year swingman certainly lacks the gravitas Bryant brings these days, but any game that prominently features Young, a smiley SoCal native with the O’Doul's version of Kobe’s skill set, is something of an impromptu field day -- all fun, all the time.
And with Bryant again aching, there’s been more Swag Time than ever: Young, whose shot selection ethos befits an “If it fits, I sits” cat, leads the Lakers in attempts (16.3) and points (21.3) in three games sans Bryant, and has even been given spot duty at the 1 for the point guard-depleted Lakers despite one of the very worst assist ratios among small forwards.

So, another LeBron-Kobe clash may not be in the offing, but these modern-day Lakers are a special kind of “Showtime” with the blissfully oblivious Young as their guiding force. Expect enjoyment, if not fierce competition, to ensue.


7. Welcome back, Dwight Howard

Anyone who has ever had to procure a postgame quote from Dwight Howard wouldn’t be surprised that the All-Star big man needed time to do anything, but 20 months and three teams after undergoing back surgery, the now-28-year-old center is beginning to look as close to his heyday as he may ever get.
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Smart people across the Interwebs have discussed the progressive tactics the Rockets’ offense has employed to great success, and amid the revolution, the back-to-the-basket big man Daryl Morey nabbed from the Lakers this past summer is having his best month offensively since April 2011, with 21.2 points on 62 percent shooting, 14.5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 60 percent free throw shooting (!) and 100 percent 3-point shooting (!!) in 35 minutes over 11 December games. The Rockets have five more games on the slate before the new year, but the only thing close to that since he wore out a FastPass at Disney World was a torrid eight-game April (20.9 points, 61.1 FG%, 10.5 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) to push the Lakers into the playoffs.

Outside of PER, virtually all of his advanced numbers on the season are better than they have been since 2010-11, and while he’s no longer the pre-eminent rim protector in the league, he’s become a force again in the paint on both ends of the floor. It seems the four-out, one-in approach on which he thrived in Orlando and now is again (to a certain degree) in Houston is more to his liking than blowing off pick-and-rolls. A happy Dwight is indeed a productive Dwight.


8. An exercise in sadness, Part B

Need another downer while the yuletide joy is flowing?

Facing off against the Nets on Wednesday will be one of the few teams that can feel them in all their catatonic pain, the Chicago Bulls, who have wandered the earth aimlessly after losing Derrick Rose once again.






9. Melo has Durant’s number

It’s quite fitting, given this fever dream of a Knicks season, that Carmelo Anthony joins their Magna Carta-length list of question marks with a bum left ankle right before they need him most. The Knicks obviously rely on Anthony and his 26.3 points per game; his 28.9 usage rate is fourth-highest in the league; and he's one of the team's few major contributors with a plus/minus better than minus-1 on the season, per NBA.com/stats.
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But while Kevin Durant and the Thunder roll into Christmas Day as the most imposing challenge in the league right now, they present the Knicks with one of their best chances yet of obtaining a first big win of the season -- if Anthony is active.

Despite the Thunder’s dominance of late, in the 12 games Anthony has faced Durant over the past seven years, the elder Melo is 11-1, according to Elias, with the lone loss coming in double overtime when Anthony was still on the Nuggets and the Thunder didn’t yet exist. In those matchups, Anthony, currently the No. 2 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 30.2 points on 50.2 percent shooting, while Durant, currently the No. 1 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 26.8 points on 42.4 percent shooting. It should be noted, though, that Anthony has played Durant just once in the past two seasons.

Of course, all of that may not have mattered even if Melo were the pinnacle of physical health: The Knicks (9-18) are 0-8 against the Western Conference this season; the Thunder (22-5) are 7-1 against the Eastern Conference.


10. Pop or Scrooge?

Who said it: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 rendition of “A Christmas Carol”?

A.) “I want some nasty.”

B.) “You’ll want the whole day off, I suppose.”

C.) “Happy? I don’t know how to judge happy.”

D.) “We didn’t send mariachi bands or birthday cards or breakfast in bed.”

E.) “It’s all humbug, I tell you, humbug.”

Top Offseason Moves

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
12:13
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Last summer it looked like the Rockets and Nets had won the offseason. Amin Elhassan explains that now we're seeing teams in action, the Mavericks, Celtics, Suns and Pacers are among those looking smart.

How the Knicks and Nets are failing

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
1:33
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
By shooting from the hip in making key decisions, Amin Elhassan says the Knicks and Nets sowed the seeds of their own demise.

 

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