Sunday, January 26, 2014

NTO Mailbag: Turnaround, the Future, and Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson of the Brooklyn Nets

Thank you everyone who submitted questions for our weekly mailbag! We've selected five of them for our Starting Five to tip-off the week with. As always, if you'd like to put forth your own opinions feel free to do so in the comments section below.

1) What was the turning point to our success in January? - Dawn Risueno

Malcolm - It's a lot of things. It's the return of Andrei Kirilenko. It's the fact that Jason Kidd has actually been given the chance to be the sole leader of this team. It's the defense (106.7 points allowed per 100 possessions before January, 101.5 since). It's guys like Shaun Livingston, Mirza Teletovic, and Andray Blatche settling into their roles and performing them stunningly. It's the fact that the Nets are finally playing as a team (20.4 assists per game before January, 22.1 since). It's the fact that the Nets have kept opponents' shooters in check (Klay Thompson 14 points, Ray Allen 2-14 shooting, Kyle Korver 1-9 shooting, J.R. Smith 4-12 shooting, Arron Afflalo 11 points, and Dirk Nowitzki 5-15 shooting). It's Kevin Garnett finally finding his shot. It's Joe Johnson putting the team on his back. It's Deron Williams accepting a (for now) bench role to keep the team's chemistry going. It's a lot of things.

Sam - The turning point to our success was the resurgence of Kevin Garnett and Shaun Livingston. We all know the talent that Joe Johnson has, but these two ballers have stepped up big time. Livingston is a catalyst on offense while Garnett is proving to be an effective center.

Ed - I'm not sure I can point to one specific thing as the turning point. If I had to choose something, though, I'd say the OKC game. This January has been an exact replica of last January. They got embarrassed by the Spurs in San Antonio on New Years Eve two seasons in a row and then they shock everyone and beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City on January 2nd two years in a row. It's something about playing the Thunder that turns the Nets around completely, so that's what I look at as the turning point. Something else that I think has been a difference-maker is the play on the defensive side of the ball. The Nets of November/December didn't know what defense was, but now that Jason Kidd has the team playing intense lock-down defense, they have hit a huge stride.

Kyle - There are many factors for the Nets success, including the much improved play of Shaun Livingston (8.5 points per game, 2.8 assists per game, 4.5 rebounds per game since 2014 began), Joe Johnson’s six-game stretch where he was flat out dominant, averaging 24.5 points on 51% from the field, and coach Jason Kidd deciding to ditch ties on the sidelines. All things considered, I feel Kevin Garnett has been the biggest factor in turning it around. Before the flip of the calendar, Garnett averaged 6.5 points per game on an abysmal 36% shooting. He looked old, slow, and like he had nothing left in the tank. However, when the new year started, he looked like a new man. He’s averaging 8.6 points per game in 2014, while almost doubling his shooting percentage (67%), while also looking miles better on the defensive end.

Ali - Pin-pointing an exact moment to claim as the turning point is a bit difficult. The team has improved in a lot of aspects since the start of 2014 that has helped them on this recent winning streak. The confidence level is incredibly high and nearly everyone has shown they are capable of stepping up. If I had to narrow it down as best as I could, I'd say it was sometime between the blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs and the win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Something about those two games changed this teams' confidence levels, their defensive demeanor, and the play of many of the players.

2) Is Joe Johnson an All-Star this year? - Dan

Malcolm - No. As much as I'd like to see it, there are definitely more deserving guys. Despite his recent hot streak and constant clutchness, his stats on the season aren't that great: 16.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 44.8% shooting. There are certainly more deserving guys out there. John Wall: 20.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists. Arron Afflalo: 20.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 46.7% shooting. DeMar DeRozan: 22.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals. Lance Stephenson: 14.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 49.1% shooting. My picks for the two guard reserve spots would have to be Stephenson and Wall. There are also two wild card spots, which would have to go to Afflalo, DeRozan or even Kyle Lowry (16.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.5 threes) before Joe.

Sam - Joe Johnson is an all-star this year. Though he might benefit from a depleted Eastern Conference it is imperative to note that Johnson is averaging 22 points in his last seven games and since his improvement the Nets have become a playoff team. Moreover, since the fall of Brook, Johnson has become the focal point of the offense. Oh and by the way, are we going to totally ignore the fact that he is undoubtedly statistically (wow, a lot of adverbs) the most clutch player in the NBA.

Ed - That's a tough one. I want to say a definite "yes," but I can't do that. He hasn't been one for the full season to this point. He has had his moments where he shows that he should at least be in the All-Star conversation, but then he has games like he did against Dallas where he just doesn't show up at all. If I were to base his selection on his numbers in January alone, I'd say yes. He's averaging 17.6 points on 47.5% shooting this month. Those are good numbers, no doubt. I'm just not sure this one month of good basketball can put him in the All-Star game. Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kenny Smith disagree with me, though. They all have him slotted as an All-Star reserve.

Kyle - I don’t think Joe Johnson is an All-Star this year. Despite his incredible recent scoring stretch, he’s been too inconsistent to make the All-Star team. Nine times this year he has failed to reach 10 points, five of them coming in consecutive games. Besides, there are too many other deserving guards in the East. You have to figure John Wall has one East guard spot locked up, which leaves one other guard spot open along with the two wild-card spots. With guys like Kyle Lowry, Aaron Afflalo, DeMar DeRozan, and Lance Stephenson all deserving, there’s just not enough room for Johnson.

Ali - It's not a certain "yes", but more of a borderline "yes". I know the TNT panel of Shaq, Barkley and Smith all believe he should be get in as an All-Star reserve, but it's not really fair to give him that slot solely based on his recent performance. Yes, his play before was hindered by being the number two or three option early in the season and yes he's thrived recently as the focal point of the offense, but the stretch of great games as been just a bit too small of a sample size. There are other players who have also been playing well all season that could deserve nods (John Wall and Lance Stephenson come to mind). While I'd love to see him get selected as an All-Star for the seventh time, he's right on the border, and a few more weeks of solid play would push him over.

3) I'm not exactly sure what the contract situations and salary cap numbers boil down to because I can't predict the future for the off-season but I think we need to do everything we can to keep Andray Blatche. Do you guys think we should keep Blatche and if so, what kind of contract does he deserve? - Jesse Jobin

Malcolm - Blatche actually has a player option next year for about $1.4 million. I really have no idea if he is going to be interested in taking that, but if he declines, I would support Brooklyn going out and giving him another contract. Pierce's big contract is up after this season and he likely won't be back, but it's not really like Prokhorov cares about money anyway. I could see him getting an extension for something like 3 years and $15-18 million. Probably a bit more. I'd love to see him back though. A deep playoff run could convince him to take the option.

Sam - Keeping Blatche seems pretty essential at this point. He's an instant offense player that can provide a spark when the team is down and out of it. Though his antics can be frustrating and though he might be too much of a ball hog, he is necessary for this team given this roster. I think he deserves about 6.5 million a year. Hopefully he'll give the Nets a break given the fact that general manager Billy King has completely revitalized his career. Also, have I mentioned that he's been making millions every year from the Wizards since getting amnestied.

Andray Blatche of the Brooklyn Nets takes a jumperEd - I think the Nets absolutely need to keep Blatche. This is a man who was on the verge of being out of the NBA completely, but came to Brooklyn and proved that he belongs in the league, and he belongs with the Nets. Luckily for the Nets, they have his bird-rights when he expires. That means they can go over the salary cap to sign him. What does he deserve? I'd give him a 3-year deal for around $11M per year. I'm hesitant to go higher because of what happened the last time he signed a deal for a large sum. He signed the big contract and then took advantage of the security, eventually leading to him being amnestied by the Wizards.

Kyle - I also think the Nets should do everything they can to keep Andray Blatche. Outside of the always enjoyable moments of “Blatcheness”, he has been a very solid piece for Brooklyn. Blatche has stepped in admirably for Brook Lopez since the injury, which he attributes to greater confidence. The Nets also should be able to retain him for cheaper than market value. The Wizards still owe him money due to the amnesty provision they used on him, and he said last offseason he’d be willing to take less money so the Wizards would have to pay him more. I don’t see why he’d change that mindset after one season, but with #pointblatche, you never know.

Ali - The way he's been playing, the way he's revived his career after being wanted by almost nobody, I'd say retaining Blatche should be high on the Nets list. Money is not really a problem for the Brooklyn Nets, as they've so generously shown us with the payroll this season, so that likely won't be too big of a factor when considering how much tax the Nets would have to play. What he deserves depends a lot on if he's able to keep up this play. I'd say a $23 million, three-year contract would suffice. We wouldn't want to pay him too much, because despite all that's happened, he's still the back-up center.

4) Do you think we play better without Brook Lopez? Rebounding has been a concern for us but ever since he got hurt, it hasn't been much of a concern anymore... maybe trade him? - Jonathan Aviles

Malcolm - No way. The Nets are actually worse in rebounding since Lopez went down (40.6 per game with, 38.7 without). Just because Lopez's individual rebounding numbers are low for a 7-footer doesn't mean he doesn't contribute to cleaning up off of the boards. His back taps are severely underrated; he helps keep a lot of possessions alive for the team. As for trading him, that's probably the most unlikely move the Nets could make. After declining to give him away for Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum when he was still good, and a slew of first round picks, it's clear that the franchise is heavily invested in this guy. With his injured status, his value is also significantly lowered; Brooklyn wouldn't even get a good return on him. When he returns next year, they just need to make sure they're using him right. The offense can't revolve entirely around him, it makes the game too easy for opponents.

Sam -  I really like Brook Lopez. Though he isn't the smoothest player on the court, he is as effective as it gets. He's over 7 feet tall and he can score basically at will. Still, I can't help but think that trading him is completely necessary. The team can totally function without him, he is due a lot of money and he also has recurring foot problems. The third point I just made should be repeated again; he has recurring foot problems! Remember Yao Ming, Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, all 7 footers who looked like they were going to have promising careers until they were derailed by foot injuries? Well that is what we might have here folks. Trade Brook Lopez and let's get some picks and younger talent.

Ed - No chance Brook gets traded. His value isn't high now, anyways. The reason the Nets are playing better without him is simply because he isn't parking himself down low and demanding the ball. With him out, the ball moves much better and that leads to easier shots. His lack of rebounding isn't because he doesn't know how to rebound. He can rebound the ball, and we saw that in his first two seasons. His problem is that he focuses too much on boxing out his man so that the other guys have space to rebound the ball. It's him being selfless. He rebounds when he needs to. 

Kyle - I don’t think the Nets are better without Lopez. As I said in last week’s mailbag, I feel that Brooklyn has found an identity on offense, and that has contributed to the great play more than the Lopez injury has. Also, as many have pointed out, Lopez is a very underrated rebounder. Despite the low numbers, he was a huge force in the rebounding department. About a trade possibility: trading him right now makes no sense. His value is at the lowest its been, and the goal of a trade is to sell high, not low.

Ali - Trading Brook Lopez is on the list of "things least likely to happen". The team has invested too much into him, he's performed at such high-levels and he's been able to do so consistently game after game. Have the Nets been playing better without Lopez? At this point yes, mainly because now they're being forced to move the ball rather than dumping it off to Brook. As mentioned last week, ball movement can thrive with Lopez, it's just that the Nets did not do it. As for the issue of rebounding, the Nets have declined a bit on the rebounding edge without Lopez (see Malcolm's answer). While his individual numbers are not the best, his back-taps and box-outs help other players on the team recover the ball.

5) If they continue to win, when is the best time to start [Deron Williams]? Livingston is a problem for other teams. - Shameer

Malcolm - I'd support putting him back in now. He's looked sharp since his return (18.5 points, 7.7 assists, 46% shooting). I'm sorry, but Alan Anderson does not belong in the starting lineup. As I said in last week's mailbag, the starting five should be Williams - Livingston - Johnson - Pierce (or even Mirza Teletovic) - Garnett.

Sam - I would look to move Deron into the lineup once Alan Anderson cools off. As we've seen in the NBA two point-guard lineups can work and be incredibly effective. Livingston is tall and long enough that he can guard many shooting guards and some small forwards. I would like to eventually see a lineup of D-Will, Livingston, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett. 

Ed - I think the best time for Deron to get back into the starting lineup is when he feels he is ready. Alan Anderson has been struggling lately, and that tells me that Deron will be back in the starting lineup again soon. It isn't as if Shaun Livingston will lose his starter minutes with Deron back in the lineup. I imagine he would be starting next to Deron. The two point guard lineup has worked for the Nets this year when they use it, and I think Jason Kidd realizes that. Livingston is definitely a problem for other teams. His length is absolutely insane, and right now there isn't a point guard in the league he can't defend. On a separate, yet related, note, watch out for Marquis Teague. I can see him earning some minutes behind Deron/Livingston.

Kyle - Deron Williams should be inserted into the starting lineup immediately for Alan Anderson. Livingston has been great for the Nets, and his 6-7 frame often provides a matchup nightmare for other teams. Alan Anderson, however, has been pretty bad recently. Friday night against Dallas, Anderson went 0-5 from the field and 0-4 from deep. That’s just been one of his horrible games in 2014, where he’s 34% from the field and 33% from three. Williams would provide a pretty sizeable upgrade over Anderson if he were to be inserted into the lineup.

Ali - The Nets have certainly played well even with Deron Williams coming off the bench, but we all know he'll eventually get inserted back in. The time for that comes when Williams feels like he's ready for it. With the way the team's been playing, there is no need to force him back into the lineup when he's not 100% ready. It's true that Livingston has done his fair share of damage against the other team, but just because Williams returns as a starter does not mean Livingston has to go to the bench. The two-point guard lineup has worked before, and it's not even necessarily a "smaller" lineup.

If you want to submit a question for our next mailbag, be sure to either come back here or be watching out Twitter and Facebook page for updates! 
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