Brooklyn to tip off make-or-break season vs. Cavs
By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
It's finally time to raise the curtain and say "On with the show!" for the 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets.
Buoyed by billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov's unprecedented offseason spending spree, general manager Billy King's $180 million roster (including luxury taxes) will finally make its much-anticipated debut Wednesday night in Cleveland.
New additions like future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, sixth-man extraordinaire Jason Terry and Russian power forward Andrei Kirilenko will join forces with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, All-Star center Brook Lopez and the Nets' "Bench Mob" to begin a serious run at the franchise's first-ever NBA title.
The Eagle will take a look at several key questions surrounding the Nets as they embark on what many hope will be an historic campaign on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.
Williams was blunt in his assessment of Season One in Brooklyn.
"We were soft," Williams noted. "But [ownership] went all in and opened their wallets. Our goal is to win a championship."
Even though the Nets won 49 games, including a franchise-record 23 on the road, and grabbed home-court advantage in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the short-handed Chicago Bulls ran through them in seven tough games.
The devastating series loss brought a premature end to the first full season by a major pro sports team in our fair borough since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1957.
On paper, the Nets have five current or former All-Stars in the starting lineup and one of the deepest benches in the NBA.
By adding established NBA champions in Garnett, Pierce and Terry, the Nets are hoping they will have the intestinal fortitude to push past their first-round opponent next spring and challenge defending two-time NBA champion Miami for the Eastern crown.
Unfortunately, Indiana, Chicago and the reigning Atlantic Division champion Knicks share the same lofty goal.
“We expect those expectations," Williams added. "[But] we’re far away from that right now. We gotta be confident in ourselves. Don’t let the outside influences get to you.”
Reserve forward Reggie Evans, the NBA's leader in rebounds-per-48-minutes a season ago, believes Brooklyn has the collective moxie to put the first-round collapse against the Bulls in the rear-view mirror come opening night in Cleveland.
"We’re a real tough-minded team," Evans said. "I’m excited to play with my new teammates. I don’t feel no pressure. This is a game I love to play. Last year is last year. We accept the challenge."
Can we all just get along?
Chemistry can be a key component for any successful team, be it on the court or in the locker room.
"That’s going to be the biggest question for this team: how well are we going to jell and how quickly are we going to be able to jell?" Garnett admitted.
Will rookie head coach Jason Kidd, who will sit out the Nets' first two games due to his guilty plea for a driving under the influence charge the summer before last, get the most out of this rebuilt team with the highest payroll in the sport?
And perhaps more importantly, will this All-Star laden unit make the necessary sacrifices to put winning ahead of all else?
Johnson, who had a penchant for taking and making big shots during Brooklyn's historic first season in Brooklyn, firmly believes that this Nets team is focused and ready to do just that.
"We’re all at a point in our careers when stats are behind us," Johnson said. "We’re not stat-chasing. We’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
“You can tell that the team is built to win (the title)," added Kirilenko, who will likely sit out the opener in Cleveland while hoping to see his first action as a Net Friday night at Barclays Center against the visiting Heat. "This year there are many changes to the team. On paper, it looks great. But we have to get used to each other as soon as possible."
Veteran backup point guard Shaun Livingston, who signed with the Nets in the hopes of capturing a thus-far elusive NBA title, thinks the additions of battle-tested players will make a big difference if Brooklyn veers off course during the 82-game grind of a regular season.
“I think having vets on this team is going to expedite the process," he said. "We have guys who have won rings. They’ll get guys to buy into the system.”
“All the ingredients are in that locker room that we need for a championship team," added Pierce, the 2008 NBA Finals MVP. "It’s all how we come together and sacrifice. Every championship team has its own ingredients. It’s up to us to come up with something to bond us together toward our goal.”
Wise or Just Old?
King's blockbuster draft-day deal for Garnett, Pierce and Terry didn't just add championship pedigree to the Nets' roster.
It also gave Brooklyn a combined 105 years of age -- Pierce and Terry are both 35, and Garnett is 37 -- and nearly half a century of NBA wear-and-tear.
The commitment to bring in players entering, if not already well into, the twilight of their respective careers can be very dangerous for any team with serious championship hopes.
Pierce, 35, is already nursing a sprained toe, Garnett, 37, has been told by coach Kidd that he will sit out the back end of consecutive games on occasion and Terry, 35, is working his way back from an offseason knee procedure.
Will the Big Three from Boston turn into the Big DNP (Did Not Play) in Brooklyn?
"Our job is to win ballgames during the season, but keep their minutes down," Kidd said of managing his aging players' minutes. "Billy has built a team that these guys don't have to play 35 to 38 minutes per night. My job is to watch the clock and keep these guys' minutes down. Maybe they won't play one night. The bigger picture is for these guys to be healthy going into the playoffs."
Garnett has already made it clear that he's not pleased with the prospect of taking games off, but is willing to go along with his neophyte coaches' plan.
But how long will that tenuous agreement last if the Nets don't burst out of the gate with a fast start?
Last season, Brooklyn was at the break-even mark (14-14) when Prokhorov decided to give Avery Johnson his walking papers, promoting interim coach P.J. Carlesimo into the top spot until he was jettisoned following the disappointing playoff ouster at the hands of the Bulls.
Kidd will have to walk a very fine line in convincing K.G., Pierce, Terry and Kirlilenko, who will turn 33 in February, that their better off sitting now to play later.
“[It] didn’t go too well," Garnett admitted when asked about his tete-a-tete with Kidd regarding playing time. "[He's] making sure I’m durable to get through the 82-game season. He’s looking to better me. I just don’t want to be told anything.”
Lopez, the longest-tenured Net entering his sixth season with the organization, put a very positive spin on the Nets' newer but older arrivals.
“All of these guys have won before," noted the 7-footer. "Amazing names on our team and I can learn from each and every one of them. Soak it up and be like a sponge.”
Knicks or Nets?
The well-chronicled billboard feud and owner cold war between the Knicks and Nets manifest itself into verbal jabs between players this past offseason.
Pierce and Garnett were Public Enemies 1 and 2 at Madison Square Garden for many years as the Knicks and Celtics battled it out in the Atlantic Division.
But the duo will now bring that heat to the East River Rivalry, which is getting more and more legitimate with each passing day.
Though the teams do not meet on the floor until Dec. 5., local fans have already begun to draw battle lines, as evidenced by the amount of Nets gear you see on the street these days compared to the strictly orange-and-blue New York basketball garb before Brooklyn joined the NBA.
Terry, who suffered a six-game first-round ouster against the Knicks last season, is on board with taking this still-budding local rivalry to new heights this season.
“It’s a beautiful day in New York when you have two teams competing for the same thing," Terry said. "There’s gonna be a rivalry. At the end of the day, there’s only going to be one team to come out of it. I’m saying it’s going to be us."
"They can say Brooklyn this, Brooklyn that, they got KG, they got Paul Pierce—OK, they’re going to be good, we know that," Knicks guard Ray Felton retorted. "But they’re also going to be an older team as well. They’re not going to have the youth that they had last year. But I look forward to it. I love rivalries, I’ve been playing in them a long time."
The Nets finished five games behind the Knicks for the Atlantic title a season ago. They hope to reverse that outcome in 2013-14.
“It was fun last year," Johnson said of the rivalry, which finished with an even 2-2 split. "It’ll be even bigger this year with Kevin and Paul.”