Jarrett Allen blocks the shot of Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker on April 5, 2018, at BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

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Lichtenstein: Nets 2018-19 Season Preview

Too Many Deficiencies To Rise Into Playoff Contention

Steve Lichtenstein
October 17, 2018 - 10:06 am
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Season 3 of the Sean Marks/Kenny Atkinson Experiment will tip off Wednesday night in Detroit with the Nets still far from contention. Brooklyn’s general manager/head coach tandem has succeeded in altering the culture of the organization from one that was marked by mismanagement to a normal rebuilding project focused on internal development.  Unfortunately, ultimate success in this business is always determined by W’s and L’s.  

In that regard, Brooklyn is 48-116 in their last two seasons, and I’m afraid 2018-19 is looking only marginally better, if that.

LISTEN: 'City Game' Podcast: Nets Season Preview

Forecasts for this team are hazy. A few predict this group will maintain their spunkiness and sneak away with enough wins to stay in the playoff hunt until later in the season. If the Nets could improve on their 19-31 record in close games (within five points with under five minutes remaining), maybe that would be worth a little bump in the standings.  Also, continuity is generally a good thing, and the Nets may reap some benefit from returning their starting five, when all are healthy, in addition to key bench contributors like Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Joe Harris.  

Then again, that group wasn’t all that great last season. You can’t say, “Well, they were rarely at full strength given all their injuries,” because no team is immune from the wear and tear that comes with the marathon that is the NBA season. Already, starting wings DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe are sidelined with ankle injuries while starting forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who sat out the entire preseason with a groin strain, will be a game-time decision in Detroit. 

Marks did attempt to bolster the depth in the summer, but in my view, he did not move the needle much. Center Ed Davis projects to be the most impactful acquisition despite the hype you may be hearing about second-round pick Rodions Kurucs.

As bad as you may think the rest of the Eastern Conference is, the Nets aren’t that much more talented than the bottom feeders.  Unlike in previous years when Brooklyn padded a few extra wins against tanking teams down the stretch, this season’s late slate looks to be a killer, with at least 11 of the Nets' final 13 opponents predicted to be playoff chasers.  

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Marks has asserted that the Nets won’t be one of the tankers this season, even though they will draft from their own position for the first time since 2013. We’ll see if he feels the same way during the runup to the Feb. 7 trade deadline. It would be a Catch-22, since the only way Brooklyn will be able to attract high-level free agents next summer, when it will have the ability to finagle its way to as much as $70 million in salary-cap space, is to continue its slow but steady improvement.  That would seem to preclude tanking.

The preseason tells us little about how a team will fare when the games start to count, but there were a few things I noticed that should raise red flags for those who insist that the Nets are primed for a second consecutive eight-win improvement:

1) Turnovers!

Coughing up the ball has been a bugaboo for this team for years, which is logical given its youth and talent deficits. While it’s true the Nets improved their turnover rate per 100 possessions by about one per game last season, it was still ninth worst in the league. They were also fifth worst in the above-mentioned clutch minutes at 15.7 percent.

The preseason was even uglier, with the Nets giving it away at a league-high 21.4 percent clip. Atkinson may have tweaked his offense a bit in training camp and he had to integrate some new pieces, but then why were the starters, almost all of whom should be familiar with each other, third from the bottom, per NBA.com?

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The answer is that playing loose with the ball, especially down the stretch of close games, is a normal part of the development process. Opponents switch everything, forcing teams to rely on individual efforts. That’s where the Nets’ turnover-fests typically originate.

2) Interior Defense

Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn’s sophomore center, is only 20. There’s no denying the spectacular nature of some of the plays he makes at the rim on both ends. He should get better as he matures physically and gains experience.

However, what Nets fan isn’t fearful that guys like Andre Drummond and Enes Kanter, the opposing centers in Brooklyn’s first two contests, will be putting up 20/20s against Allen?

Atkinson rarely sends double teams down low, for leaving Allen on an island has been deemed preferable to the risk of the ball finding open shooters along the 3-point line. In addition, Brooklyn typically plays undersized fours such as Hollis-Jefferson or Jared Dudley next to Allen, which means that for all of Allen’s shot-blocking prowess, most of the balls that he is unable to swat away end up in the basket anyway on putbacks. The Nets surrendered the fourth most second-chance points per game (15.3) this preseason after ranking third from the bottom last season (13.6).

3) Overratings

The Nets have some young players with potential. They are not great. Fans, and maybe some organizations, tend to overrate their own, especially if they come with a compelling backstory.

Take Dinwiddie, who worked hard to become an NBA player after Marks plucked him from the G League nearly two years ago. However, maybe he should get his field goal percentages (38.7/32.6 percent) closer to the league average before complaining that he should have won the Most Improved Player award last season, as he did in a recent YES Network interview. Dinwiddie shot 3-of-15 from deep this preseason.

The Nets lack a true superstar, which means that no one -- not Russell, LeVert, Dinwiddie or even Allen -- should be deemed untouchable in a deal that would bring a transformational player to Brooklyn.

That doesn’t mean Marks should force the issue this season, but until it happens, the Nets will continue to be irrelevant, despite all their feel-good stories.

Prediction: 29-53 (no playoffs)

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1