Now that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are in Brooklyn, the question is whether the Nets are legitimate title contenders with their two new starters, as well as Jason Terry coming off the bench. The consensus around the league is that Pierce and Garnett do indeed have something left to offer the Nets after a difficult final season in Boston.
Pierce concluded his season being exposed by New York’s Iman Shumpert, whose defense forced Pierce to over-dribble and force shots. Pierce looked old and weathered, but an NBA assistant coach said Pierce took on too much responsibility for the Celtics after Rajon Rondo was injured.
Pierce was asked to play point forward, serve as the Celtics’ primary scorer, and also often defend the opposing team’s best scorer. That responsibility was too much for the 35-year-old Pierce, and Shumpert’s aggressive defense simply wore him down. Pierce may not be the player he was in 2008, when he led the Celtics to the title at age 30, but in his new role with Brooklyn, he should flourish. With Garnett, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez, double teams will be less prevalent for Pierce. He should thrive against single defenders.
“There will definitely be less pressure on me on this ball club than there was in Boston,” Pierce said. “In Boston, I was the No. 1 primary option. Here we have so many options. We have young All-Stars on this team. My job is to be more of a glorified role player, as Doc [Rivers] used to always say, with the guys we have.
“With my abilities to do so many things, there’s going to be nights where I’m not going to score a bunch of points. I can do other things to help this club win. With the combination of these guys, we’re going to take pressure off each other.”
As controversial as the Andrei Kirilenko move may have been, it will definitely boost Brooklyn’s defense and toughness. Kirilenko opted out of the remaining one year and $10 million of his contract to sign a three-year, $10 million deal with the Nets, who are owned by fellow Russian Mikhail Prokhorov. If Kirilenko is even close to vintage form, he gives the Nets a long, pesky defender.
“That move was such a big move for our team, for me,” Pierce said. “When you sign a guy like Andrei Kirilenko, it solidifies your perimeter, it gives you the versatility that you need. We have guys that can shoot the three, we’ve got guys that can post up, and to have an elite defender who can guard two, three, maybe four positions — he really gives us great versatility, and I think that’s what you need. That’s the direction you really see the NBA going, to have versatile players who can play multiple positions, and you put your best player on the floor.”
While there are distinct similarities between this Nets team and the 2007-08 Celtics that were assembled to win immediately, Pierce said there is one fundamental difference.
“We’re coming in with championship experience,” Pierce said. “Before we all were hungry for a championship. But [now] we have guys on this team that are very hungry for a championship — me, Kevin, and Jason are hungry for another championship.”
The Nets were accused — accurately — of being mentally soft last season, losing to the injury-riddled Chicago Bulls in seven games in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, dropping the decisive game at home and looking lethargic in the process. Garnett’s biggest contribution to the Nets may be off the floor in swagger and bravado. Practices will be more intense. There will be more pushing and shoving and that infamous Garnett “who me?” expression when he lifts his arms in the air after giving a friendly elbow.
“There isn’t a ‘tough’ button,” Garnett said. “Toughness is a state of mind. It’s about who you are, a personality. I’m not here to change personalities. I am here to follow and teach. You don’t gather [this team] to win a series or get to the conference [finals]. The ultimate goal is what it is.
“I’m not here to say the three of us are here to save the Nets or anything like that. We’re obviously here as a support system to Deron. It’s him and Brook’s team, along with Joe. And we’re parts that are going to help this team move forward and we’re here to assist them.”
The experience of playing with Rondo should help Pierce and Garnett blend with Williams — to a point. Williams is far more offensive-minded, but like Rondo he can be moody and aloof. Several NBA insiders believe the relationship between Garnett and Williams will be critical to the Nets’ success. Garnett adopted Rondo as a little brother type, and the two bonded even though Rondo’s mouth would sometimes cause friction.
Williams is older than Rondo and less apt to distribute the ball. But Garnett is an admirer.
“He’s hungry and has so many different elements to him that he doesn’t even know himself,” Garnett said. “I see Deron as not only one of the premier guards of this league but the future [of the league]. I’m looking forward to working with him and coming in here and getting to know him.”
Garnett did not avoid the expectations. General manager Billy King assembled a team to compete immediately. Pierce is in the final year of his contract and could be a free agent next summer. The Nets also fully guaranteed the final year of Garnett’s contract in 2014-15.
“This pressure is nothing I haven’t seen before nor faced,” Garnett said. “The pressure is going to be on everybody here. The pressure is going to be on us to win early. Obviously, it’s been done before, but we’re trying to copy that here. To embrace this and keep going and try to bring a presence here is what the goal is, to be honest.
“We definitely have a good start to this [title quest]. The bones are here. We didn’t really trade away a bunch of talent or a bunch of big pieces. So to add on to what you already have; I think the Kirilenko signing was huge, the keeping of Reggie Evans was even bigger — so, so far so good. Obviously, I am looking forward to what the finishing will be.”
SECOND TIME AROUND
Johnson ready to make mark
Two years ago, the Celtics acquired JaJuan Johnson in the 2011 draft, swapping picks with the Nets, who took high-scoring Providence guard MarShon Brooks. The Celtics thought highly of Johnson, who was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year at Purdue and was supposed to give Kevin Garnett relief at power forward. Johnson never developed with the Celtics, and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge eventually gave up on him, sending him along with E’Twaun Moore and Sean Williams to the Houston Rockets in the Courtney Lee deal.
Johnson was soon waived by the Rockets and spent last season mostly in the NBADL. This summer, he played with the Pistons in the Orlando Summer League, and Doc Rivers’s Clippers in Las Vegas, trying to resurrect his career. He was traded three times during his first season in the D-League, an indication that Johnson was quickly becoming an afterthought.
“It’s tough, this whole year, it’s been a lot of ups and downs. Obviously, it’s taught me a lot of lessons and I’ve grown up a lot,” he said. “The biggest thing now is just getting that opportunity again and making the most of it. It’s a business. I didn’t expect to be traded so early, but it’s part of the business and it’s about taking advantage of the opportunities that are out there.”
What has been difficult for Johnson to digest is a growing reputation that he lacks passion and work ethic. He never showed himself to be that fierce defender who bedeviled Big Ten teams with shot-blocking and rebounding. He played timidly with the Celtics, and Rivers lost confidence.
“I think that’s kind of bull, really,” Johnson said. “How I am off the court doesn’t reflect who I am on the court. I’ve heard [about my reputation], too. I don’t think it has too much truth to it. I just let my game speak for itself. I am not a rah-rah type of guy, but when it’s time to work I’m ready to work. I know what to expect now. I know what the coaches want to see — just playing hard all the time, showing a motor, things I’ve been trying to work on.”
Johnson said he is stunned by the rapid decline of his career. He was supposed to be a potential cornerstone with the Celtics, joining Purdue teammate Moore to supplement the bench. Moore was only traded to Houston because his salary was required for the deal to work. After being released, he soon signed with the Magic, and enjoyed a strong season in 2012-13.
“It’s kind of surprising, but like I said, it’s a business,” Johnson said. “You have to give those guys what they want and that’s another thing I learned. You can’t do what you want to do, it has to be what they want.”
Johnson said his career highlight was obviously the year he spent until the tutelage of Garnett and Paul Pierce.
“Just being around a team like that with so many All-Stars and great veterans, you can’t help not to learn things,” he said. “Just playing alongside one of my favorite players ever [Garnett], it was great.”
Door remains open for Lamb
It wasn’t but a few months ago that the Thunder were offering Jeremy Lamb in trade, believing Kevin Martin would re-sign, cinching their shooting guard slot. Martin signed with the Timberwolves this month, opening his old position for Lamb or former Boston College star Reggie Jackson.
Jackson is more point-guard size, and fared well when Russell Westbrook went down in the playoffs with a right knee injury. With Westbrook expected back healthy and the Thunder carrying championship aspirations after last May’s unceremonious exit courtesy of the Grizzlies, Lamb could have an opportunity to not only play but start.
Considered a can’t-miss prospect after his freshman season at UConn, during which he and Kemba Walker helped the Huskies win the national title, Lamb returned for his sophomore season and his stock slipped.
He was taken by the Rockets 12th overall in 2012 and then was dealt to the Thunder when Houston general manager Daryl Morey was trying to clear cap space to sign Dwight Howard — the first time. Lamb spent most of his rookie season in the NBADL, unable to establish himself in the Oklahoma City rotation. Earlier this month at the Orlando Summer League, the 6-foot-5-inch Lamb was one of the better players, averaging 18.8 points, 4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in four games. Lamb still needs to improve his perimeter shooting and shot selection, but he made a statement with his performance.
“[Limited playing time last year] was definitely motivation, I use a lot of things as motivation,” he said. “I use people telling me I can’t do something as motivation. I use getting drafted as motivation. The biggest thing [for me] is being able to impact the game in other ways than scoring. A lot of people know I can score, shoot the ball. I just have to do other things to impact the game.”
The NBA is not kind to those players who don’t develop quickly. They become afterthoughts. Lamb would have been a top-five pick had he departed UConn following its national title season, and now he is simply trying to prove he can consistently play in the NBA. The Thunder have worked to develop Lamb, former Baylor standout Perry Jones, and ex-Kentucky center Daniel Orton. Lamb and Jones were considered potential NBA stars during their college tenures, but none of that trio may be depended on to help the Thunder this season. And their development time may be running out.
Lamb said the NBADL was a humbling experience, although it aided in his improvement.
“My mind-set definitely coming out was to play [in the NBA], but I took last year as a learning experience,” he said. “I played a lot in the D-League. I learned a lot in the D-League. I learned a lot from practicing with Thabo Sefolosha, [Kendrick] Perkins, KD [Kevin Durant], all those guys.”
The most significant tool Lamb said he gained from Durant is developing a workout regimen. Lamb, like many youngsters, relies so much on his athleticism and playing, but Durant advised him to take his craft far more seriously.
“The first thing I learned is get on a routine,” Lamb said. “Durant, Russell Westbrook, Perkins, those guys do the same thing every day. They get there before practice, get their shots up, eat breakfast, lift, practice, shots. It’s just big on routine. That’s the biggest thing I think I learned. I am just out here [now] playing hard, just showing that I’ve improved.”
While the Las Vegas Summer League was hurt by a lack of star power — Anthony Bennett and Alex Len were out with injuries — others made questionable first impressions, such as Ben McLemore, who shot 28.1 percent from the field and 17.9 percent from the 3-point line through the first four games. McLemore, the seventh overall pick by Sacramento, missed 41 of 57 shots, including 4-for-23 shooting in the opener. While McLemore was erratic, former University of Detroit guard Ray McCallum impressed the Kings with his poise, and the club was set to sign him to a guaranteed contract . . . The Celtics nabbed Ron Adams as their lead assistant coach after he was removed by Chicago general manager Gar Forman for apparently expressing displeasure over some of the team’s roster moves. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was close to Adams and lost his confidant. The Bulls are expected to promote from within on their staff. Bulls assistants and former NBA players Adrian Griffin and Ed Pinckney are also candidates for the vacant Philadelphia head coaching job. The 76ers have moved slowly in their search, and Miami assistant David Fizdale has emerged as another candidate along with Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga, ex-NBA player Michael Curry, and Spurs assistant Brett Brown . . . Charlotte owner Michael Jordan has given his brother, Larry, a management position in the organization. Larry Jordan already has attended team events and pre-draft workouts . . . The Celtics’ signing of Phil Pressey to a guaranteed contract may mean second-round pick Colton Iverson could spent his first season in Europe. Iverson’s representatives have indicated they would help out the Celtics by accepting an overseas deal. The Celtics have 17 players on their roster and are going to need to reduce roster size . . . Detroit center Andre Drummond will change to No. 0 and allow veteran Chauncey Billups to wear No. 1 now that he has signed with the Pistons . . . The Suns may have no more use for former lottery pick Kendall Marshall now that new GM Ryan McDonough has picked up Eric Bledsoe to join Goran Dragic in the backcourt. Marshall had a miserable rookie season and still has not improved his offense or ability to run an up-tempo system. He is a serviceable backup point guard, but that may be his ceiling.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.