The Brooklyn Nets open the 2018-19 season Wednesday night in Detroit, then return home for their Barclays Center opener against the Knicks on Friday. After last season’s eight-win improvement, the Nets have brought in nine new players, shoring up their bench with proven veterans and adding promising young players through the draft.
Here’s a look at keys to watch for as the Nets eye another leap in the new season:
READY FOR THE ROAD?
The schedule over the first month of the season offers a series of challenges that will test the Nets. Start with a heavy dose of travel. They’ll play four of their first six games and eight of their first 13 on the road, a stretch that culminates with a four-game trip to Phoenix, Denver, Golden State and then wraps up in Minnesota on Nov. 12. That also includes a visit to the Knicks on Oct. 29, which gives the Nets a bit of an unofficial three-game home stretch, at least in regards to not having to leave town. But the road slate also includes Indiana (Oct. 20) and New Orleans (Oct. 26).
Among their first five home games, the Nets get two-time defending champion Golden State, Western Conference finalist Houston, which led the NBA with 65 wins behind MVP James Harden, Philadelphia, and an opening night rivalry game against the Knicks.
The Nets gave their frontcourt a substantial reboot in the offseason to solve their rebounding issues of a year ago, but it remains to be seen how they’ll utilize the new additions and how far they’re willing to go in choosing defense over offense options. Coach Kenny Atkinson has publicly floated the idea of pairing centers Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis on the court. There are also rebounding savants Kenneth Faried and Alan Williams, but neither will offer much in terms of the perimeter shooting and floor spacing the Nets crave if paired with Allen or Davis. The question is whether they make enough of an impact on the boards and defensively to supersede their influence on the offense — or if the Nets just decide they need that defense more.
The Nets often went small in search of crunch-time offense last season, leaving even the 6-11 Allen on the bench. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the incumbent starter at the frontcourt forward spot after a breakout season in which his averages jumped to 13.9 and 6.8 rebounds. Hollis-Jefferson is an elite defender and strong rebounder, particularly for his size, ranking third in the NBA for players 6-7 and under last season. He brings an energy to those endeavors that is noticeably missing when he’s absent.
In opting for offense with a wing and small-ball approach, the options open up to DeMarre Carroll or newcomers Jared Dudley and Treveon Graham, who offer the 3-point shooting at the spot that opens up the floor and unlocks the offense.
MAKING MORE THREES
For all the focus on stretch bigs, in Brooklyn and throughout the league, a team that focuses on 3-pointers as much as the Nets do needs better shooting from its guards. The Nets were second in the league in 3-pointers made and attempted last season, but 20th in percentage (35.6). Joe Harris shot 41.9 percent and Allen Crabbe shot 41.4 after the All-Star break to get his percentage up to 37.8 by the end of the season, a year after ranking second in the league at 44.4 percent.
But D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie were both under 33 percent while taking more than five threes per game. After a slow start, Caris LeVert shot 37.6 over 50 games from Dec. 1 to the end of the season to finish at 34.7. Combined, the trio shot 33 percent on 956 attempts. That has to improve for the Nets to continue to move forward.
NEXT STEPS FOR RUSSELL & LEVERT
The 3-point shooting is just part of one of the most crucial variables for the Nets this season and going forward — the next-step development of Russell and LeVert.
Entering his fourth season after one college year at Ohio State, Russell is still just 22 years old. In another era, he’d be a rookie. Instead, he’s got 191 NBA games to his credit and a career scoring average of 14.6 points per game. He also averaged career-highs of 5.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds in a season split in two parts by knee surgery last year.
While Russell shot 32.4 percent from 3-point range last season, that was a dip from the solid 35 percent he hit in each of his first two years. But he did shoot 36.4 percent over his final 20 games. If that’s his true baseline, a jump into the high 30s isn’t unreasonable with the focus the coaching staff puts on improving 3-point shooting. Kenny Atkinson raves about the court vision that generated five double-digit assist games in 48 appearances last year. A full offseason with the Nets performance staff to build muscle and strength should help the 6-5 guard to develop more efficiency finishing on tough drives to the hoop. The pieces are there for Russell to put together into a big step forward.
LeVert took a nice leap a year ago after his own injury-shortened rookie season. In year two he averaged 12.1 points per game. He took advantage of Russell’s absence to expand his game with more playmaking responsibilities and averaged 4.2 assists per game, and elevated his 3-point shooting as the season went on. At a rangy 6-foot-7, he’s always been viewed as a potential impact defensive player. Teammates raved about his play throughout training camp.
These are two multi-dimensional guards that fit the way the Nets want to play, with the youth to offer the possibility that better things are ahead. If they find that next step this season, it will lift the Nets in a big way.
DEFENSE AND DICTATING THE GAME
The Nets ranked 11th in the NBA last season in defensive effective field goal percentage, partly a function of the way they limited opponents to the second fewest 3-point makes per game (9.0) on the fewest attempts (24.5). But that work was undone by offensive rebounds surrendered and a lack of turnovers forced, giving opponents plentiful shots at the basket. Nets opponents took 89.4 shots per game and made 41.7, each the fourth highest mark in the league, a number also elevated by the pace the Nets play at, which was the sixth fastest in the league.
The plus side of all of this is that the primary defensive issues are clearly identified, and all of this is a function of a general positive, which is that the Nets are effective at executing a game plan on both sides of the ball.
On offense, they ranked second in 3-pointers attempted and made, and were third in drives per game. In the number of shots taken from 10-14 feet and 15-19 feet, they were in the bottom five in the NBA. Combined, they took just 10.7 of their 86.8 shots per game from between 10 and 19 feet, that mid-range dead zone that Atkinson prefers they avoid. They are playing the game they want to play. The next step is to finish possessions better on both ends of the floor.