By Sam Hart | @the_line_131
First thing’s first, it’s pre-season. So let’s not get too crazy.
But, you know what? The Brooklyn Nets’ victory over Miami on Thursday night was a Heat-check, in more ways than one. The black and white of BK are looking like the genuine article and want to make sure that the world sits up and takes notice of them. And so far they are succeeding.
Of all the teams in the NBA this summer, the Nets made the biggest, strongest off-season moves, really only rivaled by the Houston Rockets, or maybe the Chicago Bulls (although, getting Derrick Rose back from injury, as huge an impact as it will undoubtedly have, shouldn’t really count).
Here’s a reminder of exactly what Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King managed to pull off: the first – and probably the smartest and most shrewd of all the moves made – was the hiring of Jason Kidd as head coach. On the face of it, a stroke of genius. Kidd has immeasurable basketball I.Q, an emotional investment in the club and iconic status among the fan base (his jersey number was retired and hoisted into the rafters in a pre-game ceremony before the win against the Heat). And he’ll be assisted by Lawrence Frank, a guy with both head coach and team experience. What’s not to love about that? Then, just a couple of weeks later, came the headline: the blockbuster trade with the Boston Celtics for perennial All-Stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, as well as veteran Jason Terry, giving up Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans, a couple of role-players and a couple of first-round Draft picks. Add to the mix seasoned star Andrei Kirilenko and they also have an elite bench to back-up what is essentially a fantasy starting five, including Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. Most of all, though, they acquired that nasty toughness and vital Playoff experience.
The Madison Square Garden crew over in Midtown Manhattan suddenly have a lot to worry about. With their rivals’ emergence as problem number one for Knicks fans, they also have Carmelo Anthony’s honest and public declaration that he wishes to explore free agency next summer to deal with. It’s easy to predict a rocky ride for them this season. But they aren’t the only ones who are wary of the Nets…
It’s the Heat who should really be looking over their shoulder, despite improving themselves with the risky but inspired pick-ups that they made. They were pounded the other night, by 24 points, in front of a rapturous Barclays Center crowd. It was a message from the borough, a statement of intent: We’re coming for the crown.
And you better believe they’re the real deal. If Brooklyn was an independent city, it would be the fourth most populous in the entire United States, behind (the rest of) New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. It’s a big market and it now has a big team. And a legitimately big chance of making some noise.
While the West is still the deeper conference, the East is arguably stronger at the top of the tree this year. Most people will probably have the Nets as a third seed in the East, behind the Champs and probably the Indiana Pacers, who can only be stronger with a decent Playoff run under their belt, the return of Danny Grainger and the high of signing Paul George to a max deal still lingering in the air. But that could easily be the top three teams in the entire League, also. You’d fancy any of them against anyone from the West in a potential Finals series – even the Spurs, who just keep aging, or the Clippers, who are exciting and loaded, but lack a post-season bite.
It may be a short-term situation (Garnett, for example, reportedly considered retirement during the off-season before committing to a 19th NBA year), and there may still be more questions than answers, but it’s a campaign ahead with Championship potential. And in this game, that’s really all that matters.
One can almost picture LeBron James’s nightmares. Pierce’s physical play the other night; Garnett’s trash-talk ringing in his ears; memories of Celtic victories in some of the biggest moments of his career. There is real animosity there, one of the deepest player-rivalries in basketball. Sure, you could argue that he is past all of that, on his way to true greatness. But a three-peat is no joke. And the biggest obstacles standing in the King’s way could very well be in the shape of some old familiar foes in new uniforms.