Have Nets supplanted the Knicks as the team to beat in New York?
Have the Nets assembled a team that can overtake the Heat for supremacy in the Eastern Conference? Probably not -- or at least not yet.
But that wasn't the point of re-signing Deron Williams, who agreed to return to the Nets on Tuesday. The immediate goal of the franchise was to move into its new arena in Brooklyn with a playoff-caliber team that can compete with the Knicks for respect in New York. Now the Nets may have hopscotched that target. However improbably, they may have become the best team in the NBA's biggest city.
That's a huge leap for a franchise that faced the possibility of moving to Brooklyn with a broken roster doomed to return to the lottery, a lineup that likely would've flailed if Williams had signed with Dallas as a free agent. For the last year, the Nets have pursued a high-risk, high-reward strategy intent on pairing Williams with Dwight Howard. The ultimate goal is to create a roster that can exploit Miami's weaknesses at point guard and center.
Howard remains under contract with Orlando, and, for now, that's OK. With or without Howard, Williams can look forward to four games against the Knicks with confidence that the Nets can win -- results, in turn, that would make Williams the most important basketball player in New York City.
Carmelo Anthony was planning to earn that status, but he and Amar'e Stoudemire have struggled to bring out the best in each other while successfully sharing the ball. Last season it was one or the other: When Anthony was played his game, Stoudemire turned into an expensive role player; when Stoudemire (or Jeremy Lin) had it going, Anthony receded. Maybe those issues were aggravated by injuries (to Stoudemire's back, in particular) and the lack of practice time following the coaching change from Mike D'Antoni to Mike Woodson in March. And maybe Anthony's recent loss of weight and improved conditioning will lead to a more fluid style for the Knicks.
But for now, the Knicks' roster has more questions than answers. Phil Jackson was right to label it "clumsy": Tyson Chandler is forced to share the interior with Stoudemire, Stoudemire has yet to establish a scoring balance with Anthony and Lin is still in search of a defined offensive role with Anthony's presence on the floor.
The new-look Nets won't play together for nearly four months, but the structure of their lineup already looks better than the Knicks'. That's largely because Nets know who their leader is. Williams is going to control the ball, and his teammates can trust him to make good decisions. The Knicks don't have any of the certainty, confidence or trust that Williams brings to Brooklyn.
Shooting guard Joe Johnson is a tremendous scorer with versatility and range. The Nets fully expect that he will be their leading scorer next season. Small forward Gerald Wallace is a hard-working slasher who can score in the flow and doesn't need the ball to make an impact. Wallace and Johnson should complement each other beautifully.
The attention paid to Williams, Johnson and Wallace on the perimeter should create plenty of space in the paint for center Brook Lopez, who averaged 20.4 points two seasons ago before playing only five games last year because of a foot injury. And then there is power forward Mirza Teletovic, the 6-foot-9, 254-pound Bosnian power forward whom the Nets agreed to sign from Spain on Tuesday. Last season, the 26-year-old Teletovic averaged 21.7 points in the Euroleague. He looks like a terrific sixth man.
Brooklyn still needs to sign more players willing to do dirty work without the ball, guys like power forward Reggie Evans, a strong rebounder and physical presence who will join the team through a sign-and-trade deal with the Clippers. The Nets have suddenly become a destination for those kinds of players because they're poised to contend for a high seed in the East.
The Nets have raised expectations without waiting for Howard, but they shouldn't give up on him, either. If Howard is able to leverage a long-shot trade to Brooklyn for Lopez and some peripheral pieces, then Brooklyn would be able to claim the NBA's best center and potentially its best point guard. Factor in All-Star Johnson and former All-Star Wallace -- each with experience as the best player on a playoff team -- and the Nets could be a legitimate championship threat.
Still, it all comes back to Williams, who endured a miserable couple of years after his surprising trade from Utah and his season of purgatory in New Jersey. It wasn't so long ago that Williams was viewed as the best point guard in the game, and now, at 28, he has the opportunity to recapture that title. Williams' talent and leadership offers the Nets a chance to be the No. 1 team in their new market, and from there, who knows what will happen?