Max Mandel's Blog

Max Mandel

Nov 25

Getting to know the opponent: Q&A with Nets.com

By Max Mandel Posted in: Nets, Blazers
Surely there are some fans that are thinking that the Wednesday night game against the New Jersey Nets will be a walk in the park. With the Nets off to an 0-14 start this season, the Trail Blazers should obviously be the favorite when the two teams take the court at the Rose Garden. However, it's important to remember that this Nets team has a nice core of talent and have battled injuries throughout this horrific start to the season. In order to get a sense for how this group has kept its morale up during the tough start, we checked in with Ben Couch from Nets.com.

I am a Trail Blazers fan: With injuries and inexperience contributing to the Nets 0-13 start, how is the morale in the locker room and among the team?

Ben Couch:
Coach Frank’s said it a few times now, and it probably sounds like so much talk from the outside, but the team is anything but defeated. Are they frustrated with the losing, especially when they’ve come as close as a Dwyane Wade buzzer-beater? Yes – and that’s a good thing. This group cares, and wants to win
.

With eight or nine healthy bodies most games, they’ve still managed to push most games into the final minutes, if not possessions. They’ve done that with defense, as they rank above average by most measures (95.1 PPG allowed - 7th; .455 FG% allowed - 11th, .333 3P% - 13th 101.8 efficiency – 13th). But the offense has struggled mightily – they score the fewest points per game (84.9), have the worst efficiency (89.8), the league’s fourth-highest turnover average (16.5 per game) and a .402 shooting percentage that’s well behind the 29th-ranked Bobcats, who hit .420.

The team knows it’s been playing about as well as can have been expected with 3-4 starters missing for most of the season, but also knows that 0-13 is, well … 0-13. They’re buoyed by the knowledge that as players/scorers return, maintaining this defense-first mindset could mean notable improvement.

I am a Trail Blazers fan: After missing much of the season so far with injuries, Devin Harris finally returned to the lineup against the Knicks. What makes Harris so important to the success and chemistry of this team?

Ben Couch: Well, as previously mentioned, the team’s been hurting offensively and the kid in question is an All-Star who averaged 22.3 per game last season, so there’s that. Ha. Harris is the team’s best player, and has the most experience with winning at this level (67 win-season, NBA Finals) outside of the Orlando triumvirate. His explosiveness opens up the floor across the board: teams have to hedge a little harder when they help, which means high-percentage shots are available for the spot-up guys; he can exploit wicked screen-and-roll chemistry with Brook Lopez while also relieving Lopez of his current status as “most consistent jump shooter,” pushing the big man closer to the basket; and his ability to accelerate in transition works toward the strengths of Chris Douglas-Roberts, Terrence Williams and the athletic bigs.

Not to mention that his return alleviates the burden on Rafer Alston, who’s averaging 35.0 minutes and has already topped 40 six times, and Terrence Williams, who’s been the starting 3, backup 1 and backup 2.

Phew. I don’t think I realized all that until I wrote it down, and I’m covering the team every day. They’re glad Devin’s back. Yes, indeed.

I am a Trail Blazers fan: In Brook Lopez, the Nets have one of the best young big guys in the league. Where have you seen improvement in Lopez' game since last season, and how high do you think the ceiling is for him?

Ben Couch: Lopez was expected to play a larger role this season … and then Harris got hurt. Lopez went from “probably No. 2” to “only healthy starter” real fast, and has responded favorably, despite notable struggles against Dwight Howard (who doesn’t?) and Andrew Bogut (second night of a back-to-back after 46 mins in the previous game).

He’s leading the league with 2.7 blocks per game, and averaging 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds, each number around the high-end of any reasonable expectations heading into the year. His field-goal percentage is .468, but that’s lowered by the relatively high percentage of outside shots he’s been taking: Brook’s 19-of-55 (.345) outside 15 feet, but 59-of-102 (.578) at the rim. With Harris returning, Brook transforms back into an outside threat rather than necessary option if they want to even pretend to stretch the floor.

The 21-year-old works long after-practice sessions on post play with assistant Roy Rogers, and the effort shows in his expanding repertoire. As Lopez continues to evolve, he’ll likely go up stronger more often. And he also needs cut down on frustration plays, as he’s often visibly riled by non-calls or on-court struggles, though they rarely impact his play for too long.

Think about all that, and I’d venture that there’s more than a few teams ruing their chance to have Lopez manning the middle for the next few years after letting him drop to No. 10 in last year’s draft.

I am a Trail Blazers fan: Heading into the NBA draft, Terrence Williams was regarded as one of the most unique and versatile guys available. What have been your impressions of Williams, and how has his game translated to the NBA level?

Ben Couch: My off-court impressions of Williams are that he's a funny dude who's confident about his game, but willing to listen and learn. On court, you can see why his potentially high ceiling enticed the Nets. He's athletic enough to put on a one man dunk contest at the end of practice, and can legitimately play 1, 2 or 3, though his turnover rate at the point is high. He's a rookie though, and if it normally takes point guards a few years to master the NBA game, he's on the right track. Defensively, Williams' length and instincts help him harrass opponents; as he gains experience, he should develop into one of the league's better defenders.

He worked on his shooting all summer, but it's still a work in progress: .297 from three and .356 overall. Due to the injuries, his attempts have been more plentiful than expected, and he does need to focus more on attacking the rim. But a number of his misses seem to be borne of rushed shots. I'd bet that by the end of the year, many of the floaters and runners start dropping in as the game slows down around him. But don't stick to the scoring -- Williams' value is measured across the stat line, most notable early in his strong rebounding average (6.1). To me, it seems like his floor is "defensive specialist" and his ceiling could be something similar to a solid year from Andrei Kirilenko.

I am a Trail Blazers fan: Who is one guy that doesn't receive much attention from the media that Trail Blazers fans should keep their eyes on when these teams meet on Wednesday night?

Ben Couch: Well, I blew out my preview for the Nuggets in Sean Williams' favor; he's been a strong contributor of late, bringing energy and shot blocking. But considering there were only 8 minutes of burn before Trenton Hassell was called into starting duty for eight of the last nine games, I'm going with him. He's the kind of dude who shows up an hour early to practice for extra conditioning just to ensure he can go 40-plus on short notice. Maybe none of his numbers (8.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, .408 FG%) jump out, but he's smart -- knows the plays well enough to run point in practice -- and plays serious defense, though perhaps less effectively than when he was starting for the Timberwolves' Western Conference Finals squad a few years back (people forget). He's the kind of player you want around a young core, because if they follow that example, it bodes well for the future.

Additional Links: Ben was kind enough to provide us some extra links for content on the Nets

CD-R discusses the importance of winning

Brook Lopez Hotspots shooting percentage

Lopez learning to play stronger

Williams can be quite the poet

Williams a one man dunk contest

4.4 turnovers per game for Williams

Nuggets Preview





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