Another week of Brooklyn Nets basketball is upon us, which means another week of Oppo-Nets is here as well. This week, the Nets play three games — a home game against the Celtics, followed by road contests at Houston and Orlando.
For this week’s column, I spoke with Celtics fan and writer for The 94 Alex West, Eric Spyropoulos, editor of The 94 and a Rockets writer for Red Ninety Four, and Preston Ellis, Magic writer for Orlando Pinstriped Post.
1/14 – vs Celtics
I noticed that Jaylen Brown’s numbers all seem to be down this year. What’s been the reason for him not really taking that next step forward yet, or are the numbers misleading?
Jaylen Brown has been one of the most interesting and mercurial Celtics all season long, both on and off the court. Of course, the recent news has been the flare up with Marcus Morris during a timeout last week in Boston’s 115-99 loss in Miami. But Brown has has other issues with teammates, including the “failure to communicate” incident with Marcus Smart, which was so impactful Jackie MacMullan used it as her hook for a Dec 12th article.
Brown’s surge into prominence last season seemed to be a stepping stone for the 22-year-old, who was primed to help the Celtics get back to their first NBA Finals in nine seasons. But the growth of last May hasn’t shown up, except for in flashes, this season.
The major issue for Brown is finding his role alongside other players who have overlapping skill sets. He isn’t a better scorer than Jayson Tatum, nor is he a better playmaker than Hayward, and (I believe most Celtics fans who are watching nightly will tell you) he isn’t a better perimeter defender than Marcus Smart.
What niche does that leave for Brown to fill?
He is at his best disrupting passing lanes in transition and slashing to the basket using his athleticism and length to get to the basket. During the playoffs last season, Boston had to rely on those skills without any elite half court scorers. But with Kyrie’s return, the offense has changed gears looking for fewer warped defense and relying more heavily on Kyrie’s prodigious offensive talent to carry the load.
Brown remains one of the most compelling storylines for the Celtics in the regular season because they need more 2017-’18 Jaylen Brown if they are going to make a run in the East.
What’s it going to take for this Celtics team to make the Finals this year?
More than anything, finding an identity where everyone is comfortable and contributing. The Celtics have too many players who want the ball more which is leading to some… ill-advised shots early in the shot clock. Finding a winning formula may involve shipping some current roster pieces out before the deadline or it may be as as simple as ripping off a long winning streak and duplicating the formula every night.
Players will have to buy into limited roles more and give the Celtics quality minutes off the bench to emphasize the depth of talent the team has. But how they get those minutes (and convince players to subjugate their own interests and play styles for the good of the team is anyone’s guess.)
One underrated and under discussed problem Boston has faced this season is the health (and possible decline) of Al Horford. Horford was nearly a DPOY-level player last season and became the center of a stifling defense in the playoffs. This year, he hasn’t been his suffocating self and the team has suffer because of it. Eventually Horford’s age and mileage will catch up to him and the quiet 14-7 nights will turn into even quieter 11-6 nights. But Brad Stevens and Co have to hope the end isn’t coming yet if they want to top Milwaukee and Toronto in the postseason.
Who wins — Nets or Celtics?
The Celtics are coming off back-to-back loses to middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference foes (Miami and Orlando). If they want to have any hope of breaking back into the “Eastern Conference contenders” debate (possibly a long shot sitting 8 wins behind Toronto and 5 behind Milwaukee at the halfway mark of the season) and any hope of finding team cohesion, they need to take care of business against teams hovering around .500.
The Nets have been impressive and continue to exceed expectations making tonight’s matchup tough, but the Celtics would like to avoid carrying a three-game losing streak into Wednesday’s contest with the Raptors. Kenny Atkinson’s squad should never be taken lightly, but I give Boston the edge in this one, though I think it will be closer than they would like.
1/16 – at Rockets
With what he’s done over the past month, is James Harden your pick for MVP? Why/why not?
I still think Giannis has a slight edge, mainly because his numbers are just as insane and the Bucks have a 6 ½ game lead over the Rockets in the standings, which is fairly significant. If the Rockets continue to win and finish closer to the Bucks then Harden has a really strong case that is hard to ignore, similar to Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 MVP campaign. I mean, Harden is averaging 40.5 points, 9.5 assists and 7.3 rebounds per game over the last 15 games, which is crazy just to type out. Obviously the Rockets would like to get Chris Paul and Eric Gordon back while also trading for another capable player which should lower Harden’s numbers moving forward, but it’s hard to not be in awe of a player averaging over 34 points, 8.7 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game on really good efficiency (62.2 TS%) with the heaviest workload in the entire league.
Things look better for Houston at this point, but there are still holes the team needs to fill. What realistic options are there to get this team back to the Western Conference Finals?
The realistic targets for the Rockets are on the wing and backup center. Nene has been solid in his role but he can’t play in a lot of match-ups with the better teams in the league, nor can he really play more than 10-12 minutes per game. Meanwhile, the Rockets are relying on James Ennis, Danuel House and P.J. Tucker as the primary wing defenders and it hasn’t been successful (the Rockets are 25th defensively for the season and still just 20th since December 1).
The name that is thrown around a lot is Kent Bazemore, and with good reason. He is a solid enough defender that can hit open threes and create good looks for himself when the ball is in his hands. If the Nets fall out of the playoff picture over the next couple of weeks (which I don’t see happening), DeMarre Carroll would also make sense for Houston.
Who wins — Nets or Rockets?
The Nets have been playing much better as of late and are a surprisingly solid road team, but the Rockets have been a really good home team and are in a groove, having won 13 of their past 16 games. Harden is on another level since the start of December, and his supporting cast has been filling their roles admirably, so the Rockets should have enough to win at home.
1/18 – at Magic
Nikola Vucevic has been playing at an All Star level this year. What’s changed? He’s always been a guy I thought was good, but this year it feels like he’s just playing at a different level than before?
Spot on. The 28-year-old has been the MVP of this team and a revelation for the Magic this season, ranking in the top ten in nearly every category for centers, and seventh overall in the NBA in Box plus/minus and VORP.
What makes this year different is the effect his play has had on his teammates. The Magic are +24.6 points better per 100 possessions with Vucevic on the floor, a monumental improvement, and he’s doing it on both ends (16th in Defensive plus/minus).
It certainly helps to have a healthy roster for a change, after losing Terrence Ross and Jonathan Isaac for a combined 100 contests in addition to double-digit losses to Fournier and Aaron Gordon last year. Having capable perimeter defenders certainly helps Vucevic manage his rotations and find the right positioning in the paint to best deter slashing perimeter scorers and leaves him in a position that suits him best. Vucevic is a more than capable defender one-on-one, having thoroughly dominated Joel Embiid in one contest and outplaying him in the previous one.
This Magic team goes so far as Vucevic takes them. He single-handedly gets them buckets when they need them most and facilitates the offense along with DJ Augustin.
What’s your take at this point on Mo Bamba’s development? Is he what you thought he’d be for this team?
I’ll start by saying Mo Bamba is a rookie who has a ton of growth and development to go through, and has shown flashes of an elite-level rim protector who can make defenses pay from the perimeter with his silky smooth release.
That being said, he’s been terrible. Not at all what the Magic were hoping to get from their sixth overall pick when they lucked into him following the Hawks’ trade to acquire Trae Young and an additional future first from the Dallas Mavericks.
The Magic have been -18.4 points worse per 100 possessions with Bamba on the floor. He’s too late on defensive rotations and often gets played out of position offensively. He’s not one for off-ball movement, struggles in pick-and-roll situations, and lacks the athleticism to outleap defenders for second-chance opportunities, instead relying on his endless length.
I’ve been calling for the Magic to bench him for the past month and it appears he forced their hands when he tweaked his ankle last week. Khem Birch entered in his place, and the Magic immediately improved, leading the Jazz by 21 before faltering late, then dispelling the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets at home.
It’s not all on Bamba. The bench as a whole has been a nightmare offensively. The Magic invested quite a bit to acquire Jerian Grant, and he’s been relegated to the bench in recent weeks racking up DNPs. Jonathon Simmons is playing the worst basketball of his career, averaging just seven points on 35% shooting (YIKES!). Bamba is also often paired with Jonathan Isaac, and that has been a monumental failure (-20 per 100).
Bamba will improve in time. But if the Magic want to contend for the playoffs, he’ll have to do it from the bench.
Who wins — Nets or Magic?
The Magic have been quite good at home this season. Their 12-11 mark may not turn heads on paper, but is a colossal improvement over their 7-13 road record and it largely has to do with shooting. The Magic simply play better offensively in the comforts of the Amway.
The Nets have also been quite good recently, only losing two of their last six contests, and those coming at the hands of the Celtics and Raptors.
The Magic have hardly been predictable this season, but they have been better than many casual fans may have recognized. They have victories over the Cetlics (2x), Lakers (2x with Lebron), 76ers, Spurs, Jazz, and Rockets.
I’m giving this game to them, and tightening the gap between the Nets and the Magic who are separated by just 1.5 games. 108-104 Magic.