Pre-Game

Game Day: Brooklyn Nets @ Toronto Raptors, Mar. 8

Stage set for history to repeat:

Entering tonight’s game versus Brooklyn there is an interesting correlation to the last time the Nets played in Toronto as the game came on the heels of a Raptors home loss. Moreover, it began what would stretch into the longest home winning streak in franchise history.

Since the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets last played there have been sweeping changes made within the Brooklyn organization. From a roster perspective the buy out of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson not only signals a new era, but also lowers Brooklyn below the luxury tax line. Yet arguably the most important change occurred in management with the signing of new General Manager Sean Marks.

It’s hard not to view this addition as anything other than a huge win for the Nets who’ll have an executive who cut his teeth within the most successful professional sports franchise – the San Antonio Spurs.

In preparation for tonight’s third meeting between the teams I reached out to our ESPN True Hoop affiliate – Brooklyn’s Finest to pick the brain of Managing Editor – Paul Mitchell.

TR: Brooklynnets.com features a video Q and A with Sean Marks (see below) discussing his plans to build a winning franchise. While “culture change” is a trendy topic in the NBA I think it would be fair to say that is exactly what Marks primary goal appears to be. He speaks of having patience and taking a different approach to the rebuild (for lack of a better phrase) into a top tier club. He also touches on the fact he’ll utilize lessons learned in San Antonio such as accessing “untapped markets” (read: European) for players as well as staff.

So my first question is three fold:

Q1: What immediate culture changes can we expect Marks to implement and how will they affect the remainder of this season?

PM: As you said, the concept of culture change is often talked about in the NBA, if rarely quantified. Sean Marks has spoken extensively on his experiences with the San Antonio Spurs in any interviews he’s given since taking the general manager position, and on Adrian Wojnarowski’s The Vertical podcast . Marks repeatedly mentioned the communication and familial atmosphere in San Antonio that was ingrained by R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich. He explained that it was the little things about the Spurs that stuck out to him as a career journeyman, like his head coach showing an interest in his players’ personal lives and using humor to relate over the course of a long season, or of management’s clear communication as to how a player can improve and increase their playing time.

Chemistry and culture can’t solve a lack of talent, and any ramifications will probably be felt in the long term, but this Nets team could use a consistent and positive voice over their final 19 games and into next season. Under previous head coach Lionel Hollins, rotations were often inconsistent – especially among younger players – while communication was never a strength, and we’ve already seen the team play a bit better under interim coach Tony Brown as he’s expanded his rotations. Marks’ consistent messages of togetherness and communication should be especially effective in player development, which will be of utmost importance due to the team’s draft constraints.

Q2: Given the absence of draft picks do you anticipate Marks will augment his free agency recruitment with a heavy assist from the global market to help populate next season’s roster?

PM: Absolutely, and though it might not be a highlight of any free agent pitches this summer, the NBA’s Developmental League will also be an avenue through which Marks will look to acquire talent. The organization will open its own affiliate next season with the Long Island Nets, and Marks has already dipped into the DLeague talent pool this year with the signing of Sean Kilpatrick (who was signed to a 10-day contract and could get a second look, after scoring 39 points in three games last week).

Marks’ predecessor, Billy King, was hamstrung by his own ambitions and was forced to get creative in filling out his rosters, whether by buying back into the second round (Markel Brown) or trading second rounders for draft rights (Bojan Bogdanovic) or signing international free agents with the mid-level exception (Mirza Teletovic). Marks will be in an even deeper hole, thanks to King’s flippancy in trading first-round picks, and will need to find high-upside players through unconventional methods.

Q3: Mikhail Prokhorov has implied Marks will have full control and autonomy.  Ronald Agers article on Brooklyn’s Finest detailed it was even a discussion point in the Marks’ negotiations. Do you believe the Russian owner will stay true to his word?

“The reason why Sean Marks was hired by the Brooklyn Nets is the reason why they almost lost him…Sean Marks is not stupid.

According to the Sporting News, sources originally offered Marks a three-year deal with the Russian ownership having a say in the personnel matters. Well we’ve all seen how that worked out. Marks wasn’t having that (smartly) and decided to turn that down.” – Agers

PM: I think this is the most important and underrated question from the Sean Marks acquisition, yet also the biggest unknown going forward. Prokhorov has never been renowned for his patience, and the pursuit of win-now acquisitions has already cost Billy King his job as general manager and set the franchise back years (going back to acquiring Gerald Wallace in exchange for a top-three protected draft pick that became Damian Lillard).

There’s a very good chance that the losses – both financially and on the court – have caught up to ownership, and that the signing of Marks signifies its seriousness in stabilizing the franchise and fixing the on-court product. Prokhorov can still provide his quotables, but will need to limit his basketball input to training drills over personnel decisions.

I’m personally pessimistic that Prok can keep his influence away from the basketball operations department, though Marks’ four-year guaranteed contract indicates the trust that ownership has in his basketball acumen, and could always keep him in Brooklyn longer than the current ownership group.

TR: Brooklyn has won 3 of their past 6 games, and are showing signs of improvement across the board. During the season the Nets rank 27th in the three key categories of offense, defense and net differential, however since the All-Star break they’ve improved to 10th, 25th and 21st respectively. Notably the blowout Saturday (which Lopez and Young didn’t play in) versus the Timberwolves had a major effect to these standings as prior to that game the Nets were 17th on defense and 16th in net differential.

Q4: What do you attribute these substantial improvements to and can the team utilize this progress as motivation to finish strong and carry it forward to next season?

PM: Is it too easy to just say “waiving Andrea Bargnani”? It might be a stretch to pin it all on Bargs, but the larger theme of redistributing minutes from older, ineffective veterans to younger players certainly factors into it, as well as the usual caveats of small sample size and the team’s inevitable improvement after starting the season so poorly.

As far as game-to-game adjustments, interim head coach Tony Brown has continued to alter the offense after injuries to the team’s starting point guard (Jarrett Jack) and the buyout of their primary ball handler (Joe Johnson), by initiating the offense through Brook Lopez. Lopez has averaged 5.5 assists per game in his eight games since the All-Star break, while the team has played quicker and more efficiently around him, in increasing their field goal percentages by over nine points per game and making 39.9-percent as a team from the three-point line over that stretch.

Brown’s empowering of his players, ranging from Brook Lopez’s passing skills to Shane Larkin running high screens to Markel Brown’s improving offensive confidence, might be the best overall answer, as far as what has fueled the substantial improvements from the team and yet can also carry over into future seasons.

TR: As per above, the Nets current success is occurring with interim head coach Tony Brown at the helm. That said, it’s common for new GM’s to want to put their own stamp on a franchise starting with the selection of the head coach.

Q5: Given Brown’s recent success does he have a shot at the full time position or do you envision Marks will hire from outside? And if he does hire externally has there been any speculation on who the candidate(s) might be?

PM: That being said, I can’t foresee a scenario where Tony Brown returns as Nets head coach next season, barring an incredible win streak or a Brook Lopez ultimatum (and even then…). Brown has succeeded in adapting to his roster and getting his players to play hard, but the bench could be an area where ownership has some pull this summer and looks to target a big-name head coach with previous professional coaching experience.

Because this is the Brooklyn Nets, speculation has been rampant for weeks already as to the coaching candidates, with two of the most consistent names linked to the organization being Tom Thibodeau and Ettore Messina. Thibodeau should have his pick of head coaching options after sitting a season out (though he won’t get personnel control in Brooklyn with the Marks signing), while Messina has worked with Marks when both were with the San Antonio Spurs and has coached previously under Prokhorov for CSKA Moscow (to which he coached the team to two Euroleague championships). Other names linked to the head coaching position have included ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy and former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt. (New York Post source article)

Visit http://brooklynsfinestblog.com/ for more from Paul Mitchell and his staff or follow him on twitter @PaulMitchellNBA

Now on to the game breakdown:

Game Details:

Venue: Air Canada Center, Toronto, Ontario

Game Time: 7:30 PM ET

TV: Sportsnet One

Radio: WFan and  TSN Radio 1050 Toronto

Walking wounded:

Nets:

  • Brook Lopez missed Saturday’s game for personal reasons, but should be in the line-up tonight
  • Thaddeus Young missed Saturdays’s T-Wolves game with a sore ankle, is probable for tonight
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – ankle, his timetable for return remains uncertain (CBS says possibly March 11th)
  • Jarrett Jack had surgery on his right knee and is out for season

Raptors:

As per rotoworld and CBS Sports

Projected rotation:

Nets:

Point Guard: Donald Sloan, Shane Larkin
Shooting Guard: Wayne EllingtonMarkel Brown, Sean Kilpatrick, Sergey Karasev
Small Forward: Bojan Bogdanovic
Power Forward: Thaddeus Young, Thomas Robinson, Willie Reed, Chris McCullough,
Center: Brook Lopez,

Based on the players true positions the Nets are heavy on shooting guards and power forwards, but short on small forwards now that Joe Johnson is gone.

Raptors:

Point Guard: Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph,  Delon Wright
Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Norman Powell
Small Forward: James Johnson
Power Forward: Luis Scola, Patrick Patterson, Jason Thompson
Center: Jonas Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Lucas Nogueira

Notes:

  • With 2 more wins versus Atlantic Division teams the Raptors will tie their best efforts (11).
  • Another 7 home wins will tie the franchise record (30)
  • With 10 more wins vs the East the team will tie the franchise record (36)
  • With 9 more wins the Raptors will achieve their first 50 win season.

    Nets at Toronto

Comparison:

Not surprisingly Toronto hold an advantage in almost every category other than points in the paint and assists. That said, it’s important the Raptors don’t take this Brooklyn team for granted. The Nets are playing much better with their youngsters receiving more minutes and Lopez feasts on the Raptors front court posting his highest scoring average (20.8 ppg) of any opponent.

Further, as I noted above the Nets have made significant strides especially on offense since the break:

Nets since the break

An area Toronto should be wary of is the Nets three point shooting which has improved to 39.1%  ranking them fourth since the break. Given the Raptors perimeter defensive struggles of late (rank 29th: 37.6%) Brooklyn offers a prime opportunity to refocus their efforts in this area.

Three keys to the win:

Valanciunas: At Brooklyn on January 6th, Brook Lopez delivered 24 points, 13 rebounds (5 offensive)  and 3 blocks with a minus -9. What kept this impressive line from mattering was Valanciunas was equally strong with 22 points, 11 rebounds (4 offensive) and 2 blocks, but was a much more friendly plus +20. JV also accomplished his line in 10 fewer minutes. In the second meeting in Toronto JV was less effective shooting 3 for 11 for 6 points though he did grab 12 boards. Suffice to say this is the critical match-up for the Raptors, so look for the guards to feed JV early in anticipation of making Lopez work on defense.

Defense!: Every team will have nights when the ball isn’t falling or they lose focus (just ask Golden State after their loss to the Lakers), but the Raptors have been regressing defensively for more than a few games. Although we know the return of DeMarre Carroll is approaching the Raptors can’t wait til then to get back to basics. Consistent habits will make the difference, so why not utilize the Nets to begin that process.

Maintain intensity for 48 minutes: The Nets are returning from a 7 game Western road trip. Often the first game back on your own coast is the toughest as players adjust to time zone changes. Tony Brown was obviously hoping to offset this by giving Young and Lopez Saturday night off. Conversely the Raptors are in the middle of a 7-game home stand having lost their first game in nearly 2 months at the ACC on Sunday.  Given this advantage Toronto should look to jump on Brooklyn early and maintain intensity, focus and effort through 48 minutes. It’s not often teams get to rest players, but if the Raptors play up to their level this game offers the best opportunity to do exactly that. With the next three opponents being the surging Hawks, Heat and Bulls that benefit could pay big dividends.

The line:

The odds makers sure do like Toronto in this one favoring them by 12 points with an over under of 207 points and early action heavy on the Raptors.

In Closing:

I’m wondering if the extended All-Star break isn’t too long. To wit, although the top teams are still winning they have lost an edge, and it’s not just the Raptors. The Warriors have the 18th ranked defense over this period and of the top 5 ranked offenses this season only Toronto has performed at a comparable level (actually improving to the topped ranked offense post ASB). Oklahoma City has been the worst hit with defensive regression and trouble finishing which resulted in a couple of bad losses.  It’s something to keep an eye on especially since the Lakers and Nets rank in the top 10 of post break offenses, but rank 29th and 27th on the year.

So, while the Raptors fall off defensively is disconcerting there is definitely time to refocus and get back on track. Certainly when Carroll returns it will assist in that regard, but the team needs to utilize games like tonight to re-establish their fundamental principles.  Look for the Raptors to do just that.

Raptors by 10

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