Nets coach Avery Johnson sat at a podium Monday in a dimly lit room with the aura of a swanky nightclub — one tucked inside a massive arena that looks something like a rusty spaceship — and fielded questions from the largest, most engrossed group of reporters the Nets had seen in quite some time.
This was media day, Brooklyn style.
Everything about the Nets is different this season, the franchise’s first in the brand new Barclays Center (which is as spectacular on the inside as it is mystifying on the outside). Gone are the days of half-empty arenas, apathetic fans and underwhelming expectations for rosters that didn’t have a chance.
The Brooklyn Nets, who open training camp with their retooled lineup Tuesday, are everything the New Jersey Nets weren’t. They’re talented, experienced, fresh and cool; they’re healthy, confident and in high demand. They’ve got elevated expectations and a mean streak, and they’re as edgy and in-your-face as the neighborhood they now call home.
“We want to be a team this year that puts on its hard hat,” the third-year coach Johnson said. “We want to be a team that takes on the personality of Brooklyn. . . . I’ve always believed in teams that have that kind of personality, that don’t complain, don’t make excuses, but just play hard on both ends of the floor.”
The primary goal of the new-look Nets, according to every Brooklyn player who entered the makeshift news conference room Monday, is to win a championship — an objective that would have been scoffed at (or worse) over the last half-decade in Newark. And the idea is to do it sooner than later.
“I feel like we can be special,” point guard Deron Williams said. “I feel like we can be a great team, and I think we are going to be a great team. We have the right mix of youth and veterans and guys are not really worried about contract situations.”
Added new Nets guard Joe Johnson: “This year, the sky’s the limit. I think it’s wide open for us. I think we’ve got a chance to win the whole thing this year. I’m not just saying that; I honestly believe it.”
Certainly, if the Nets are going to have any shot at cashing in their championship aspirations, they’re going to need the All-Star backcourt of Williams and Johnson, who came over from the Atlanta Hawks in the offseason, to do most of the heavy lifting. But they won’t be without help.
Brooklyn missed out on its grand visions of a true Big Three when it failed to trade for Dwight Howard this summer, but even without the league’s best center, the Nets will have a respectable supporting cast.
Nets lifer Brook Lopez inked a new deal with the team during the offseason, as did starting power forward Kris Humphries and former All-Star swingman Gerald Wallace, whom the Nets acquired in a trade with Portland at last season’s trade deadline.
On the bench, Brooklyn has assembled an interesting collection of valuable role players (C.J. Watson, Josh Childress), rugged veterans (Reggie Evans, Keith Bogans, Jerry Stackhouse) and youth with upside (MarShon Brooks, Tyshawn Taylor, Mirza Teletovic).
All told, the Nets have just five holdovers from last year’s squad, and the issue isn’t really whether this year’s team has the talent to make the playoffs. This isn’t the same Nets team that won just 58 games over the last three seasons and hasn’t reached the postseason since 2007. They’ll be playing in May.
The question, rather, is how quickly their hastily assembled roster will jell, and the answer could be the difference between Brooklyn being the East’s best bet to knock off the defending champion Miami Heat and the Nets being a talented playoff also-ran, like their cross-town rivals, the Knicks.
“The main thing is we want to have an upward trend throughout the season, where we continue to get better game by game, practice by practice,” Johnson said. “And hopefully going into the playoffs we’ll be one of the teams to beat.”
Earlier this offseason, Williams organized informal team workouts, hoping to give the Nets a head start on practice and avoid the chemistry issues that have plagued other teams who tried to build a contender overnight by simply collecting superstars. So far, they seem to be having the desired effect.
“We get a different guy every day who amazes me,” Lopez said. “It’s always surprising what they can do, and you can see everybody coming together, jelling together, really becoming a team. I don’t think I’ve been this excited for a season to come my entire time in the league.”
Another nice benefit of being the Nets and not, say, the Heat or the Knicks, is that the pressure to win, while very real, isn’t nearly as overwhelming as it is in Miami or Madison Square Garden. No doubt, Brooklyn is supposed to be good, but few are expecting the Nets to be the best. There’s no LeBron with a ring to win or a storied basketball history to uphold in Brooklyn.
If all the Nets ever amount to is the second- or third-best team in the Eastern Conference, that will be fine — but they’re still good enough that fans will hold out hope that they could turn into something special. And because they’re in their posh new Brooklyn digs, the fans will show up in droves either way.
Not that any of that makes the Nets players any less motivated to win a title.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily pressure to win, but you’re getting that itch to where you want to get a championship,” Wallace said. “Everybody’s hungry, and everybody’s comfortable with what they’ve done in their careers except win a championship. That’s what drives us as players, having that upside and feeling like we can compete.”
And that feeling that there’s something to play for is the biggest and most welcome change brought upon by the new era of Nets basketball.
“It was a lot of sleepless nights, and I don’t want to go into details and keep reliving it, but I think part of reliving it also keeps us humble,” Avery Johnson said, reminiscing on his two seasons in Newark. “Now I’m losing sleep for new reasons.
“I’ve been waiting for this kind of pressure for two years, where there’s pressure on us to win, and expectations are a lot higher. This is what we want; this is what we signed up for. . . . That’s what it’s all about.”