We knew it was coming and now it's here: The soap opera-circus-basketball game known as Jason Kidd's long-awaited return to Brooklyn is upon us.
Kidd's return was not surprisingly a major topic of conversation at Nets' practice this week, though Kidd's former players and Nets executives weren't playing the revenge card. Fans in Brooklyn likely won't be quite so philosophical about Kidd's contributions to the franchise, which is understandable because a) fans are emotional and b) Kidd's playing contributions as a player in New Jersey probably don't mean that much to current season ticketholders in Brooklyn. Expect plenty of boos and heckling of Kidd tonight, though directing boos at a coach is just a bit tougher than a player who actually touches the ball. But so it goes.
Meanwhile, on the court... As for actual basketball, this one means plenty for both teams even without factoring in the Kidd-related drama. Brooklyn has lost four in a row--their latest a 95-83 defeat to the Dwyane Wade-less Heat on Monday--and are curiously beneath the suddenly-respectable 6-5 Bucks in the East standings. While the Nets were never likely to nab a top-four spot even in the so-so Eastern Conference, they're also a win-now project until further notice, which makes tonight's game a significant one for both practical and psychological purposes. Losing a fifth straight + at home + against your former coach + against a young team that shouldn't be better than you = not exactly a recipe for good times. In other words, expect the Nets to bring plenty of energy, though whether motivation alone will be enough to snap out of their slump is another question.
Not that everything is going wrong for the Nets, but a messy first few weeks under Lionel Hollins have underscored why Kidd is happy to have escaped Brooklyn. On the plus side, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are actually posting better raw and efficiency numbers across the board than a year ago, while Jarrett Jack (15.9 PER, 59.3% true shooting) and Mirza Teletovic (16.9 PER, 60.3% TS) are similarly posting more than respectable numbers off the bench. Still, Brook Lopez has yet to hit his stride after yet another preseason foot injury and has been mostly glued to the bench in recent fourth quarters, with a 5-point effort against the Heat doing nothing to relieve pressure on the Nets' nominal best player. And then there's noted Kidd critic Andrei Kirilenko, who's finally healthy but basically isn't playing at all.
Overall, the Nets rank between 10th and 20th in each four factor category on both offense and defense, which more or less defines the "stuck in the middle" predicament facing Hollins and company. There's some young talent here (Mason Plumlee, Bojan Bogdanovic, Sergey Karasev) and the team will eventually have cap space again in 2016, but for now they're a veteran-laden team with a payroll pushing $100 million before luxury tax payments.
Milwaukee brewin'. As for the Bucks? Well, they'll certainly have their own motivations tonight, as Kidd's new team would no doubt love to keep their surprising momentum going and help their new coach stick it to his old team. It's a good test for the young (and surprising) Bucks, whose shootout win over the Knicks on Tuesday put them above .500 for the first time since March 2013. I covered the Bucks' reinvention on and off the court over at ESPN today, so give it a look if you have a chance. As for the Bucks' newfound success, it remains to be seen how sustainable all of this actually is, though a positive start has helped diffuse concerns over minute distributions while giving fans a carrot to re-engage with the Bucks more generally.
The most obvious variable for tonight is the health of Larry Sanders, whose absence last night coincided* with the Bucks posting a season-best 117 points scored and season-worst 115 points allowed. Zaza Pachulia did typical Zaza things in his absence, though taking down Lopez and the Nets would seem more difficult without Sanders' length patrolling the paint. Another interesting matchup will be at the power forward spot, where Jabari Parker and/or Giannis Antetokounmpo will line up against Kevin Garnett. The former MVP has had his share of solid nights thus far this season, though his overall numbers haven't improved markedly under Hollins. We'll have to see if he comes out a bit more aggressive against the Bucks' teenagers, though it should be a good test for them on both ends.