The best thing to happen to the Brooklyn Nets this season?
Three words sum that up: Los Angeles Lakers.
Because without the Lakers' early struggles, without Kobe Bryant sulking and Mike Brown sweating, we might otherwise have our attention turned to the East Coast version of what was supposed to be the next best thing.
To say it hasn't exactly gone according to script would be understatement.
There is a reason Avery Johnson should be sending a lovely fruit basket to Mike Brown.
Because as much as the move to Brooklyn was all about getting out from under the Knicks' shadow, there is something to be said about going largely unnoticed amid the Lakers' current shadow of gloom.
Still very much caught in the Knicks' shadow (they're good), the Nets (they're not) have yet to offer any hint that the addition of Joe Johnson and the return to health of Brook Lopez will create the type of turnaround expected with their relocation.
Instead, Avery Johnson finds himself playing the same card the Heat played two years ago amid the initial rough patch with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the same card Brown is playing in L.A.
"Ten games from now, guys, I'm going to have more and more information about our team and where we are," the Nets coach said before Wednesday's 30-point blowout loss in Miami, essentially asking for more than an eighth of the season to evaluate. "The real, encouraging thing is we've got a really good basketball team. We have some really good pieces.
"Now, the chemistry part of it is trying to get the pieces to work together. That's what I tell Avery Jr. He's taking chemistry now. Trying to get the pieces to work together."
Mikhail Prokhorov provided the pieces, agreed to pay the luxury tax, is talking about conference finals. He hardly is looking for high-school chemistry analogies.
To a degree, the pressure is similar to what Brown, Bryant, Gasol, Howard and (still-sidelined) Nash are dealing with on the opposite coast.
The difference is the Lakers have an infrastructure. The Kobe-Pau formula has already provided previous rewards. But Johnson, Wallace, Lopez and even Deron Williams are just names. They haven't accomplished a single thing together, and even individually their playoff resumes hardly are overwhelming.
"Nobody said we're on Miami's level," Avery Johnson said.
Except that Joe Johnson said exactly that on the eve of the season, that he could see the Nets pushing the Heat in the East, to a degree his own, " ... not four, not five, not six ... " bit of misspeak.
"We aspire to get there," Avery Johnson said. "We're not there yet, but we're going to get there one day, and it's going to take an enormous amount of work. We have to go through some struggles together."
Because of the way the East is shaking out, there will be plenty of winnable games along the way. But at this point, the question is not whether the Nets are at the level of the Heat, but rather the level of the Celtics and the Knicks, or even the level of what the 76ers might be when Andrew Bynum returns.
Fail to jump any of those four teams and the Nets are opening the playoffs on the road. And one-and-done in the postseason hardly could have been the projection when Prokhorov added Joe Johnson and exposed himself to a Lakers-like luxury tax.
To a degree, we already know plenty about Joe Johnson. How he is the type capable of putting a team on his shoulders with a second-round ceiling.
And Williams is plenty elite, even amid what he has endured with the Nets.
The wild card is Lopez, who the Nets initially tried to foist on the Magic as a legitimate Dwight Howard offset and then signed to franchise-center money.
"You look at a guy like Bosh. Would you say he's in better game-shape than Brook?" Avery Johnson said, pausing for an answer not given. "The answer is yes. Because he's a guy that played a whole regular season for the most part last year.
"We'll get there. We've got to get in better effort shape. And I think once we get in better effort game shape, you'll see the results changed."
The difference in Los Angeles is the Lakers thought they knew what they had, believed a mere introduction of the Princeton offense would bond it together.
By contrast, Avery Johnson is the first to admit he's not sure how the pieces will fit.
"In February, if we're sitting around and we blow a 20-point lead then we'll be really ready to go crazy," he said in reference to the Timberwolves debacle. "But it's new experiences. A lot of our guys are still feeling each other out a little bit. Brook's getting in better, better physical game conditioning. So I could keep going on and on.
"We don't have an identity yet. Hopefully, as the season, goes on we'll build one."
The luxury, at the moment, is what previously had stood as the bane of the Nets' New Jersey existence: no one watching, no one caring.
That's because the Lakers were supposed to be great, and they're not.
The Nets merely were supposed to be good, and they're not even that yet.
The start of 2012-13 was supposed to be about a new vision taking root for the Nets, a tree growing in Brooklyn, if you will. Instead, to this point, little has taken root.
For now, it's not an issue. But soon, the Nets will get what they want: someone taking notice. It will be interesting to see if they're truly ready for that.
Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.
PBT: LeBron James created self-imposed pressure to win "not two, not three, not four" titles. Thus, should the Heat's title chase fail, it's his legacy that will take the hit.
PBT: All season long, the Heat have largely coasted, only turning up their intensity when facing elimination. That won't be good enough in Game 6 tonight.
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