After an offseason spent acquiring talented but aging players, the expectation for the Brooklyn Nets is quite clear: Win a championship, and quickly.
With a roster full of developing youngsters, the Cleveland Cavaliers' goals are a little more measured - though there's plenty of reason for optimism.
The overhauled Nets seek their ninth win in 11 meetings with the Cavaliers on Wednesday night in Cleveland.
Every member of the starting lineup has been an All-Star, and the Nets (49-33) have a combined 36 All-Star selections. Whereas the Celtics were still unproven around their Big Three, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett join a first five with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, with players such as Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry coming off the bench.
It came at an exorbitant cost. The payroll is more than $100 million and the Nets will be socked with a luxury tax bill of more than $80 million on top of that after blowing miles by the salary cap of $58.7 million.
Owner Mikhail Prokhorov said when he bought the team in 2010 that he wanted a title within five years, and he signed off on a flurry of moves to give himself a chance. The draft-night trade with the Celtics that brought in Pierce, Garnett and Terry was a blockbuster, and other players were signed in hopes of keeping those old guys fresh for the postseason. That trio boasts a combined 47 seasons of playing experience, but each player is at least 36 years old.
Jason Kidd, who led the Nets to two NBA Finals as a player, now is on the bench in his first coaching opportunity. But the most important newcomer may be Garnett, who brings his trademark intensity and the loudest voice in practice to a team that Kidd said was too "vanilla" last season in losing to an undermanned Chicago team in the first round.
"My style is my style, and understand I've grown into this style," Garnett said. "I haven't always been like this. I've had to grow into being a man and understanding responsibilities and having different responsibilities. Through my course of my career from Minnesota to Boston I've understood all that, and now reaping some of those benefits of trial and error, I'm able to give wisdom and advice off of experience."
The Nets are realistic about the difficulty of winning a title with a first-year coach and so many new pieces. League executives who voted in the NBA.com GM Survey favored the Nets to win their division, but none picked them to even win the East, let alone the NBA title.
"I think it's tough to come together and win a championship in the first year. That's not saying it can't be done, we're looking to do that," Williams said. "But as far as people not picking us, that's all right. We'll worry about us, we'll worry about getting better, and we feel like if we get to the playoffs and everybody's healthy, we have a chance to beat anybody."
After a short tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers, Mike Brown is back as the Cavaliers' head coach.
Dismissed in 2010 by owner Dan Gilbert after the Cavs (24-58) were eliminated in the playoffs, Brown inherits a team similar to the one he had in 2005, when LeBron James blossomed into a superstar and Cleveland won 50 games to get back into the postseason for the first time since 1998.
Since Brown left, the Cavs have lost 166 games, a downward spiral that began when James packed up his MVP trophies and talents for Miami. But with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, a revamped roster and playing in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, Cleveland should return to contention and may be one of the league's surprises.
"I feel we definitely have the pieces this year," said Irving, who averaged 22.4 points and 5.9 assists last season. "We have the chance to be something special."
Irving's health holds the key.
He has missed 38 games in his first two pro seasons with a variety of injuries, raising concerns about his durability. But the 21-year-old reported to training camp looking stronger physically and he seems to have done some mental maturing.
Irving wants to be the game's best player, and after coaching James and Kobe Bryant, Brown sees many similarities between his young star and those two icons.
"They want to be coached hard. They want to not only be better, they want to be great," Brown said. "Just being around Kyrie this short amount of time, I'm starting to feel that. He's young and has a ways to grow, but he's hungry to not only be better, but to be the greatest. When you have a guy that has that type of talent, skill level, but has an individual drive on his own to be the greatest, to me that results in a superstar in the making just waiting to blossom."
The Cavs, too, have a chance to bloom into something this season as well. With Irving, guard Dion Waiters, top overall draft pick Anthony Bennett, third-year forward Tristan Thompson and scrappy forward/center Anderson Varejao, Cleveland has a solid core to build around before next summer, when James may again test free agency.
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