The Shaun Livingston project

shaun-livingston-project
Nets' Shaun Livingston drives past Clippers' Chris Paul. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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Pity the Nets, who can't seem to escape the shadow of their cross-town rivals. 

Last season, they were competitive in their first season in Brooklyn, winning 49 games and earning a first-round playoff series against the Bulls, which they lost in seven games. But the Knicks were better, winning 54 games, and went further, to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

This season, the Nets are struggling.

The latest disappointment came Monday night when, despite a 40-point first quarter. they lost to the Trailblazers, 108-98.

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"Just bad coaching," a glum Jason Kidd said when it was over. "I take the blame for this. The guys played hard, and we got a little stagnant on the offensive end."

It wasn't an isolated incident for the 3-7 Nets. On Saturday night in Los Angeles, four starters didn't play: Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the two big offseason acquisitions, along with Deron Wiliams, the team's best player, and Brook Lopez, the team's all-star center.

And once again, the Knicks are keeping the Nets off the back pages, this time thanks to an unsurpassable display of dysfunctionality. 

Whether it's James Dolan screaming at his just-hired general manager for the state of a team he didn't put together, or looking to exile his only decent young player, Iman Shumpert, for some real or imagined crime against Dolan, the Knicks are still the only show in town. 

The Nets should be happy more people aren't watching, given the funereal atmosphere that permeated the Barclays Center Monday, and the boos ringing down when the game ended, and the locker room inexplicable kept closed for 25 minutes after the game, in violation of league policy. When it opened, it was left to Mason Plumlee, then Shaun Livingston, to address reporters.

And yet, despite all the drama, there was never very much the Nets could have done in November to have much of an effect on this season, which will ultimately be judged by what happens in May. That's when this roster was built to excel. 

What the Nets need is time.

The way Livingston has managed to thrive in the interim as the starting point guard, playing huge minutes, indicates that he may pay large dividends for this team, and Deron Williams, for the rest of the season.

Livingston, who was as highly regarded coming out of high school as any point guard in recent memory, struggled badly with injuries for most of his career. This season for the Nets, though, he's been sensational, with an 18.5 Player Efficiency Rating in a league where 15 is average, shooting better than 51 percent from the field, limiting his turnovers, and serving as more than just an effective steward of the Nets' offense.

Monday night, against Damian Lillard, one of the best point guards in the league, Livingston put on a show. Not only did he score 23 points, the most he'd scored since he logged a carrer-high 25 in a game back in 2009-10, he provided visual evidence that his physical problems are behing him with this ridiculous dunk over Brook Lopez's twin brother, Robin. If the play of Livingston hadn't been getting everybody's attention, the dunk sure will.

Still, Livingston stood and faced reporters, in the midst of one of the best stretches of his career, and had to take his share of the blame for the 3-7 start. So it was a muted reflection I got from him on his hot streak of late.

"Just trying to stay aggressive," Livingston said to the assembled reporters in front of his locker. "I talk with the coaches. Just try to be an extension of them when I'm on the floor."

Livingston's intelligence and physical renaissance are fun. But bottom line, the Nets aren't going anywhere without a healthy Garnett, Pierce, Lopez, and probably Williams. The backup for Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, was also expected to play big minutes, and is injured as well. Evaluating this team, as-is, doesn't make much sense.

But when Williams returns, his point-guard-turned-coach, Jason Kidd, knows he can count on Livingston to spell Williams for extended periods down the stretch, and even play important minutes in playoff games. This is vital for Williams, who clearly has trouble keeping his ankles healthy, though it would be key for any star.

"Shaun has been great," Kidd said, in a rare positive note from his postgame presser. "He was one of the guys I wanted. He fit right in with this group. Again, we've asked Shaun to go from playing 18 minutes, to playing almost 30 minutes a night. So: he's a pro, couldn't ask for a better person, and he's doing everything, leading the team right now until we do get healthy. That just shows what kind of player he is."

So for now, these are Shaun Livingston's Nets. They're 3-7, which is only daunting until realizing that the Nets have played 10 of 82 games. For some perspective, they started last season 14-14, mediocre enough to get coach Avery Johnson fired in roughly three times as many contests. They still cruised to a playoff spot.

That only changes should Williams and the other stars fail to get healthy in time to help the Nets this year. But Pierce and Garnett are essentially irreplaceable from the roster. Same with Lopez--I mean, Reggie Evans started at center Monday night. 

But Shaun Livingston looked like the starting point guard anyone who saw him years ago assumed he'd be. That also doesn't matter all that much now, when the city is focused on the follies of the Knicks. But it could prove crucial to the effort the Nets make to take over the city next spring.