Lower payroll, lower expectations, but Nets still have high aspirations

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NEW YORK — The payroll is lower and so are the expectations.

The Brooklyn Nets were one of the biggest stories in basketball at this time last year, a team that had spent like never before and believed it had built a title contender.

They didn't get close.

Even after trading for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and running up a bill that approached $200 million when combining salaries and taxes, the Nets couldn't even win a division title. They got to the second round but were easily dispatched by the Miami team they were assembled to beat.

Pierce is already gone, a decision that was partly financial. But they will still spend well beyond $100 million, tops in the league, and hopes of competing haven't changed.

"Our goal is still to try to win a championship," general manager Billy King said. "We're not taking steps back or anything like that. We're trying to build a team we feel can win."

Center Brook Lopez and point guard Deron Williams are back after surgeries, Joe Johnson is coming off another All-Star season, and Garnett remains a spirited rebounder and defender, even if his offensive game appears gone as he enters his 20th NBA season.

Lionel Hollins is the new coach, King moving quickly to hire the former Memphis Grizzlies coach after Jason Kidd left for Milwaukee after one season. Hollins talks tough and gets his teams to defend the same way, which might be just what the Nets need.

"I feel like he knows what he's doing. He's going to keep his composure obviously and do his thing, regardless of when it's practice, shootaround, or game situation, playoff, finals, whatever," Lopez said. "Lionel's Lionel. He does things his way."

That has so far included being frank in his evaluation of Lopez, who is a gifted scorer but not a great rebounder or passer.

Lopez was leading the Nets with 20.7 points per game when he broke his foot last December and was lost for the year. He sprained the foot last week during the Nets' preseason trip to China, but the Nets said he could return in about two weeks.

Williams has battled ankle pain for much of the last two seasons, struggling to consistently play at an elite level since signing a $98 million contract and winning his second Olympic gold medal in the summer of 2012.

Those two and Johnson were the core of a team that won 49 games just two years ago. So although the Nets aren't getting the headlines of a year ago, they might end up with better results.

"Maybe last year we got too much respect, the year before maybe we didn't," King said. "I think you've just got to play the games."

Here are some things to watch with the Nets:

GARNETT'S GAME: Garnett averaged just 6.5 points and 6.6 rebounds last season, the worst of his career, and was limited to 54 games by injuries. If this is his last season, he believes it will be better than his first one in Brooklyn.

JOE COOL: The Nets have one of the NBA's most clutch shooters in Johnson, who is 7 for 7 from the field and 10 of 11 from the free throw line over the last two years in the final 10 seconds of games when the margin is within three points.

BOJAN IN BROOKLYN: The Nets finally got Bojan Bogdanovic, a 2011 second-round pick of the Heat whom they later acquired, signed in July. Now the Croatian star who had been playing professionally in Turkey could end up as the starting small forward.

PROKHOROV'S PLAN: Though there were reports Mikhail Prokhorov was discussing selling at least part of the team, King says the Russian billionaire plans to remain in control of the club he purchased in 2010. "We put it to rest. I think it's been said, he's not selling," King said.

SMOOTHER START: The Nets were playing catch-up the second half of last season after a dismal 10-21 start under Kidd. With Hollins' experience and what they hope is improved health, they will look for a much better beginning.

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