Talk about a thorough overhaul. Twelve months ago the Nets were being written about as a failed experiment, as a collection of All-Star perimeter players who've played too long together without a frontcourt to anchor their attack. Today, after a year of trades and signings, they are a far more balanced team - but they have shed much of their star power in the process as they look to rebuild after finally admitting that they weren't returning to the Finals as currently assembled.
The team now basically starts from scratch. While Vince Carter and Devin Harris had he benefit of playing together for the last-third of the '07-'08 season, their running mates are all fresh blood. Imported via trade this summer were Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. Imported via the draft were Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Signed outright in free agency were Keyon Dooling, Jarvis Hayes and Eduardo Najera.
That basically leaves just Carter as a rotation-player holdover from a year ago. This team's training camp is going to be as much about 'getting-to-know-you' and trust exercises as it's going to be about basketball.
And that should suit the team just fine.
Look, the honest truth is the Nets waited a year too long to start busting-up their core and rebuilding for the future. In that time they saw Jason Kidd erode and become the petulant, contract-hungry, me-first player that got him exiled in Phoenix. Pass-first doesn't always mean team first and Kidd demonstrated that with his wilting effort to start off last season. Despite that, they were able to filch Dallas in a mid-season trade that got them out from under Kidd's pallor AND nabbed them an up-and-coming point guard Harris, as well as a defensive presence Trenton Hassell. Thus began the makeover that saw it's evolution through the trading of Richard Jefferson to the Bucks and the acquisition of a half-roster full of rookies and free agents.
What's left is a talented team without an identity. Fortunately this team resisted the push to oust head coach Lawrence Frank because to go out and hire some first-time coach to lead a rebuilt roster would be poor stratagem in the best of situations (**cough**Chicago**cough**).
What they have in Frank is a capable and ensconced head coach who has survived the purge and has gained a lot of authority as a result now he must fit these disparate pieces together to make a push for a lower Playoff seed to try and capitalize on Carter's remaining prime years.
Although that, as the say, is the rub. In shipping off Kidd and Jefferson, the Nets have now fallen under Carter's questionable leadership. While in Toronto Carter frequently shied away from the responsibilities and accountability of leadership. Once veteran presences like Charles Oakley and Antonio Davis were jettisoned, Carter became even more reluctant, and at times abrasive, when charged with leading young Raptors' squads. He now finds himself in the exact same position four years later. For this team to be even remotely competitive as a brand-new assemblage they are going to have to be able to lean on Carter heavily - a task which history would suggest Carter is not amenable to.
Fortunately, this team is more talented all over the roster than was the team Carter left behind in Canada. Aside from their more balanced starting five, Dooling and Najera are serious upgrades coming off of the bench defensively. Both are proven players who will do wonders to aide this otherwise young core. Up front the team still has some weaknesses, in that Anderson, Stromile Swift, Sean Williams and Josh Boone represent the reserve unit. While the team certainly won't lack for athleticism, going up against teams like Boston, Orlando and Toronto, who all feature dominant front-court presences, will be an exercise in survival for forty-eight minutes, especially if they can sneak into the Playoffs.
Even with the negatives and uphill climbs that will meet the Nets this season; they are in a much better place than they were a year ago. They have promise, they have balance and they have a cap structure that gives them some breathing room going forward. While most eyes are cast towards the summer of 2010 when they look to the Nets, the far more interesting view is here now, where the seeds are being planted to make a run towards that summer and beyond. It may not result in a Playoff berth immediately, but these last twelve months have been nothing but progress for New Jersey's franchise.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG - Devin Harris
Harris was a wonderful get from Dallas. While it's highly unlikely he'll ever be the playmaker that Kidd was, his abilities are nonetheless valuable in today's NBA. His speed, athleticism and finishing prowess put him into a highly-coveted class after Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Tony Parker spent last season blitzkrieging their opponents in the Playoffs. He is likewise not of their respective classes, either, but he'll at least be allowed to play the game the way he feels comfortable in Jersey (out from under Avery Johnson's critical eye) and his defense at his position will be a godsend for a team with developing bigs trying to avoid foul trouble. The penetration he should be able to stop on his own will prove invaluable for guys like Lopez and Jianlian and their in-development defensive reads.
SG - Vince Carter
For all of the grief Carter gets for not being a winning player, it's becoming time for people to just accept what he is and move on. Carter represents a particular aspect of professional sports that exists so far out of normal public life its endless intriguing. Here is a player who is perfectly happy being where he is as a player and a teammate, and yet because of his natural abilities people vilify him for being complacent and indifferent. It's like someone slamming a gifted co-worker at the office for not dying to do paperwork long into the night. Carter is simply a guy who is living out his dream and not holding anyone back as a result of it. Sure he's getting paid unimaginable sums of money, but no one can argue that he doesn't put forth effort to earn it - scoring, rebounding and assisting like he does in the NBA takes tremendous effort -he, however, just chooses to play his game and go home. People want borderline sociopathic behavior from all comers because a league of guys with the dedication of Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett would be incredibly exciting to watch. But that kind of personality is rare and potentially destructive even amongst winners. Carter has simply chosen his path and found people willing to pay him gobs of money to do it. He isn't the first athlete for whom this is true and he won't be the last. To continue to rail on about it a decade later is getting a little bit redundant, one thinks.
SF - Bobby Simmons
This spot could possibly go to a guy like Hassell or even Douglas-Roberts, but for the opening-night tip lets assume this spot is Simmons's to lose. That's because Simmons is that player that everyone keeps waiting to see bust-out again. After all, he walked away with the Most Improved Player award in 2005 and people keep waiting to see that Bobby Simmons again. The truth is that player may have been more a result of opportunity on a bad Clippers team than proof that he is a real NBA standout. He is a somewhat useful player in that he is decently skilled, but given the opportunity to start for Milwaukee last year he floundered, averaging just 7.6 ppg on an unacceptable 42% shooting. He ultimately lost his starting spot and unless he can improve on his output of a year ago will likely do the same here.
PF - Yi Jianlian
Yi is a huge get for Nets going forward. He may never turn out to be the kind of player he was hyped to be going into the Draft a year ago, but he represents the biggest piece of potential on this roster. He cost them Jefferson, not a small price to pay, but if given the option between getting a player like Yi in a trade or another aging borderline All-Star, a responsible GM chooses Yi every time, especially for a team not expected to make the post-season either way. Yi started off last season being hailed as in the class of Kevin Durant and Al Horford. That talk quickly died down as Yi went through some rough rookie initiations. His production and minutes fluctuated and he looked lost by season's end. This season he won't have Charlie Villanueva nipping at his toes for a starting spot and he'll have better (and more willing) passers all over the roster. He may not pan out as a player, but at least it's something new and forward-looking from a tired Nets team.
C - Brook Lopez
Lopez went through quite a saga going into this spring's Draft. First he was the best true big of the bunch, a guaranteed top-three pick. Then he wasn't athletic enough to play in today's NBA and his stock started to slide. Then there were whispers that his brother, Robin, was going to have a better career. Ultimately, after all of the slipping and sliding, Lopez went to the Nets at 10. He should be ecstatic. Aside from the fact that he gets to start right away, and be the team's lone true post-presence, capable players and a legit head coach surround him - a fact that couldn't be said of teams selecting 3 through 9 in the Draft. Lopez is a very traditional big man, and like most bigs of that ilk it could take him a couple of years to adjust to playing against other seven-footers just about every night. He'll struggle, but he was a safe and smart pick at 10 and should be a useful contributor to this team when they are ready to be really competitive again.