Maneuverability is a key asset in today's NBA. Gone are the days when a team searched for a marquee name that would guide them through the next decade-and-a-half, so much so that the very notion has become positively quaint. Nowadays it's all about teams maintaining maneuverability with regards to their roster and cap so that they can make a key move at the right moment that might attain positive results for the next two-to-three years (the longest any team can reasonably say they're in a position to plan for).
To that end, the New Jersey Nets are as equipped as any team to make a big splash in the trade and/or free agent market. They have Troy Murphy's $12 million expiring contract, they have two first-round picks this year, and possibly two next year (depending on whether or not Golden State's protection parameters kick in) and they've got a billionaire owner who is willing (and eager) to spend in the name of winning. They also have an enviable trove of young, tradable assets like Devin Harris, Terrance Williams and rookie Derrick Favors, and they've already shown this summer they are willing to part with young talent in a trade after sending Courtney Lee to Houston in the four-team deal that got them Murphy. They key for them, though, is 7-foot centre Brook Lopez, the lone untouchable player on this roster and key asset they would use to entice free agents or superstars demanding trades to Newark. Few are paying much attention to Lopez today, but you've got to figure that sooner or later that's going to change.
In 36 minutes per game last season, Lopez was one of the league's most effective centres, going for 18.8-and-8.6 per-game, and he stretched his reliable range out to about ten feet after a rather post-bound rookie season. He was top-ten for centres in PER last season at 20.11, and fourth if you only count guys that played over 70 games last year. He's also in the top-fifteen in the league in terms of value-added to the team, a statistical measure that estimates how many more points a player adds to a team's season total when compared against what an average replacement player would bring. By just about any statistical measure, Lopez is a keeper.
The question, though, has to be whether or not he is a star in this league, or if he has the juice to become one on a winning club. His stats are very impressive, but so are the stats of David Lee, Andrew Bogut and Nenê. Lopez's per-minute stats also took a hit last season when his minutes jumped by almost six per-game. While his efficiency hardly took a nosedive, his overall numbers projected as higher in his rookie year than what he put out in his sophomore campaign. Plus, Lopez played on a 12-win team last season, one that only narrowly missed the distinction of recording the fewest wins ever in a single season. No matter how high his star may rise, his career will never be able to fully shake off the stigma of that season. Also, because of his standing as one of the few reliable players on his team last season, his usage rate was absurdly high, eclipsing even that of Dwight Howard. With the team having imported some more talent this spring (including new head coach Avery Johnson), one has to wonder if he'll have the same opportunity to be so elementally involved in the Nets attack.
The odds are he'll probably still be a linchpin for this team, though. The Nets have loudly rebuffed any trade calls about him and at this point he is the best thing that this team has going for them. While they still need a superstar to flank him, the club has the maneuverability with regards to the rest of its operations that they are uniquely primed to acquire one. Whether or not that means they can actually do so is another question, but for now Lopez has to be excited about the future with the Nets. They aren't exactly great today, but few teams are as well positioned to be exciting down the road.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – DEVIN HARRIS
While a lot of players saw their reputations take a hit last year (Vince Carter, Hedo Turkoglu, Richard Jefferson), few saw as precipitous a fall-off as Harris. Two years ago the Nets were hailed for their poaching of Harris from the Mavericks, and his All-Star berth in 2008-09 appeared to validate that impression. Last year, though, when the Nets truly needed a star and a leader to carry them through a transitional year, Harris wilted. His scoring dropped off from 21.3 to 16.9 points per-game, he shot career-lows from the field and from three-point range (40.3% and 27.6%) and he completely gave up on playing the kind of defence most expected out of him in his early years in Dallas. He went from being considered an emerging star at his position to being an afterthought. He ranked below Nate Robinson in Player Efficiency last season, for heaven's sake. Wherever the Nets are heading as an organization, Harris has played himself out of an integral role in the voyage.
SG – TERRENCE WILLIAMS
Williams had a very rocky rookie season, and saw his minutes diminish precipitously for most of the year while Williams tweeted what it would have been like to be drafted to Toronto or Charlotte rather than New Jersey. However, in the last two months the Nets opted to ride him harder (what were they going to lose by giving him more minutes?) and he responded by averaging 14-7-6 to close out the season. Williams looked like a man transformed by the opportunity, and he went for 19-3-5 in the Orlando Summer League this July. Whether any of this can transfer itself to the meaningful games early in the season remains to be seen, as does how Williams responds to much greater wing depth on the team, but for now the Nets are just ecstatic to have a reason for optimism with last year's lottery pick.
SF – TRAVIS OUTLAW
Outlaw spent a couple of seasons in Portland as one of the league's sixth-man darlings. He was one of the few reserves in the NBA that could come into a game and change the whole tenor of his team, getting a slow-footed Portland unit running and being oddly reliable in clutch situations. However, Outlaw spent a contract year battling injuries and a trade to the Clippers (a fate almost worse than injury) and hit the open market this summer as a devalued commodity. The Nets were routinely slammed for inking Outlaw to a five-year deal at $7 million per year, mostly because as encouraging as his bench production was, you're still talking about a guy that, at his best, was a 13.3-ppg scorer. Why commit to five years for a player like that, especially when he's going to be 31 at the end of the deal? We'll see if the Nets knew something about Outlaw's game that no one else did in a few weeks.
PF – TROY MURPHY
Sometimes it pays off to throw a rookie into the fire right away to test his mettle, but the Nets feared that third-overall pick Favors was just too raw for such an experiment. Enter Murphy, one of the league's premier stretch-fours that is also a tremendous rebounder (dismissing the old excuse as to why Mehmet Okur and Andrea Bargnani manage such pedestrian rebounding numbers) and a massive expiring contract. As a compliment to Brook Lopez's post game, Murphy's career 40% three-point shooting is ideal, as he'll pull double-teams out of the post so that Lopez can work uninterrupted. Whether or not his stay lasts beyond this season (or even through this season) remains a mystery, but for now there is next to no risk in acquiring Murphy for this roster.
C – BROOK LOPEZ
Lopez is entering a phase of his career where know-it-all writers and bloggers are hurrying to talk up his merits and claim him as their find. It's a nice place to be because he has an army of literate supporters pushing his name into the spotlight. The potential for danger, though, is that these boosters are fickle, and when they stake their reputations on a player and that player doesn't live up to the hype, they get torn down mighty fast (watch out for the same treatment for Kevin Love). That makes this a key year for Lopez, because even though the Nets aren't expected to be much more than, at best, a bubble Playoff team, it's time for him to take the reigns of this club as their on-court leader. The organization has basically thrust him into that role anyway, so now it's up to him to either shy away from it or embrace it.