NetsDaily Off-Season Report #17

Every Sunday, we’ll be updating the Nets’ off-season with bits and pieces of information, gossip, etc. to help take the edge off missing the playoffs, relying on the Nets’ beat reporters and others who have slipped interesting stuff into larger stories and blogs.

Everyone Has An Opinion…Including Us.

"I think I know that I have no idea what to think about the Nets."
--Ben York, Dime Magazine, August 6, 2009

FOX Sports' Charley Rosen thinks the Nets will be the worst team in the NBA next season. TNT's David Aldridge (who thought the Nets had the best off season last summer) thinks they’ve had the worst one this summer. There are other variations out there—like Al Iannazzone’s predictions of a 22-to-26 win season, but none differ much from the conventional wisdom: the Nets can’t recover from the loss of Vince Carter and the lack of money to make big deals.

Nets players of course remain optimistic, as does Lawrence Frank, who talks of a "special season". What do we think? We don’t know.

We certainly understand the arguments against hope. The Nets will have to find a way to get around losing a guy capable of putting up 30 or 40 points on any given night. Unless someone can step up individually or collectively, Devin Harris and Brook Lopez are likely to be double teamed. There’s also inexperience, youth, whatever. Not to mention the need to turn it around on defense.

Like a few fans, we do see some "green shoots"--to use a currently popular term—but also a lot of rocks painted with "IF" in big capital letters.

The two tallest "green shoots" have to be the two tallest Nets. New Jersey has two 21-year-old seven footers in Lopez and Yi Jianlian. Both have had very, very good summers. Lopez played very well in the Team USA mini-camp, scoring 18 points on 7-for 8 shooting, including a three pointer, working against Greg Oden. Meanwhile on the other side of the Pacific, Yi has been a revelation.

IF Lopez continues his development—improves his post passing, for example, displays more toughness and aggressiveness, he could emerge this season as a top NBA center. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a pundit who doesn’t think it's possible. He'll be getting more touches. After playing all 82 games, he knows a lot more about the NBA game.

IF Yi is able to carry his new game back to the NBA, the hopes Kiki Vandeweghe has long invested in him could become reality. Watching Yi this week in the FIBA Asia Cup, there is undeniable improvement. His ability to hit righty and lefty jump hooks, his strength and aggressiveness underneath, and most of all, his new confidence stand out. He is the undisputed leader of Team China. There are times, however, when he seems to fall back into last year’s bad habits, getting beat on the boards, losing focus.

The biggest IF’s on the team, at least in terms of height, remain the starting center and power forward from 2007-08: Josh Boone and Sean Williams. We haven’t seen or heard much of either of them, but a few things have recently piqued our interest. Boone has been quietly working out at the Nets' practice facility, maybe more than any of the Nets. IF he has developed a mid-range game (and learned to hit some foul shots in games), he could be a valuable piece. He may be the Nets' best pick-and-roll big man and he can play decent defense.

Williams, we noticed, went out to Tim Grgurich’s camp in Las Vegas last week, along with Terrence Williams and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Does this mean the Nets haven’t given up on him? They sent big man coach Roy Rogers (who’s still around) out west with him. IF he can get his life in order…

We also happen to think that the Nets’ most underrated acquisition this summer has been Tony Battie, who plays smart basketball, can pass, hit a 19-footer and fill in at either the four or five.

We also like what we hear from Harris. Harris is an all-star, capable we think of being a 20-and-10 point guard. He went for 21 and 7 last year and as Marv Albert noted, he reminds some NBA veterans of Nate Archibald. The big IF’s with Harris have to do with his ability to dominate without Carter, and of course his injuries. As we pointed out last year, smaller, slighter players who go to the hole aggressively suffer for it in terms of lost games. And no point guard got to the line more often last season than Harris. Dwyane Wade got a lot stronger to compensate for the hammering he took and Harris says he’s trying to do the same thing, but he’s got a long way to go. And in spite of all the hype about Derrick Rose at the Team USA mini-camp, those who actually attended noted that it was Harris who was the most vocal leader in camp. (And we would like to remind writers who refuse to include Harris in the same breath as Rose of this.)

With the addition of Rafer Alston, the Nets' point guard position is deeper than it’s ever been…as long as Keyon Dooling is healthy again. Dooling and Alston arguably had their best years as pro’s last season, Dooling statistically, Alston in terms of leadership and success. IF they can continue to play at those levels, they will make Frank’s job a lot easier. They can both shoot. Alston is 37 three-pointers short of 1,000 for his career, a milestone fewer than 70 players in NBA history have reached.

Courtney Lee? No player on the Nets roster remains more of a mystery to us than Lee. We know he can play defense. We know he’s tough. We know he’s athletic. We know he can shoot from deep, hitting 40% from downtown. We also know he thinks he can be a "dominant scorer" in the league and that Rod Thorn said he expects Lee can be a mid-teens scorer and defensive stopper. But can he put it all together in his first year away from the Magic and Dwight Howard? IF Lee can become the next Harris in terms of development, things could be a lot more interesting in East Rutherford. After all, when Harris joined the Nets, he had a career average of 9.4 ppg over nearly four seasons. He’s averaged 19.7 ppg since. Can Lee do the same? And if he can, will Harris and he develop the necessary chemistry?

Who backs up Lee is another big IF. Last year, when Carter went out, it was Dooling or Jarvis Hayes at the beginning of the year, then as injuries (hip for Dooling, thumb for Hayes) took their toll, it was CDR at the end. Now? CDR is certainly in the mix, and his summer league performance showed a touch of what Carter told him he could become: the Nets’ Manu Ginobili. (Actually a taller Manu since he says he’s nearly 6’8" now.) He knows how to get in the lane and finish but his jumper remains another IF. IF he's improved it—and his Twitter feed sure proves his work ethic—then he’ll get a lot of minutes, but if not…

That leads to our other big mystery on the roster: Mr. Versatility, Terrence Williams. Is he a shooting guard, a small forward, a point guard, a point forward? Can he shoot? Can he avoid a lot of turnovers? He couldn’t do either in summer league, which may or may not have been a good case study. He surely can defend and IF Harris remembers what defense is and Lee and Williams reach their potential, then the Nets could have a very solid perimeter defense, something they have lacked now for years.

TWill thinks he may be best suited for point guard. His coach thinks that at the end of the day, he may be right. Of course when that day ends is the question. He can run the floor, has the court vision, the strength and athleticism to dominate smaller guards. And we sense a bit of leadership potential as well, but like CDR, if he can’t shoot, well, it will be tough.

IF he can shoot, then he could play a lot of minutes with Hayes and Bobby Simmons at the three. Hayes seems to be penciled in as the starter. He is not the passer Williams is. He is not the finisher, either, but he is a leader. There is no doubt of either his shooting or athleticism. NO player has been given more attention of late from the Nets brass as the 6’8" Georgia product has. Everyone has something nice to say about him. Simmons, on the other hand, seems to be forgotten by the Nets. He has made it quite clear he wants his starter’s job back and a bigger role in the offense. And he has been working out non-stop if quietly in Chicago.

Then there’s those two veteran talents, Eduardo Najera and Trenton Hassell. Each has own question mark…IF's, you might say. Najera is still hurting after his March hernia operation. Following him through reports out of Team Mexico, we get the sense he’s not sure when he‘ll be ready. IF he’s healthy--and remain healthy, Najera could be a big help since he knows how to play defense and how to win. He also has something to prove. Hassell is somewhat similar, a terrific defender, but it’s our considered opinion that IF the Nets make a deal before opening night to free up roster space, he is as likely as Boone or Sean Williams to be headed out…and we hope to a contender.

As for the coach, we like him...always have. We don't buy that he's a lame duck. A lame duck is someone nearing the end of his term. His contract is up. That doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be dumped. His job is certainly on the line, but we doubt strongly if his job is dependent on the number of wins he racks up. Not this year.

Finally, there's the future. The Nets, IF they play well or well enough, will be in as good a shape as any team come July 1 (IF their ownership and location are settled by then). With $25-to-27 million in cap space and at least three picks in a great draft, they could be very appealing to a free agent...or two. That matters.

Bottom line: we understand the pessimism, but a few things give us hope. We like the idea of trying to win...not just play with youth. There appears to be a lot of NBA talent or at least potential on hand and the veterans the Nets have acquired the last two years do have one thing in common: they have experience winning. Najera, Battie and Alston have each played in 50 or more NBA playoff games, for example. Also, last year, Thorn dismissed concerns about the Nets’ offense, noting there are a lot of NBA players who if given the chance can step up offensively. That certainly proved true, as Harris, Dooling and Hayes all had their best seasons, at least offensively. The problem was defense. IF the Nets can prove Thorn right again this season and IF the defense is as good as it should be and IF Yi and Lee and Twill all improve, we don’t think this is a bad team…or at least as bad as some think. We hope not.

We’ll reserve judgment on wins and losses until training camp and preseason.

Money Matters

We hear through the grapevine that Mikhail Prokhorov’s interest in the Nets is very real. Normally, the prospect of a Russian oligarch as an owner might give some in the NBA pause. Not now, apparently. The bad economy—and the prospect of having a Russian billionaire as an owner—may make the NBA more likely to approve a sale, even if there are questions about Prokhorov’s background…and who knows if there are. Prokhorov after all did own CSKA Moscow, the Euroleague’s most successful team over the past few years. He was good enough for the Euroleague. Important to note that Bruce Ratner is unlikely to have gone to Moscow to meet with Prokhorov unless he had some assurances (or a wink and a nod) from David Stern that all things are possible.

Vincent Viola’s interest is a given. He’s been a season ticket holder for 15 years and the team’s second biggest investor after Ratner for the past five. He attends practices. He attends draft prospect workouts. He's said 20% of his working hours are spent on the Nets.

We haven’t heard anything new on Terry Semel, the former Yahoo! CEO who Dave D’Alessandro wrote also has interest. Again, all three have signed on to the idea of relocating the team in Brooklyn.

Great Mentioner Update

Although increasingly it looks like a fool’s errand, we’re still keeping track of possible free agents targets mentioned by those great mentioners, Dave, Fred, Al and Julian (plus a few we think might show up).

The names dwindle down to a precious few. Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who a lot fans had hoped would join the Nets, now appears ready to return to Boston. Indeed, it was a long shot and Kerber was right to quote a Nets official saying that it "probably won't happen". Joining him in Boston is Shelden Williams who we added to our own mini-list just last week. That was fast.

On the other end of the scale, no new names were mentioned this week. In fact, a couple of beats might be vacationing.

Still, here’s the list of the mentioned, with the prominent subtractions:
Linas Kleiza, Melvin Ely, Mikki Moore, Joe Smith, Ime Udoka, and Rodney Carney

Kleiza may be moving off the list as well. He has an offer from Olympiakos in Greece and F.C. Barcelona in Spain. Moreover, the Nuggets did a salary dump Friday with the Grizzlies, giving up a lottery protected first rounder and Steven Hunter for a conditional second round pick. That’s the kind of thing you can do if you’re under the cap: get a freebie first round pick for nothing more than the price of an expiring contract. Memphis now has three first round picks next June and Denver has room to re-sign Kleiza if they want.

We’ve given up making suggestions on big men, but we’ve begun to think rather than go for another big, the Nets might be interested in some of shooters out there, like Flip Murray. If (we keep using that word) Yi is what he appears to be, and Battie can fill as well as he did in Orlando, the Nets might not need another big man. In fact, they may have too many.

Welcome Back, Ryan Anderson

The Nets play the Magic twice in the first 10 games, including opening night at the IZOD. They’re likely to see a familiar face in the starting lineup...beyond Carter. With Rashard Lewis being suspended for 10 games, Ryan Anderson looks like his likely replacement. There are other bigs on that roster, but none who can stroke the three like Lewis. Things have a habit of working out for Anderson.

Final Note

We got a kick out of reports from football writers in south Florida last week. Jersey Guy Bill Parcells had Jersey Guy Lawrence Frank down for the Dolphins opening week of practice. Frank was there for all the practice sessions at the beginning of the week, staying close to the ‘Fins GM, walking the sideline, taking spins in the GM’s golf cart.

We assume, but do not know, that Frank was picking up pointers from Parcells on motivating players. Parcells is an acknowledged master in the art…or maybe "L" is just a fan.

As we said at the beginning of this off-season report, who knows. We don't.

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