The Nets' New Armor

The Nets' decision to partner with the Springfield Armor next season got a lot of attention this week. It's a big deal. So we decided to take a look at the reasons why the team did what it did, spent what it did --$250,000 or so, and what advantages it's likely to reap from the arrangement long term. Some are obvious, others less so.

Also what it means about the team's long-term development strategy.

Suppose, just for argument's sake, the Nets were interested in picking up Joe Alexander who was dropped Saturday from the Hornets roster.  Suppose as well he was interested in joining them.

What would be the concerns discussed in front office meetings.  First, there's the roster considerations.  The Nets have 15 players under contract. Two, Stephen Graham and Ben Uzoh, have partially guaranteed vets minimum deals.  So no room unless the Nets want to drop a player they liked enough to keep.  Then, there's the adjustment issue. Players who join a team in mid-season, unless they are guaranteed rotation spots, have to learn a new system on the fly.  There's little to no instruction time in an NBA team's schedule, particularly for a marginal guy like Alexander.  So  no time. Finally, even if signed and proven a fast learner, would Alexander even get playing time? So no opportunity.

Now suppose the Nets already had in place their hybrid partnership with the Springfield Armor of the D-League. All of those issues could be alleviated if not eliminated.  Someone like Alexander could be signed to a D-League contract and not take up room on the big team's roster or if he was signed, he could be sent down. He would learn the Nets system from a Nets-hired coaching staff, trained and conditioned by a Nets-hired trainer, who would be working from training and conditioning regimens developed for Alexander by the Nets. And perhaps most importantly, he would have a chance to play. In fact, it would be a priority that he play. The front office back in New Jersey would want to know quickly from their guys on the ground whether he could help the Nets.

That's one competitive advantage of the Nets' arrangement with the Armor...one of many...not all of which are intially obvious. It's also another indicator of two other trends in the team front office: the willingness of Mikhail Prokhorov to spend money on infrastructure and the new role Bobby Marks has carved out for himself.  He's no longer the travel guy, one of the jobs he had under Rod Thorn.  He's not just the cap guy either. He's essentially become the basketball R&D guy.  That's research and development...researching opportunities and then developing them.

The Nets expect to be aggressive in making the Armor a real farm team. Billy King told reporters Thursday, "If you find other guys out there that you would like to sign you can assign them to the D-League. It gives us a fertile ground to develop young players."

The Nets will draft the Armor’s players in the D-League Draft, decide who to sign to the roster and appoint the Armor’s front office and coaching staffs. Said King: "The coaches will be at our training camp, be part of his (Avery Johnson's) meetings so that every player down there will have an understanding of what we’re doing, the terminology on defense. If we send young guys down, they’ll continue to develop just the way they would be with us. That way you get to grow."

Also, expect the Nets' comfort level to rise when deciding whether to send someone down, the traditional role for the D-League. Historically, they've only sent two players down, Mile Ilic and Sean Williams. Both decisions were disastrous. Ilic suffered what would be a career-ending injury and Williams got into trouble both on and off the court and had to be returned to sender.  Last year, the Nets used Springfield as a punishment tour, telling Terrence Williams to shape up or be shipped out.  That should change.

"Knowing that those coaches (at Springfield) know exactly what we want and how we expect things to be done in New Jersey is very comforting," added King. "It will make us less reluctant to send guys down, since Springfield will basically just be an extension of our organization in New Jersey."

In fact, Ben Uzoh could be playing for the Armor when they open their season against the Erie BayHawks next Friday night....or soon thereafter.  It would be a chance for the young point guard to get some minutes.  He already knows the Nets' system, understands the situation and sees it as a chance to gain experience.

"My name has come up but right now, I’m here doing whatever they ask," Uzoh told Fred Kerber Friday. "I wouldn’t be opposed to that. I’m all for it." (Uzoh could  face some competition in Springfield.  The team has already signed Scottie Reynolds, the Villanova All-American PG who like Uzoh wasn't drafted.)

Another obvious advantage, also a traditional role for the D-League, is in the development of late draft picks. The Nets have five second round picks the next two years: their own and the Warriors' pick in 2011; and their own, the Heat's and the Bulls' picks in 2012. If they keep them all, that's a lot of seedlings that they'll try to grow. There are no contract guarantees for second round picks. Teams don't have to sign them.  The Nets can offer players taken in the second contracts with the Armor. The Nets may also be willing to take on second round picks in a trade if they believe they won't be wasted.

One might also expect the current Armor staff will want to ingratiate itself with the Nets and be more amenable to making adjustments this season even if they are also an affiliate of the Knicks and 76ers. So even before the deal is formally in place a year from now, there may be some advantages.

There will be other less obvious advantages as well once the deal is in place. For example, Prokhorov wants to develop Russian coaching and front office talent through his ownership of the Nets. It was one of his stated goals both when he bought the team and when he met the team in Moscow last month.  Prokhorov already has a program where he provides stipends to promising Russian talent in these areas. And we're not even mentioning the possibility of Russian players crossing the pond and using Springfield as a transition to the Nets. (Smart "bizness" investment: a Russian restaurant in Springfield.)

King sees Springfield as a training ground for young coaches or front office talent, Russian or not.

"A lot of coaches get their start in the D-League," said King. "Since they will be running our schemes, there is definitely the possibility that they will end up in New Jersey with the Nets one day. Also, the front office types will be very close to myself and our staff, and if they do a good job, we certainly can bring them up to the Nets and then train the next batch of coaches in Springfield." (Some of that talent could already be on the Nets staff too.  Two of their younger scouts, Brendan O'Connor and Khalid Green, have coaching experience and Milton Lee, the newly hired statistics guru and director of basketball operations, has said his goal is to become an NBA GM.  Marks himself started as a Nets intern, then moved up through various jobs.)

Here's another less obvious advantage. A player in their first or second year coming off an injury could join the Armor for a rehabilitation stint.  That's what the Raptors are reportedly ready to do with Ed Davis, their lottery pick who's been down with a knee injury.

The partnership announced this week was Marks' idea. He and his assistant, John Zisa, went to Springfield on his own initiative last spring and then took the idea to upper management and the owners. At one point, the team considered buying a D-League franchise outright but there are no plans for expanding the league so the Nets settled for the hybrid partnership. As Matt Moore of FanHouse noted, it's also good business. Investing now -- the Nets reportedly paid only $250,000 to assume control of basketball operations -- in a team that's only 150 miles away puts the Nets in a competitive  position to have a fully functional development system before costs rise...and before other teams do the same thing. No doubt the team will invest a lot more in salaries and equipment and all the other things that make a team work.

The only team to do this kind of deal, the Rockets with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, is the most successful NBA term in terms of taking advantage of the D-League.  Its GM, Daryl Morey, is seen as the smartest young executive in the NBA. His moves could be a model. He had the Rockets vice president for player personnel, Gersson Rosas, also assume the role of Vipers GM. He hired the bright young head coach of the British National Team, Chris Finch, as the Vipers coach. The Vipers won the D-League championship last season.

Bottom line: Prokhorov's cash and the front office's initiative should lead to a lot of returned value up the Parkway and to the right. 

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