by Ohm Youngmisuk
New York Daily News
CHICAGO - As the Nets gear up for another postseason, Ed Stefanski is busy trying to ensure that the Nets remain contenders for years to come.
The man responsible for drafting Nenad Krstic, Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins has been jumping from continent to continent to prepare for June's NBA draft.
The Nets will have two late first-round picks (their own and the Clippers') and could bring in last year's second-round pick, center Mile Ilic from Europe, for next season.
With only Jacque Vaughn, Clifford Robinson and Lamond Murray set to become free agents - the Nets own options on Vaughn and Robinson - the team's core appears to be set for another run at the East title next season as well.
Unless owner Bruce Ratner suddenly decides to tighten the purse strings, since he reportedly is losing millions on the team while the new arena project in Brooklyn awaits approval, Nets brass is looking at another summer of retooling the bench.
Ratner is not expected to pull the plug on the Nets' contending days since he stands to make a fortune if the arena is built.
Besides, the Nets may not do much spending this summer. They will have their $5 million mid-level and $1 million veteran minimum exceptions along with a $2 million-plus trade exception, acquired in the Marc Jackson deal. But with Krstic's development into a quality big man and Ratner likely wanting to avoid the luxury tax, the Nets' need to spend their midlevel on a frontcourt player is not as dire as it was last summer.
"We will look at the opportunity to possibly move up (in the draft), package or trade one of the picks or keep both and go for two guys there," said Stefanski, the Nets' general manager, who was at the Portsmouth Invitational to scout potential draft picks. "I think where we will draft, there will be two guys that are energy- type guys."
The Nets will likely pick up the option on Vaughn's and Robinson's deals. They could buy Jeff McInnis out of the final year of his contract this summer and look for another backup point guard and defensive help.
The 7-1 Ilic may not be too far from helping the Nets as well. He is a project, but Stefanski sees a similar growth pattern to Krstic's sudden rise.
"Ilic is doing fine and I think he is progressing like Nenad did," said Stefanski, who tries to watch Ilic play every time he is in Europe. "Again, he doesn't get as many opportunities, he doesn't get the ball much. But he is playing probably 19-20 minutes a game. But same thing - if we can get a body on him he has a chance. I am going over again next week to see him."
And while Stefanski is away, the Nets continue to fine-tune their game for the playoffs with the type of optimism that surrounded them during the Kenyon Martin years.
"When the season started, I was optimistic or hopeful that we could get close to 50 wins," Stefanski said. "But I didn't think we would do it in this pattern (in two major streaks). But we are really jelling at the right time. Krstic has stepped it up. Last year, I didn't know if Krstic would play a lot. This year, I didn't know if Krstic was going to take a step forward and he did early but now he has taken two steps this year."
Now Stefanski will try to find the next Krstic.
FINE KICKS IN: Jefferson was fined $5,000 for kicking the ball into a tunnel on Sunday during the Nets' win over the Bucks. He received a technical for doing so during the game. . . . Rookie guard Antoine Wright expects to rest his strained left quadriceps for about a week before resuming action again.