It's been five years since the last NBA team with four rookies made it to the NBA Finals. In fact, only one NBA team with four rookies has ever made to the NBA finals...that same 2001-02 New Jersey Nets squad.
Next season, it looks like the Nets will again field a team with four rookies as the biggest story of New Jersey's off season takes shape...the Nets youth movement. Whether it's the team's desire to go younger and more athletic or simply a way of saving money, the reality is that the Nets are going to be younger at least since the 2001-02 Eastern Conference championship team. That team had Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins, Brandon Armstrong and Brian Scalabrine.
If all goes according to plan, the Nets will have Marcus Williams, Josh Boone, Hassan Adams and Mile Ilic on the roster, each with a guaranteed contract. In addition, they will have one second year player, Antoine Wright, and a young third year player, Nenad Krstic. Of the six, Krstic is the oldest, having just turned 23. Wright, Adams and Ilic are all 22, Boone 21. Williams is still only 20...and the youngest player to wear a Nets uniform in 26 years. [Ironically, the youngest was Cliff Robinson...not that Cliff Robinson, but the USC product who played for the team in 1979-80 at age 19.]
In fact, with six players 23 and under and two others--Jefferson and Bostjan Nachbar--only 26, this will be one of the youngest teams the franchise has ever fielded.
The four rookies will make only $3.3 million next season--or $400,000 less than what the team owes Jeff McInnis. Add Wright and Krstic to the mix and the six youngest players on New Jersey will make only about $6.6 million, about 10% of the team's total payroll. If they play well, it will be a big advantage for the team's bean counters. It will permit the team to pay their top players big bucks while getting value out of those at the bottom of the roster...and avoid the luxury tax. But it's a risk on the court.
The Nets hope that this year's crop is as good--or better--than the 2001-02 team, which is asking a lot. Jefferson and Collins were a big part of that team, RJ filling in for Keith Van Horn and Twin coming off the bench and eventually replacing Todd MacCulloch when his feet began to bother him. Armstrong, who is now seen as a draft bust, and Scalabrine, a player with limited skills but unlimited heart, sat most of the year at the end of the bench.
Jefferson played in 79 games, averaging 9.7 ppg and 3.4 rpg while Collins played in 77, averaging 4.5 ppg and 3.9 rpg. Armstrong got minutes in only 35 games, Scalabrine in 28. That season, the Nets also had Kenyon Martin, then listed at 24 years old and a second year player. Martin of course led the team in scoring and was a critical factor in the team's 52-win season. That's not going to happen next season, not on a team with Vince Carter, Jason Kidd and Jefferson.
Next season, the four rookies are likely to have similar opportunities. The Nets have already lost backup point guards Jacque Vaughn and Zoran Planinic and will probably buy out McInnis, leaving the primary back up role to Williams. There is little doubt that Williams is, at least as of now, the steal of the 2006 draft, a player expected to go in the top 10 who wound up at #22. He proved that in the Pepsi Pro Summer League where he dominated from the point...on offense. Whether he can improve his defense enough to give Lawrence Frank confidence in him remains open. Boone, in spite of his shoulder injury, is likely to see a lot of action behind Collins once he returns and could spell Krstic as well. Adams, taken at #54 after a series of minor brushes with the law, should be able to get minutes backing up Jefferson, his friend and fellow Arizona Wildcat. Ilic is less likely to see much time on the court. He is more likely to spending time in the Nets weight room and picking out wardrobes from big-and-tall shops.
Wright is as big a question mark as the rookies. His own rookie year was a disappointment, but reports from the Nets training facility and summer league seem to indicate a major improvement. The Nets have to hope so. They are counting on him to continue his development and step into a key bench role. But the team also had high hopes for Planinic last season. How'd that work out?
How big of a risk is it for the team to invest so much in players that young? A lot depends on their development during the course of the season and the health of the players who they are backing up. It's not likely that coach Lawrence Frank will want them playing too many minutes initially and should any of the Nets starters go down for an extended period of time, look for the Nets coach to seek experienced bodies rather than youngsters.
Right now, though, it looks like the team is going to ride its youngsters...and hard. Vaughn left for the Spurs. Scott Padgett was bought out. So, too, it appears, will Planinic and McInnis. There doesn't appear to be any room for Lamond Murray and John Thomas doesn't even expect a camp invite. Derrick Zimmerman, the point guard brought up from the 'D' League at season's end might, but then again, he is two games away from being designated a rookie.
The 2006 free agent market was slim and the Nets have been unwilling to trade any of its starters for veteran help, believing in the value of chemistry among the top players and the value of youth off the bench. It's likely the former will pay off. The question is whether the latter will. How well the youth movement could spell success--or failure-- for the team.