BY DAVE D’ALESSANDRO
This was supposed to be about player development first, and results second.
That’s what management mandated. That’s what the coach signed up for. That’s what even the veterans agreed to. And that's what the fans tacitly accepted — those who have shown up, anyway.
Now comes the hard part: The Nets also would have to be better in the second half of the season — so the media asserted — or the development part wouldn’t mean much.
But as we look back at the pre-break portion of the 2008-09 season, the 24-29 Nets can at least take solace in the fact that they're usually a second-half team — the exception being last year's exercise in dysfunction, which necessitated a trade of the franchise player — and that the younger guys are growing at an acceptable pace.
"I really like what we have," captain Vince Carter said. "I like the way we're playing. I think our young guys are emerging and feel more confident.
"But as a team, we still have a long way to go. We have to continue to get better. This stretch of games against Denver, San Antonio, Orlando are learning experiences for us, we need to get us over the hump in the second part of the season."
Here are some of the reasons for his optimism ... and his caution:
1. The development of Brook Lopez has changed almost everything going forward, as he has shown the potential to be one of the league's most dominant big men. At his present rate of ascent, he could be the first full-time center to win NBA Rookie of the Year honors in 16 years.
2. The Nov. 7th victory over Detroit gave a glimpse of what the Nets could be, as Devin Harris humiliated the Pistons for 38 points in a 103-96 victory. He sprained his ankle in that one, but upon his return, he scored 30-plus in three of his next four, the springboard to a season-best 9-3 stretch that made the Nets the feel-good story of the season’s first month.
3. Three times this year, the Nets have shown a flair for drama, beating an opponent with their final shot — at Toronto on Nov. 21 on Vince Carter’s dunk in overtime (he scored 12 points in the last 44 seconds of regulation to force the OT); at Indiana on Dec. 23 on Harris’s 22-footer at the horn; and against Atlanta on Jan. 2, on Carter's 33-footer at the overtime buzzer.
1. Only the Nets could come home from a glorious 3-1 Thanksgiving trip — one in which Harris officially arrived as a star, after destroying Steve Nash and the hobbled Deron Williams — and promptly lose by 20 to the 2-12 Wizards, the worst team in the NBA.
2. And only the Nets can jump on top of a Utah team by a 27-7 count after the first quarter, then surrender 72 points in the second half and lose, as they did at home on Dec. 17th.
3. Oklahoma City, an enthusiastic team with a nice young core, can compete with anybody on its homecourt when the stars are aligned, but the Thunder shouldn’t be 30 points better than anybody. That’s the deficit the Nets had in the fourth quarter, after their starters quit on the game in the third.
Harris and Carter — If Harris doesn’t have an ache that inhibits his incomparable speed (such as the ankle in November, the hamstring in January, and the rib in February), he’s an indefensible blur who has the goods to be an All-Star fixture. Carter, meanwhile, averages 21 points, five rebounds and five assists — numbers that can be matched by only four other guys in the league, but he’s the only one staying home this weekend.
Sean Williams — Put it this way: How many guys get thrown off a D-League team? It happened to Williams in Colorado, where his coach kindly suggested that the Nets take him back after he was a chronic irritant — a long fall from a promising preseason, when Carter predicted he’d be the most improved player on the team.
MOMENT TO REMEMBER
From the Karma’s A Bummer File: On the snowy evening of Dec. 19th, the Nets welcomed Jason Kidd back to the Meadowlands by having Harris torture him for 41 points and 13 assists, as the Mavs were mauled by a 121-97 margin. Thus inspired a now-legendary valedictory from the crowd, "Thank You, Cuban."
For one of the few times in his tenure, Lawrence Frank showed a boiling point during the Jan. 17th no-show matinee against the Celtics, benching both Harris and Carter for the entire second half. Amid predictions that Harris would go into a snit and the team would suffer an emotional meltdown, they've actually become progressively better since that day, holding seven of their past 10 opponents to 94 points or fewer.
INJURY THAT HURT MOST
The Nets were still surpassing all expectations with an 18-18 record on the morning of Jan. 9, when Yi Jianlian — coming off back-to-back 20-point games for the first
time in his career — broke his right pinkie finger at Milwaukee. They lost that night — the start of a 2-9 meltdown — and haven't sniffed .500 since.
THREE REASONS TO LOOK AHEAD
1. Yi returns Tuesday — If this team is to reach the postseason, they'll need a competent outside shooter, and that's allegedly his strength (.403 accuracy notwithstanding). Or, if the team is to significantly upgrade its roster before Thursday's trade deadline, the Nets will need him as bait.
2. Defense — Their learning curve was steeper than most anticipated, but consider this: The Nets have held their past 11 opponents to an average of 93.0 points per game on .442 shooting, including .345 from downtown. If those figures were extrapolated over the entire season, they'd be ranked third, fifth, and sixth in the NBA. Upshot: They're not hopeless.
3. Senor Pez — Tough, massive, skilled, and still only 20, the numbers Brook Lopez has produced over the past six games alone (18.3 points on an automatic .617, and 11.0 rebounds) suggest that the rookie will be this team's meal ticket very soon.