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NetsDaily Off-Season Report #4

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The off-season's been around for three weeks, since the end of the regular season, but it really began Saturday with the first draft workouts. This weekend's workouts also mark the first time the Nets are "shopping for two", that is looking at talent not just for the NBA team, but for the Armor as well.  We take a look at how that's working, look back on Mikhail Prokhorov's first year as owner; look at another player draftniks think could wind up in New Jersey beyond Draft night, and look at who in the Johnson family is stealing the show at Derby Day.  We also make the argument that while the Heat were the big winners last summer with the addition of two superstars, Deron Williams was the best player to change teams since then.

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, blogs, tweets...plus our own reporting and analysis.

The Big Story

There's no bigger story in the playoffs than the changing of the guard, with dominant teams from the past decade falling by the roadside. Already, the Spurs are done; the Lakers look like someone should stick a fork in them and the Celtics just look tired. The Heat right now seem to be the odds-on favorite to walk away with the O'Brien Trophy  Meanwhile, the Thunder, Grizzlies and Bulls with relatively young rosters look like they've reached the next level.

What's it mean for the Nets?  Well, on one hand, the emergence of the Thunder and Grizzlies (who seem evenly matched) makes a good argument for being patient in rebuilding while the Heat success suggests the addition of a superstar (or two) can change your franchise. Which way are the Nets going?  It appears they want to mix and match strategies. They are one of three teams to have two picks in what is becoming a super-draft in 2012 and one of three teams with less than $40 million in salary commitments next season. They are also one of a handful of teams that added a superstar to their roster this season, not an easy thing to do.  That success might have been obscured in some quarters by the Knicks' acquisition of Carmelo Anthony.  But make no mistake: Deron Williams is by any measure the biggest star to change teams since LeBron James did last summer.

D-League, Day I

The Nets will be scouting for two this weekend as they watch 44 players (22 each day) run around PNY Center: themselves and the Springfield Armor. With most of the 44 likely to go undrafted or be low picks in the second round, the talent pool is more oriented toward the D-League than the NBA. 

So Saturday becomes the first day the Nets' hybrid affiliation really matters.  The process is going to be unfamiliar to most NBA fans but not to those who follow professional basketball in places like Bismarck, N.D., McAllen, TX, and Springfield.

Should the Nets like a player who's been left undrafted, they're likely to start the process the way they did last year: make a call to the player and his agent as soon as the draft ends on June 23 to express interest and possibly offer them a bonus to sign a summer league contract with the team.  Last year, the Nets gave $50,000 to Brian Zoubek and $35,000 to Ben Uzoh.  The bonus essentially is a partial guarantee on a minimum contract. Before last year, the Nets hadn't done that since Robert Hite in 2007.

With the players under contract, the team will as they normally do monitor the players progress through the summer league and then training camp.  Should a player attract their interest in summer league, they can do the same thing. 

As training camp comes to a close, the process will change from previous years: NBA teams have to cut their roster to 15 players on October 25, but most cuts are made by October 21. At the end of the month, D-League teams, like the Armor, can designate three players cut by their NBA affiliate teams who they'd like to sign.  The players of course are under no obligation to sign...and overseas contracts are far more lucrative than those in the D-League.  But if a player is seeking fast track to the NBA (and already has a cash cushion from the partial guarantee), the Armor might be their best choice. They'll be running the Nets' system, be following the Nets' training regimen; be coached by Nets employees and be managed by Nets executives (the Armor GM is likely to be someone like Bobby Marks or Milton Lee, operating out of East Rutherford).

It;s more like baseball's farm team structure and teams that own or control D-League teams will be at an advantage. 

A few days later, at the beginning of November, the Nets' scouting files --and extensive video archive-- will serve the Armor well at the D-League Draft.  The Nets are also hoping a new CBA, if it's in place by then, will permit injury rehabilitation tours in the D-League starting next season.  Under current rules, only NBA rookies and second year players can be sent down.

It's all yet another, subtle way Mikhail Prokhorov's cash hoard helps the Nets develop talent. By making money available for partial guarantees, Prokhorov  makes it easier for the Nets to 1) recruit valuable if undrafted prospects and 2) keep them in the organization so they develop on the Nets' timetable. And by investing $250,000 in the Armor, it gives the Nets a platform for that development.  Moreover, none of this is lost on agents who are starting to see the team in a different light.

Trade Talk

Besides looking at prospects, the GM's of the 27 teams at PNY Center are likely to be talking trade. Rod Thorn said this week that the Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury was first discussed at the Chicago Pre-Draft Camp in 2001 and concluded a month later.  Also, Neil Olshey, the v.p. of basketball operations with the Clippers, said he was going to New Jersey to talk trades.

Prokhorov's First Year

Thursday marks the first anniversary of Mikhail Prokhorov being approved as Nets owner.  After what seemed an interminable 11 months from first rumor (Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated) and eight months from the first confirmation of negotiations (Reuters), the deal was finally done.  He vowed in a message to Nets fans (which now can be revealed was taped in his sister's kitchen) to win the team's first NBA championship by 2015 and thought the Nets could make the playoffs this season.  Not long after, he wowed the New York media with his press conference, but stood stoically as the Wizards won the Draft Lottery and then shrugged off the Nets' inability to sign any of the three big free agents. So minimal was the Nets free agent haul that they were barely at the league minimum salary before the August 11 trade for Troy Murphy.

Obviously, a 24-win season is not what he or the fans wanted, and the up-and-down, on-again, off-again pursuit of Carmelo Anthony served as a distraction from the first day of training camp till the day before the trade deadline.  Of course, on the day before the deadline, everything changed.  With time running down, Billy King threw a Hail Mary pass and the general belief, then and now, is that the Nets did better in getting D-Will than the Knicks did in cleaning out the shelves for 'Melo.

But all that aside, the bottom line is that if the first year in Prokhorov's tenure as owner was all about development, then it all can be seen in a positive light.  At the end of the Ratner Era, the Nets had three assistant coaches.  Until Larry Krystkowiak went back to the college ranks, they had seven.  They had five scouts.  Now there's nine. The arena wasn't even a hole in the ground. Now, Chris Broussard is so wowed by his trip to the construction site that he wrote  Barclays Center will be the "league's finest arena" when it opens.

We've written a lot about the supposedly "little things" the Nets have done since Prokhorov took over: the upgrade in basketball operations; the attention devoted to the Nets' locker room in Brooklyn; the husbanding of assets to be used in the next stage of rebuilding; the promise of the D-League; the improvement in management...and a lot about globalization.  These little things are not peripheral, but the core of building success in the NBA. 

So far, so good.

Draft Sleeper of the Week

Billy King is on the record as saying the Nets could pick up a rotation-ready swingman even drafting at #27 or #35, noting three and four year college swingmen have done well recently in the NBA.  Kyle Singler, our first draft sleeper, could easily be that kind of player.  Another might be Justin Harper, who Draft Express has as the Nets' pick at #27. 

Harper is a senior at Richmond, not known as a basketball powerhouse, and he played power forward, not small forward.  Still, he's projected as an NBA swingman because of his shooting skills: 58.5% overall, 44.8% from deep: and nearly 80% from the line. That translated to a 17.9 ppg average along with 6.9 rebounds.

Harper thinks of himself as more than a spot up shooter and that's what he will have to prove in his workouts.  Can he attack off the dribble as well as hit the deep "J"?  Also, he's also a bit wiry and some question his toughness on the court.  Expect his stock to rise if he can get beyond that.

Final Note

Kentucky Derby Day attracts all the big celebrities and this weekend was no different.  "Law & Order" star Fred Thompson, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, celebrity chef Guy Fieri and Mr. and Mrs. Avery Johnson strutted across the red carpet outside the track Saturday before the big race...she looking more fab than him.   Last year, former Louisville basketball star Terrence Williams was in attendance.  Doubt they got together.