Monday, October 31, 2005

The Netro-Spective
By Ben Valentine

What a difference a year can make.

Last season at this time, the New Jersey Nets were a franchise on the verge of a potential collapse. Under new owner Bruce Ratner, they had let Kenyon Martin go for a bunch of draft picks, traded away long time Net Kerry Kittles for next to nothing and had an injured and disgruntled Jason Kidd counting down the days until he was traded. Alonzo Mourning was mouthing off, trying to get himself released. The back to back Eastern Conference titles were nothing more than a distant memory.

Now as we sit here at the eve of the 2005-2006 season, that all just seems like a bad dream.

The Nets of this season are the picture of optimism; a team poised for a deep playoff run and maybe, just maybe, something special. This is the deepest, most talented squad Rod Thorn has put together in his tenure as Nets President, surpassing on paper even the Finals teams. So without any further adieu, let’s start the Nets season preview.

Air Continental

The Nets wouldn’t pay max money to Kenyon Martin during the 2004 offseason. At the time, while I disliked seeing Martin leave, I felt it was the right move, though many felt it was just Bruce Ratner being cheap. Whether or not it was, Ratner changed his tune in the middle of last season when out of nowhere, the Nets acquired the much disgruntled Vince Carter from the Raptors. At the time, Carter was sulking on the sidelines with an “injury” which in retrospect can only be considered phantom. The trade proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered for both the Nets and Carter. The former air Canada enjoyed his best season in years, re-establishing himself as one of the game’s elite players by putting up an astounding 27.5 points per game in Jersey to go along with 5.9 boards and 4.7 assists in 57 games. On a team that stands to compete for an Eastern Conference Championship there’s no reason to believe this Carter isn’t here to stay.


The Returns: RJ and the Kidd

Jason Kidd may have wanted out last season, but one has to suspect he couldn’t be happier right now. Now with Carter, Richard Jefferson and talented young big man Nenad Krstic, he has to feel like a Kidd in a candy store. While he’s not the player he was even two years ago, Kidd doesn’t have to be. For the first time perhaps since he arrived in Jersey, he isn’t the primary offensive weapon. In fact he might be the fourth option for Jersey, depending on how Krstic develops this season. He has options abound to pass to, and as usual should be able to make it all work like a well oiled machine.
Meanwhile, many have their eyes set on Jefferson. After a fluke injury last season, Jefferson has returned to rave reviews about his game this preseason. Still questions remain about his ability to co-exist with Carter. Those that doubt need not; Jefferson has always adapted his game to fit the team around him. His shot selection and totals rose and fell throughout his career based on the needs of the team. When he had Martin and Kidd, Jefferson did not shoot the rock all that often. When he was the only option, he increased his totals accordingly. Expect RJ be almost a secondary point guard for the Nets; he’ll often have the ball as he slashes to the basket. From there he’ll either dish or finish; it depends on how open teams are willing to leave Vinsanity.

The Key to the Next Level

While Kidd, Carter and Jefferson are the backbone of this Nets squad, they can only take the team so far. Without size in the NBA, you just can’t take home the title. That’s why if the Nets want to truly step up into the realm of the NBA’s elite, Nenad Krstic much continue his development into a low post presence. A highly touted player when drafted back in 2002, Krstic spent 2002 and 2003 in Europe and was expected to be a project when he arrived in the States last season. However, as the year progressed, he emerged as one of the game’s better young big men, averaging 10.3 points and 5.3 boards. The playoffs showcased his talent even further as he put up 18.3 points and 7.5 boards in four games against Shaq Daddy. With soft hands and better rebounding skills than his frame indicates he should have, Krstic has all the makings of a special player. If he continues his growth this year into a guy who puts up 15 and 7, the Nets could be the best team in the East.

The Deepest Team

While much of the Nets off season focus was on the mess with Shareef Abdur Rahim, the big news should have been how much the Nets fortified their bench. Marc Jackson was brought in to split time with Jason Collins after the Rahim deal fell through and gives the Nets an offensive big man and some extra size the team sorely missed last year. Jeff McInnis gives Kidd a true backup PG; someone who can not only spell Kidd for long stretches in games but even start for a period of time should the Nets star suffer any nagging injuries. First round draft pick Antoine Wright from Texas A&M is a perimeter threat, some compare him to a young Allan Houston. A consistent perimeter game is something the Nets have been lacking for years and with Carter and Wright, they may have finally found it. Clifford Robinson and Scott Padgett bring extra size and versatility, while Lamond Murray, Jacque Vaughn and Zoran Planinic bring up the rear guard. The Nets run legitimately 10 men deep, something few teams in the NBA can say.


Let’s Be Frank

It wouldn’t be much of a preview if I didn’t mention the head coach now would it? Well I don’t think there’s much to say about Lawrence Frank except he kept the team together last season after its disastrous start and through all of the key injuries they suffered. He has the support of the players and in the NBA that’s more than half the battle. Is he a great coach or even a good coach? Time will tell, but then I tend to think coaching is a bit overrated anyway, as Knick fans will soon find out.

The Final Analysis

I won’t say how far I think the Nets can go. All I can say is what they should do. With Kidd, Jefferson and Carter, Jersey will have the best three players on the court on most given nights. That alone should be enough to win them a bunch of games. The team is without question the best in the Atlantic and while they may not be as talented as the Pistons or the Heat, their division will give them a shot at least the second seed in the East. From then on, who knows? Considering they made the playoffs last year with that mess they used for most of the season, barring injury to one of their four key players, there’s no reason the Nets shouldn’t be in the second round of the postseason. Anything less would be a disappointment.

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