NBA Season Preview: The New Jersey Nets

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new_jersey_nets_devin_harris_brook_lopez.jpgToday we continue PBT’s run through every team in the NBA, looking at the
changes for the upcoming year. Every weekday from now through the start
of the season a new team will be the focus. We started with the Knicks
yesterday, and will spend this week in the Atlantic Division.

Last season: A nightmare. The worst record in basketball (and nearly the worst in basketball history), and the second-worst mark in efficiency differential last season. The Nets may not have been quite as bad as their record, but then again, their record was pretty atrocious.

Head Coach: Avery Johnson, in his first head coaching gig since being dismissed from the Mavericks in 2008. Avery won’t be able to maintain that .735 winning percentage from his three seasons and change in Dallas, but he’s an effective coach with a lot to work with.

Key Departures: Courtney Lee, Yi Jianlian, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Keyon Dooling, Jarvis Hayes (‘key’ might be a stretch), Josh Boone (same), Bobby Simmons’ massive contract, hopes and dreams for a marquee free agent.

Key Additions: Troy Murphy, Derrick Favors, Jordan Farmar, Travis Outlaw, Anthony Morrow, Damion James, implementation of Plan B, or possibly Plan C.

Best case scenario: Substantial improvement that puts New Jersey just outside the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Nets still have a ways to go before they’re ready to really compete for a playoff spot, but they could definitely take a big leap forward this season.

For that to happen: Avery Johnson will need to change the culture of the team immediately. It’s a delicate thing, but the fresh start offered by a new season should do wonders for a squad looking to get as far away from last year as possible.

The new pieces will have to be integrated seamlessly if the Nets are going to meet their most optimistic projections, and most of them will need to perform at or above their expected levels of production. Devin Harris needs to play like Devin Harris. Brook Lopez needs to stay afloat. Avery Johnson needs to figure out how to best utilize Terrence Williams, without neglecting the talents of Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, and Damion James. Derrick Favors will need to step in and contribute immediately as a back-up for both bigs.

Most importantly, the Nets will need to improve their defense by leaps and bounds. Well, now that you mentioned it, their offense, too. The personnel changes will help a lot, but finding a cohesive fit for all of a team’s pieces is an under-appreciated part of the team-building process, and one that Avery Johnson will experience for the first time. Avery’s never had to work from the ground up. He stepped into a situation in Dallas where the the table had already had been set for him. All Avery had to do was grab a healthy serving of Dirk Nowitzki, dab a little butter on top, and go to work.

The Nets lack that singular star, which means Avery will either have to groom or luck into one. Maybe Lopez or Harris will evolve into the player the Nets need them to be, but from September, I don’t think either one is quite there.

More likely the Nets will: Otherwise, you’re looking at a team
that will surely improve, but not enough for an obligatory mention on
the late-season “playoff bubble.” The Nets have too much left to prove
to think otherwise. Jersey made talent upgrades throughout their
roster, and had a hell of an off-season, even if they did miss out on LeBron James and company. They’ll be better. Much better,
if things go according to plan, but progress is a process, unless
you’re the Miami Heat.

The Nets were a horrible rebounding team last season, so they added Troy Murphy (who is
completely underrated on the glass) and Derrick Favors. Their shooting was
atrocious (New Jersey was 30th in effective field goal percentage in ’09-’10),
so they added Anthony Morrow, one of the top three-point shooters in
the league, Travis Outlaw, who’s made a living off of his mid-range
game and shot creation, and Jordan Farmar, a nice back-up point guard
option with a shot of his own. Not enough? How about Murphy’s range and
Damion James’ scoring, to boot? How about another year of experience
and development from a young core?

How about Terrence Williams playing every game with the potential to absolutely explode?

Watching the Nets last season was sometimes akin to having teeth pulled by a rhinoceros, but this year should be far more pleasant. The rhino may even use anesthesia. Losing seasons aren’t easy for any fan base to swallow, but after a 12-win year, things are looking way, way up for New Jersey. Avery just needs to see what he has and how to use it, and his players need to see what they can offer and what to do with it. There may not be top-tier star power here, but this is a team that could be quite good in just a few years’ time.

Prediction: 34 wins. I know Mikhail Prokhorov had plans to contend almost immediately, but now his patience will be put to the test. Winning 34 games would represent something impressive for the Nets, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

Call it a rebuilding year if you’d like, but New Jersey has pieces in place. They just need to ferment awhile. 

Aaron Gordon both legs over the mascot, ball-under-the-legs dunk (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Zach LaVine won the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but in an epic night for my money this was the single best dunk.

Orlando’s Aaron Gordon broke ground with this one — guys have jumped over mascots and other players before (and a Kia hood), but by splitting their legs apart. Gordon just put both legs over Stuff (that’s the mascot’s name, Stuff the Magic Dragon, I don’t make this up) — and took the ball off the mascot’s head, went under his legs, and threw it down.

Insane.

Gordon deserved a trophy for his performance in this dunk contest.

Zach LaVine edges Aaron Gordon in epic, insane Dunk Contest

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TORONTO — That. Was. Amazing.

In a dunk contest that will go down with the all-time greats — Jordan vs. Dominique, Dr. J from the free throw line — Minnesota’s Zach LaVine defended his dunk contest title. Barely. Because Orlando’s Aaron Gordon was doing dunks nobody had ever seen before.

And LaVine was bringing it just as hard.

The two men advanced to the finals — dismissing Will Barton and Andre Drummond, each of whom had good dunks — and that was when it got wild.

There were four second-round dunks, and four perfect scores of 50. (That was in spite of Shaq, who wanted to give nines for second attempts.)

“I was prepared for four (second round dunks),” LaVine said. “To tell the truth, he came with something that no one else has done. He did two dunks that were just crazy with the mascots, jumping over them. We just kept pushing each other until the last dunk. I’ve got to give it up to my boy Will “The Thrill” Barton. It’s because of him I think I won. Because he said try to go from the free-throw line. I’d never done that before, and I just tried it. So I guess it was a great dunk. I think it was the best one ever.”

The Air Canada Centre crowd was exploding with every dunk. The two men went to a dunk-off — and got two more 50s.

“If I knew it was going to be like that, I would have prepared better and we would have been here dunking all night, going back 50 after 50 after 50 after 50,” Gordon said. “We would have been here all night. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I was just hoping Zach was going to miss, and it wasn’t going to happen. You could see as my facial expressions when Zach dunks it, it’s like okay, that’s a 50. Like I know we’re going to have to dunk again.”

So they went to a second-round of overtime, where LaVine put up another 50 and won the contest.

Gordon was close to perfect.

Zach LaVine can flat-out fly.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon with the over-the-mascot mad dunk

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TORONTO — Aaron Gordon was giving Zach LaVine all he could handle in the Dunk Contest.

He blew the lid off the Air Canada Centre with this dunk in the first round — and it wasn’t even his best dunk of the night. Never seen this before.

This dunk contest was awesome, so much more video to come.

Zach LaVine opens Slam Dunk Contest title defense with spectacular behind-the-back slam (VIDEO)

during the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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TORONTO — Zach LaVine clearly heard all the talk that Aaron Gordon or Will Barton had a chance to upset him in the Slam Dunk Contest. He came out ready to prove his superiority right off the bat. This behind-the-back slam was his first attempt of the night:

Even better was the reaction, both from Andre Drummond and from LaVine’s Minnesota teammates: