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. 

Byron Scott doesn’t care about exhausting Lakers in preseason

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The Warriors use wearable technology to track players and have rested them when the data revealed fatigue. Gregg Popovich is holding relatively healthy Spurs out of practice. Heck, Popovich doesn’t even send himself to every preseason games.

Meanwhile, with the Lakers…

Lakers coach Byron Scott, via Baxter Holmes of ESPN:

“I don’t necessarily care about tired legs in preseason,” Scott said. “I think everything that we’ve done thus far will pay off at the end of the day. You’ve got some guys that might have tired legs and [are] a little worn out, but all the running as far as getting into that physical condition that we need to get into, I think in December and January, it will pay off.

“So I’m not necessarily worried about guys having tired legs in preseason. They’ll just have to kind of fight through that fatigue part of it. And I think mentally it gets them a little stronger anyway.”

Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

The Lakers coach has a reputation for demanding a lot of running in the preseason. It’s important in his mind because the Lakers will be better conditioned than other teams down the road.

Players, predictably, aren’t as enthused about it.

Bresnahan quotes just two players, Brandon Bass and D'Angelo Russell, and neither expressed much resistance to Scott’s methods. But I trust Bresnahan to read the team’s pulse.

I also think Scott is right: Fighting through fatigue builds mental toughness. But it also makes players tired, and it’s not the only way to instill toughness. The Warriors are tough. The  Spurs are tough. They didn’t have to run their players into the ground to get that way.

Scott loves to project himself as old-school and anti-analytic. Thankfully for the Lakers, his actual methods aren’t as bad as he conveys. For example, he said the Lakers would take an absurdly low 10-15 3-pointers per game last season. In reality, they hoisted nearly 19 per game, 25th in the league. That might not have been enough for that roster, but at least it wasn’t leaps and bounds below the norm.

So, I’m not convinced Scott is pushing the Lakers as hard as he wants everyone to believe. But he’s  clearly giving them a bigger workload than many teams.

If the Lakers are playing relevant games late in the season, this could come back to bite them. On the bright side, they probably won’t have to worry about that problem.

Tony Parker wants to play six more seasons with Spurs

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Tony Parker revealed a plan nearly two years ago to play until he’s 38.

Coming off his worst season since his rookie year, the Spurs point guard is sticking to that goal.

Parker, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports:

“The Spurs know I want to play until I’m 38,” Parker told Yahoo Sports in a recent phone interview. “That will be 20 seasons for me. That’s my goal. This year is No. 15. And if I’m lucky enough and I’m healthy, hopefully I can play 20 seasons and then I’ll be ready to retire.”

That seems pretty ambitious, no matter how you handle the conflicting math. (Parker is 33. If he plays 20 seasons, he’ll spend most of his final season at age 39 and turn 40 during the playoffs.)

Parker is already showing signs of slippage. Many of his key numbers were down last season, including ESPN’s real-plus minus, where he quietly slipped from 12th to 67th among point guards.

But Gregg Popovich is very liberal with resting his players, and Parker won’t have to carry too much of the load. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili will probably retire before Parker, but the Spurs will still have Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

I wouldn’t count on it, but it’s possible Parker lasts that long.