Wednesday December 10th, 2008

When I sat down with Nets point guard Devin Harris during training camp, I asked him what he would consider a good season in New Jersey.

"Playoffs," Harris said.

Really, Devin? Even with eight fresh faces on the roster and seven players with two or fewer years of experience? Even with a superstar (Vince Carter) many expect to a) come down with a freakish-but-debilitating injury, b) demand to be traded or c) come down with a freakish-but-debilitating injury and demand to be traded? Even with a front office slashing payroll like it is going out of business?

The answers: Yes, yes and yes.

"This group, right now, is really good offensively," Harris said in October. "If we can get our defense right, we'll be pretty good."

The Nets aren't stopping people. New Jersey ranks 27th in defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions), 24th in points allowed and 19th in field-goal-percentage defense. But it does have an offense (101.4 points, fifth in efficiency) that is bordering on being unstoppable, which is why New Jersey (11-8 through Tuesday) has emerged as one of the NBA's biggest surprises.

The credit for the Nets' success can be divided three ways:

Lawrence Frank. After spending the last five seasons running a Princeton-based, read-and-react offense with Jason Kidd, the Nets' coach installed a new dribble-drive attack over the summer with an eye toward maximizing Harris' penetrating abilities. Out was the traditional passing and cutting; in was a green light for Harris and Carter to attack the basket at will.

"Coach wants me to attack the basket all day long," Harris said recently. "That's the No. 1 option."

Give Frank credit: He knows his roster. The only way an offense based on penetration can succeed is with a solid complement of sharpshooting big men. Rookies Brook Lopez and Ryan Anderson and second-year forward Yi Jianlian fit the bill.

"Vince and Devin get a lot of the credit and they deserve it," Frank said. "But the ability of our guys to understand their role and realize how important it is has been critical."

Harris. There is no question that the Nets realized they were getting an up-and-coming player when they made Harris the centerpiece of the deal for Kidd last February. But even they couldn't have expected this. With an explosive first step and an improving perimeter game, Harris is averaging 24.4 points (on 48.5 percent shooting) to go with 6.1 assists.

After spending the first three-and-a-half years of his career as a playmaker in Dallas, Harris has embraced his chance to be a primary scorer. It's a role he has long craved. While a freshman at Wisconsin, Harris marveled at the offensive freedom Badgers coach Bo Ryan gave senior guard Kirk Penney. In one practice, Penney took the ball to the basket on six consecutive possessions. During a break in the action, Harris approached Ryan.

"He said, 'Coach, let me get this straight. I get to do that next season?' " Ryan said.

It was in Ryan's offense that Harris broke Wisconsin's single-season scoring record his junior year.

"There weren't too many players that Devin couldn't beat off the bounce," Ryan said. "I still don't think there are."

Carter. Ask Frank about each of his players and he will sing their praises. But ask him about Carter and he starts to downright gush. With good reason: On a team devoid of veteran leadership, Carter has been a leader. With the pressure on him to score, Carter is averaging 22.5 points in teaming with Harris to form the NBA's most prolific backcourt.

"Vince has been phenomenal," Frank said. "Here's an eight-time All-Star and a Hall of Famer playing for a team that has significantly changed from when he re-signed [in 2007]. He has totally embraced the role of being a leader. Vince is unique in that when some players have success, they get territorial. They get insecure. [But] he celebrates other people's success."

A league insider with knowledge of the Pistons' thinking told me that Detroit went ahead with the Allen Iverson trade knowing full well that the eight-time All-Star had lost a step.

"They didn't care," the insider said. "They made the deal strictly for the cap relief" after the season, when Iverson's $20.8 million salary comes off the books.

Detroit is 7-9 since Iverson joined the lineup Nov. 7. Its defense, the backbone of the team that has made six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals, has been average at best. In a 104-92 loss to the Knicks last Sunday in New York, Iverson and Rasheed Wallace struggled mightily to defend the pick-and-roll combination of David Lee (12 points, 19 rebounds) and Chris Duhon (25 points, nine assists). Tayshaun Prince was frequently seen explaining defensive rotations to his teammates during breaks in the action.

"This team is a shell of what it once was," a courtside scout said. "They aren't contenders anymore."

Speaking of Duhon, when was the last time the Knicks could say they were getting their money's worth out of a player? That's been the case with Duhon, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal last offseason. He is averaging 15.7 points and 11.7 assists in his last six games, raising his season marks to 12.2 and 8.5.

With the Knicks decimated in the backcourt because of injuries to Nate Robinson and Cuttino Mobley and the absence of Stephon Marbury, Duhon effectively has no backup. Not that Duhon (who ranks second in the NBA in minutes at 40.4 per game) wants a break. He passed when offered a second-half rest in a recent game at Atlanta, and Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni didn't hesitate to play the former Duke Blue Devil the full 48 against Detroit.

"Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] told me he never gets tired," D'Antoni said. "I'm going to trust that."

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