Thursday October 8th, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Wait until next summer.

That's the Nets' unofficial rallying cry. The summer of 2010 is when the team that was once hemorrhaging cash -- $25 million in the first six months of 2009 -- is expected to put some of prospective owner Mikhail Prokhorov's $9.5 billion fortune to good use. It's when the team can use its millions in available salary-cap space -- along with (presumably) the ever-enticing lure of a sparkling new arena in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- to bring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh to town. It's when the franchise can accelerate its rebuilding plan.

Of course, the Nets have another season to play before then. And that could get a little messy.

New Jersey has been slowly stripping itself of talent since the end of the 2004-05 season. First it was Kenyon Martin. Then Jason Kidd. Richard Jefferson was shipped out before last season. And in July, Vince Carter became the latest high-priced piece to go when he was sent to Orlando. In exchange, New Jersey picked up two expiring contracts (Rafer Alston and Tony Battie) and a young shooting guard (Courtney Lee) who is looking to establish himself after a promising rookie season.

Not exactly dollar-for-dollar value, is it?

"No question, we're going to miss Vince," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "He was so big for us last year both on the court and in the locker room. He was a leader. You can't replace that with one person."

No, but whether the Nets are competitive this year or merely counting the days until the draft lottery by December probably comes down to one player: second-year center Brook Lopez. Lopez was solid as a rookie in playing all 82 games (including 75 starts) and averaging 13.0 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. But the Nets believe they need even more from the former Stanford center to be successful.

To that end, Frank -- who dumped the Princeton-based offense before last season in favor of a dribble-drive system that maximized the talents of Carter and point guard Devin Harris -- has redesigned the offense once again, this time with Lopez as the focal point. Lopez now serves as a hub, often the primary facilitator at the top of the key and the elbows.

It's definitely a different offense," Lopez said. "There is less dribbling and more swinging the ball and evaluating options. I'm really confident in it. I'm really looking to facilitate."

Said Harris: "We need him to progress to be the dominant center we need him to be."

Lopez looked quite comfortable in the new role in the preseason opener, when he scored 19 points in 12 first-half minutes against the Knicks. More impressive, Lopez was able to get his points in a variety of ways. He scored in the low post, in transition and off the pick-and-roll, a play in which he and Harris have developed terrific chemistry over the last year.

"He makes it so easy," Lopez said. "He's always teaching. When you are setting picks for a guy like Devin, other teams have to respect him off the dribble. And Devin just passes it right where I need it."

But any conversation with Lopez or Harris always circles back to one topic: defense. Both cornerstone players know that if there is any hope for this season, the Nets will have to improve a porous defense that has surrendered more than 100 points per game in each of the last two seasons. Harris, who was considered one of the best defenders at his position when he was with Dallas, has said improving his own defense -- which he admits dropped off last season -- is his No. 1 priority.

"It was tough being asked to do so many things [offensively] last year, but at the same time it was a position I wanted to be in," Harris said. "My offense increased but my defense took a step back. Now, it's about finding that happy medium. I want to lead that defense. I need to do more containing the ball, keeping guys in front of me, keeping guys out of the paint. That allows us to do so many different things."

In addition to his offensive responsibilities, Lopez is also being asked to anchor the defense. Frank says he would like Lopez to have a Kevin Garnett-like role, where he is constantly communicating with his teammates and working to ensure that they are in the proper positions. The Nets also believe that the addition of the defensive-minded Lee and ball-hawking rookie Terrence Williams will improve the defense.

"We're working on communicating all the time," Lopez said. "Obviously, people think we're not talented enough to do anything this year. ... We have to be the team no one wants to play because we are outhustling and outworking them."

1. It will be interesting to see how Frank handles his backcourt, which has become crowded with the additions of Alston and Lee, two starters on Orlando's NBA Finals team last year. Lee is almost assured of a starter's spot. Alston, however, is not only competing with Harris but also Keyon Dooling, who averaged 9.7 points in 26.9 minutes last season. Alston, a starter since the '04-05 season, is in the final year of his contract and it's hard to envision a scenario in which he is happy spending a contract year as a backup. Team sources say it's likely that either Alston or Dooling will be traded during the season.

2. The Nets have high expectations for second-year guard Chris Douglas-Roberts. Douglas-Roberts had the best month of his season in April last year when he averaged 10.8 points, including an 18-point, 44-minute performance against the Knicks in the finale. The coaches love his ability to get to the basket and are hoping the Nets' perimeter players can get a lot of open looks off of his penetration.

3. Think the players don't care about who owns the team? Think again. Several Nets veterans are excited about the deep-pocketed Prokhorov, whose purchase of the team is awaiting approval from league owners. "It gives our team a little direction," Harris said. "With the moves that we were making, like getting rid of Vince and getting younger, it raised a lot of questions about what direction the team was going. We really didn't have an answer. The ownership we have had before has been a tough situation. Now, with the potential of this owner, it could shoot us back into the right type of mind-set. Next summer is going to be a huge summer for free agents. We have to be a big part of that."

Aside from practice on Tuesday, when Harris and Lee suffered ankle injuries after getting tangled up with Williams (earning the energetic Williams the nickname "Tazmanian Devil"), the Nets have been thrilled with the play of the 6-foot-6 swingman from Louisville. Williams has the potential to be an explosive offensive player -- he threw down a monster dunk on Lopez during one practice -- but it's clear that if he makes it on the floor early this season, it will be because of his defense. "Defensively he really gets after it," Harris said. "It's going to take him a little time to get there offensively. Right now it's about slowing himself down and learning to play the game at different speeds."

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