Thursday January 20th, 2005

DALLAS -- I don't know what I like more about traveling -- seeing a new city every couple of weeks or sleeping in a hotel bed. You know what I'm talking about, those "heavenly beds," the kind that make you feel as if you'd rather saw off your head before removing it from the pillow. Last night I did make it out of bed, but only because my room did not have the NBA package, leaving me to scour the Dallas galleria for a TV showing the Suns-Timberwolves match up. That's right, while the rest of the country watched the Orange Bowl, I was walking through a mall trying to catch a glimpse of a mid-season NBA game.

Having failed, my thoughts wandered towards what most NBA diehards think about when the calendar turns over: the playoffs. This year there are a number of contenders for the Larry O'Brien trophy, most of which reside in the Western Conference. But in the East there is one team that keeps popping into my head as a title contender, a team that wouldn't even be eligible for the playoffs if the season ended today.

The New Jersey Nets.

Last month I would've laughed if you asked me whether the Nets would even make the playoffs. The Nets? Playoffs? Even Jim Mora would find that amusing. New Jersey had no rebounding, no scoring, and a disgruntled franchise player trying to force a trade. But with last months deal for Vince Carter, my views on the Nets have changed.

I think they can make it to the Finals.

I'm not a Vince Carter apologist, and this team still has holes, especially in the frontcourt. But Bruce Ratner has finally seen the error of his ways and decided a strong team with box office hits like Carter and Jason Kidd has a better chance of succeeding in Brooklyn than a floundering franchise with Richard Jefferson as its lone draw. Ratner loosened the purse strings so GM Rod Thorn could acquire Carter (effectively giving New Jersey three max or near-max contracts) and I don't think he's done. New Jersey has two trade exceptions at their disposal-valued at $10 and $5 million, respectively. Those exceptions, packaged with a promising player like Nenad Krstic, could bring New Jersey the frontcourt presence it's been lacking since the defection of Kenyon Martin. Here's a short list of potential big men who might become available over the next month and a half:

P.J. Brown: New Orleans is going nowhere and the 35-year old Brown is a playoff veteran who knows how to rebound and defend. Not much of a scorer, but with Carter on board the Nets won't be lacking in that department. Krstic might be appealing to New Orleans.

Cliff Robinson: Uncle Cliffy is a winner -- his 14 consecutive playoff appearances was snapped last season in Golden State -- he has the ability to defend three positions, and his firsthand knowledge of the Pistons (he played for Detroit from 2001-2003) could be invaluable.

Raef LaFrentz: A long shot, given his contract, but his perimeter shooting prowess would fit in well in the Nets motion offense. Boston doesn't want him -- his departure would mean more minutes for talented rookie Al Jefferson and second year man Kendrick Perkins.

Should the Nets acquire a frontcourt player they could catch the Knicks for the Atlantic Division title, which would guarantee them at least the third seed in the Eastern Conference. That, coupled with the troika of Jefferson, Kidd, and Carter, could be enough to propel the Nets into their third NBA finals in the last four years.

For all the complaining Latrell Sprewell does about "feeding his family," he certainly doesn't mind taking money out of his pocket. Last month he was docked one game's pay (roughly $178,000) for cursing a fan, and after Tuesday night he faces a possible fine for firing a ball at Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire. On the bright side, Spree tied Sam Cassell for the league lead in throwing a ball at an opposing player.

Too much has been made of the Suns blowout loss to the Spurs last week. Fans and analysts should see that game for what it was: a good team having a bad night against a very good team. Let's not get carried away and start calling for an overhaul of the Phoenix roster.

It's late, I'm tired, and I should probably check to see if USC has stopped scoring (I tuned out somewhere between Kelly Clarkson's microphone malfunction and Jason White's throw into quadruple coverage). Wednesday I continue my stalking of Devin Harris, whose rookie season will be chronicled over the next few months in Sports Illustrated, after which I'm hoping to catch up with an athlete of a different kind, former Massachusetts lacrosse star Emily Valorz. Yeah, she's definitely going to kill me for that.

See you next week.

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