By Scott Howard-Cooper
August 24, 2009

There's this arena. Or at least there's supposed to be this arena. The land has been secured in Brooklyn, the plan to cross the Hudson River into Knicks territory has been declared, the timeline for the grand opening has been announced and the architectural designs have been drawn and redrawn.

But, no arena. The Nets' long-planned, much-hyped bid to crash New York City has tumbled into a pit of lawsuits and economic meltdown.

Look closer, though. Beyond the artist's renderings and through the mounting fees that have led to more scaling back at the site than building, the Nets have continued to grow something, and something with potential at that.

The Vince Carter trade brought another starter who has shown he can be part of the long-term solution. The draft delivered a prospect who can make a major impact without scoring. The big-picture priority of cap space next summer is still in place and probably, depending on later decisions, in a better place than before.

We have construction!

The Nets have turned into an intriguing team heading into the opening of training camp in about five weeks. Barring a surprise, it won't be reflected in the standings; they finished 34-48 in 2008-09 and 20th in the league in scoring, and then traded Carter (20.8 points), so there will be discouraging moments ahead. But there is promising youth and a noticeable turn for defense and envious cap space and the steady hand of the front office, and welcome to real possibilities.

In a 16-month span, the Nets dealt Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Carter. They traded for a 2007 lottery pick in '08 (Yi Jianlian) and added their own in '08 (Brook Lopez) and '09 (Terrence Williams). They continued to build the financial war chest. Point guard Devin Harris developed into an All-Star and Lopez blossomed into the best center of the '08 class.

That's serious movement, even if it has gone largely unnoticed. Maybe it's the proximity to Madison Square Garden and the land where everything matters in big headlines -- stop the presses: David Lee and Nate Robinson did not sign today either -- and maybe there's some perception the Nets are idling until the 2010 spending spree.

Except that they're not just passing the time. In real life, the Nets are having such a productive offseason that they possibly added two long-term starters and definitely got away from a distraction that could have shadowed them into the regular season and even to midseason. Carter's future would have been the stuff of constant speculation, given the inevitability of a trade at some point amid the youth movement and his value to a title contender. And then to get Courtney Lee as the replacement shooting guard as part of the swap with the Magic, along with Rafer Alston as the backup point guard a few months after he started for the Eastern Conference champions, all the better.

That the Carter trade went down within hours of drafting Louisville's Williams made the summer. Suddenly, there is a lineup of the future:

PG -- Harris, 26 years old, an All-Star, good defender.

SG -- Lee, 23 years old, 45 percent from the field and 40.4 percent on three-pointers in the regular season as a rookie before getting hurt early in the playoffs and struggling against the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

SF -- Williams, 22 years old, arguably the best perimeter defender in the draft, a strong rebounder at 6-foot-6 and with enough ball-handling skills that some teams would have considered him a potential point forward. Not that Williams -- who isn't a great shooter and has been knocked for lacking focus -- is a sure thing. One executive said before the draft, "He could be a substantial player. And he could be out of the league in three years."

PF -- Maybe Yi, 22 years old the night before the season opener. The Nets would obviously love him to take control of the position, but he shot only 38.2 percent last season and lost his starting job in late March. Power forward is New Jersey's greatest uncertainty.

C -- Lopez, 21 years old, All-Rookie team, very good offensive skills with the chance to reach double-figure rebounds.

The Nets are set at point guard and center, and those are the toughest spots to fill. They have reason to be encouraged at shooting guard and small forward. The obvious reality check is that Harris is the only elite player at his position right now. Stars win games, and stars especially win playoff games, but the current roster is mostly complementary pieces.

That's where the cap space comes into play. The Nets are projected to have about $25 million in spending power next summer, depending how far south the economy drives the salary cap and, internally, their decisions on a few contract options. That money can buy a star, either next offseason in free agency or any time in a blockbuster that allows New Jersey to make a deal for an expensive, proven veteran without having to match salaries.

The Nets have more reason to be hopeful than a year ago at this time, and that's saying something in a youth movement. They have construction.

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