I like this team a lot more than I thought I would, considering they're coming off a 12-70 season. The two key pieces are still Devin Harris and Brook Lopez. They're good young players -- but they aren't that good. Harris is never going to break into that echelon of Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash, and I don't view Lopez as a top-tier center who will become a rival to Dwight Howard. Nonetheless, they give New Jersey strength at point guard and center.
Harris was a disappointment last year, when he started out with a groin injury and never developed as a leader for a team that needed leadership. I'll be interested to see how Harris does playing once again for Avery Johnson. I had the impression they were not on the same page when they were in Dallas, though a lot of that had to do with Devin being a young player. Avery strikes me as a stubborn guy, and if Devin's not playing exactly the way Avery wants him to play, then there is going to be some friction. In Dallas, Devin was good at pressuring the ball and defending, and I expect to see those strengths re-emerge now that he is back playing for Avery.
Lopez is an active and agile big man. His numbers were excellent for a second-year center. He competes and plays hard, and combines that with his athletic ability. He's a strong rebounder and very good free-throw shooter who gets to the line at a high rate [he was second among centers in the league, behind Howard, for average free-throw attempts last season]. He has the potential to be a 20-and-10 guy with two blocks a game. He won't be a dominant guy like Howard -- he's the only center who fits in that category -- but you probably can't name more than five centers you'd rather have in the league today.
Lopez does his scoring mostly in the low post, and he's very good in transition for his size. You're not going to pick-and-pop with him. He's capable of making a face-up jumper from mid-range, but I wouldn't say that's his strength.
After John Wall, the rookie with the most upside is Derrick Favors. He may be the guy who determines whether the Nets eventually take a leap to become one of the better teams in the East. He's going to need two or three years before he lives up to expectations as the second-best player in the draft. The Nets were smart to draft him; I'd rather be swinging for the fences than settle for being mediocre and winning in the 40s every year.
Favors is a ways away from becoming as good as Lopez, but ultimately Favors can be the better player. They can grow those two together with the hope that Favors will learn to score in the post while also developing an ability to shoot off the pick-and-pop. He's a very gifted runner and dunker who is nimble for his size. He and Lopez should complement each other.
New Jersey subtracted Yi Jianlian and replaced him with Troy Murphy, who is in the final year of his contract. Provided Murphy is healthy [he was sidelined during the preseason with a back injury], the likelihood is that he will be a nice one-year bridge to give Favors time to develop. He's not a great defender, but he'll be able to complement the low-post game of Lopez by stretching the floor as a perimeter threat. Murphy can rebound too. You put it all together, and he's a good, low-risk investment. Their big-man rotation of Lopez, Murphy and Favors is not bad at all.
Anthony Morrow is a tremendous shooter. He's not going to create his own shot, but he's as good as any shooter in the NBA, and the Nets need that perimeter range to space the floor for their young big men. But he doesn't do a lot of other things -- driving is not his strength, he doesn't get to the foul line and he's not an assists man.
I wasn't a big fan of Jordan Farmar on the Lakers' championship teams, but he'll be a good backup for a rising team like the Nets, and if Harris goes down, then Farmar can step in. It was a curious move for Farmar: Word was that he wanted to leave the Lakers to become a starter, but then he went to a team where he is highly unlikely to beat out Harris. Farmar's move may not have turned out as he had hoped, but it was probably the best he could do financially.
Travis Outlaw has been an enigma, a teaser. Everyone raves about his work ethic, and his athletic ability is phenomenal. But he still has not broken through, and he has limitations. He has improved his release and his shooting range, but he still can't make plays off the dribble, and that is very hard to acquire no matter how hard you work at it. He'd be overmatched as a starter.
Overall, the bench looks thin. They have two guys who can rebound and defend in Kris Humphries and Johan Petro. They're weak on the wing. If Morrow and Outlaw are your starters, then you're already in trouble. Then there's Stephen Graham and Terrence Williams, who has shown an ability to pass and rebound and could split time with Outlaw.
Avery was a great hire. Look at what he accomplished with a Dallas team that hadn't played defense in years. If he was able to change the defensive culture there, he can do it anywhere. But he is not without his issues, with his need for control being the major concern. Avery will help the Nets win more games than you'd think they should, but let's be realistic: If they can win more than 30, that will be a huge jump.
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