The first training camp of the Mikhail Prokhorov, Avery Johnson and Billy King eras starts Saturday with or without Carmelo Anthony.
The Nets would like to add the Nuggets superstar small forward and are in conversations with Denver, but they don’t want to mortgage too much of their future. They would like to hold on to rookie Derrick Favors and may need a third and perhaps a fourth team to get something done.
The Melo-drama adds some intrigue to what should be an interesting camp for a team coming off a dismal 12-win season.
The Nets have a new Russian billionaire owner, a new coach with the best regular-season winning percentage in NBA history, potentially 12 new players and 10 guys who are 25 and under.
“I’m excited, cautious but I’m optimistic,” said Johnson, who would not make a playoffs-or-bust declaration.
“Right now, I’m just trying to keep it as simple as I can for this basketball team to take any pressure off. Keep the pressure on our opponents to beat us because we’re supposedly the young team that’s not going anywhere. So the main thing is we want to get it to a point where we can start ascending.”
With or without Carmelo Anthony, of course….but preferably with.
On the Spot
1. Devin Harris: Unless he’s moved for Anthony, the Nets are Harris’ team and he has to do a better job running it than last season and defend much better. Johnson expects Harris to be the player he was at the end of his Dallas tenure and when he first came to the Nets, when his penetration and ability to break down defenses gave opposing coaches and players fits.
2. Terrence Williams: Showed some immaturity as a rookie but finished the season strong and now has to continue to work on his game because he has a chance to start at shooting guard. Johnson will make Williams a better player if he’s willing to listen and improve.
3. Brook Lopez: The third-year center, who is coming back from a bout with mono, will be asked to do more than ever before, especially in the post. Lopez averaged a team-best 18.8 points last season, but Johnson sees so many areas where he can improve – strength, defensively, positioning on the floor and not giving up his position inside.
Keep an eye on
1. Derrick Favors: The No. 3 pick is only 19 and he has impressed executives and coaches with his work ethic and improvement since the Nets drafted the athletic power forward. Johnson has compared him to Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan at 19. It may be to help his trade value or the kid may turn out to be pretty good.
2. Anthony Morrow: He’s one of the best shooters in the NBA. That hasn’t been said very often about a Net. But Morrow adds that feature that has been sorely missed. If he shows he can defend he has a good chance at starting at shooting guard because he’s a better shooter than Williams.
3. Troy Murphy: The local kid from Sparta, N.J., needed a change of scenery and is excited to be playing close to home. He’s in a contract year and playing for a coach who wants more from him. Johnson wants Murphy to show more versatility and take it to the basket on offense, and be around the glass to grab offensive boards.
1. Jordan Farmar: He’s played with Kobe Bryant, for Phil Jackson, has been to three NBA Finals and won two rings in just four NBA seasons. Farmar brings an experience and know-how this team needs.
2. Travis Outlaw: The Nets are expecting some big things from the former Blazer and Clipper, who likely will be a full-time starter for the first time in his career barring Anthony’s arrival. Johnson hinted that Outlaw could be a go-to guy in the fourth quarter. He does have a penchant for hitting big shots.
3. Joe Smith: He’s a graybeard, but he could be exactly what the Nets need to show this young team how to work hard and be professional. Favors especially should pick Smith’s brain and try and learn everything he can.
After last season, the Nets needed structure, discipline and leadership, and the man nicknamed ‘The Little General’ brings all of those things. Johnson pays attention to detail, is a great talker and can relate to players having been one. He can be demanding and hard-driving, but this young team needs that as he tries to bring the best out of them.
1. Do the Nets have enough to make a surprise playoff run?
Probably not, but it depends on health, the development of the young players and everyone buying into Johnson’s system. If Harris can stay healthy and play like the All-Star of two seasons ago, Lopez can become an immovable anchor inside Johnson wants. If everyone plays their role the Nets could be better than expected. They will win more than 12 games, that's for sure.
2. Who will be the Nets’ go-to player?
If the Nets don’t get Anthony, it's got to be Harris and Lopez. The Nets should have gone inside to Lopez more in the fourth quarter last year and play through him, which Johnson likely will do. You also can see scenarios where Harris drives and either takes his patented pull up or after drawing the defense he delivers it to Outlaw or Morrow. The bottom line is the Nets, as of now, have no clear stars but have scoring options.
3. Will the Nets defend?
They have to play defense. It’s the only chance they have to win consistently and Johnson won’t tolerate them not working hard on the defensive end. They have players who can defend if they commit to it – Harris, Williams, Outlaw, Morrow, Favors. Johnson has to get them do it or cut their minutes if they don’t.
4. Can Favors contribute now?
He will get a chance, but unless he has a lights-out camp he probably will be brought along slowly and you will see him gradually improve. As a freshman at Georgia Tech he played his best ball the second part of the season. But Johnson said he would have taken Favors ahead of Evan Turner if the Nets had the second pick in the draft, so it will be interesting to see how the rookie does against the veterans in camp and against other players in the preseason.
5. Will preseason grind hurt the Nets?
It could, especially since this team needs work and continuity, and they literally will be all over the place. They play eight games in 18 days and on three continents. The Nets will be in the U.S. for the first four, then travel to Russia to visit Prokhorov’s homeland and then go to China for two games. The Nets leave China on a Sunday, travel 19 hours and return to the U.S. on Sunday. Then on Tuesday, they begin a back-to-back. It's an opportunity to bond and build chemistry off the court, though.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)