The Nets are finishing the first half in fitting fashion. After closing out their home schedule against the best team in the Western Conference and the NBA, they play the best team in the Eastern Conference on Wednesday.
It’s a fitting conclusion. Nothing ever comes easy for the Nets. Not games, not trade talks, not drafting, not the development of their players.
Never mind their history. Just look at how things have gone since the end of last season, when things were supposed to change for this group, through Monday night’s loss to the Spurs.
The Nets didn’t win the lottery despite losing 70 games. They didn’t get any of their free agent targets. They made a big trade to get Troy Murphy, who's been a big bust. Brook Lopez hasn’t become the player everyone expected. Travis Outlaw hasn’t lived up to his $35 million contract. Derrick Favors might be a couple years away from making an impact. They’ve lost winnable games because of a lack of energy at the start and lack of execution at the end. And we can’t forget the Carmelo Anthony trade discussions that took on a life of their own and hung over the Nets’ heads for about five months.
Teams talk about needing an identity. Here is the Nets’ identity for the first half of the season: a lot of hope, but a lot of disappointment and angst.
That’s why the All-Star break, after Wednesday's game against the Celtics, will be welcomed by so many involved with the Nets, who will try to avoid their 40th loss. They need to get away, do some soul searching and figure out how to become better and do more for their teammates and the team.
Trade talks will heat up over All-Star Weekend, leading up to the Feb. 24 trade deadline, which might make some players might sweat a little. Some of them might not mind a change of address. But everyone may want to brace themselves for what could be nine more days of Anthony-to-the-Nets stories.
You can’t rule the trade out. The Knicks are more involved at this point, but if Nuggets officials see Nets officials during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, where owner Mikhail Prokhorov and general manager Billy King will be, a conversation could be had. Whether that conversation turns into a serious trade discussion is hard to predict. But until Anthony is out of Denver and as long as the Nets still have all their trade assets, including draft picks -- remember, the Knicks still don’t have a first-round pick -- you cannot discount the Nets, despite Prokhorov’s proclamation that they’re out.
King is acting as if the Nets are out. He’s traveling and scouting college prospects. He saw three games last week and will be in Tempe for Arizona State-Washington on Thursday before going to Los Angeles.
Nets coach Avery Johnson won’t be in L.A. He’s going home to Texas and said he doesn’t want to leave his property during the break. But Johnson will be working, whether it’s talking to King or his assistants or thinking of ways and plays to get more out of what he has. If the Nets make a trade over the break, then Johnson will have to adjust, as will everyone else.
Only 25 games will remain when the Nets return after the break, and their schedule will be much easier than it has been. But the Nets probably will find a way to make it tougher than it really is.
Rookie small forward Damion James practiced for the first time since breaking his foot on Dec. 9 and is expected to play against the Celtics. Johnson said James would become the starting small forward sometime after the break.
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Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)