The Nets' transformation continues

    Thursday, May 5, 2011, 9:13 AM [General]

    The Nets are in the process of building a new arena in Brooklyn and trying to build their team into a playoff contender. On Sunday, they added a farm club, as they officially took over the basketball operations of their NBA Development League affiliate, the Springfield Armor.

    The Nets don’t own the Armor. This “hybrid affiliation,” means the Nets are in charge of the basketball operations and pay for expenses related to that, as existing local owners pay for the off-the-court costs of doing business.

    It may not seem like a big deal, but it is significant in many ways. The biggest one is it’s another example of how serious and committed owner Mikhail Prokhorov is about spending money to improve the overall operation and how the Nets are run.

    “We’re doing things to help build a solid foundation,” Nets general manager Billy King said.

    Most fans are more concerned with Deron Williams’ future with the team, whether the Nets can put together a package to land Dwight Howard, and what kind of offseason moves they can make to improve the club quickly. And they should be.

    Those fans should know that the Nets’ priority is building a team that doesn’t just sneak into the playoffs, but one with Williams as the centerpiece that is a contender every year and can win a championship in the next four years.

    That was Prokhorov’s edict – within five years the Nets would be a championship team. He’s wants them to get there, as do King and coach Avery Johnson. This management team is committed as evidenced by their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony and ultimate acquisition of Williams.

    They’re going to improve through the draft, through trades, through free agency – the three usual ways. But the Nets also will put some of their attention into building a minor league system that helps develop players and coaches and prepare them for the NBA. It will make it easier when the Nets call them up to the pros.

    “It gives you a chance to work with the players, so the system they’re running and practices are the same ones Avery is running,” King said.

    That way, when someone gets called up, when Johnson calls a play, that guy will know exactly what the play is. The Nets don’t have to limit their play calls or just use the player in case of an emergency.

    They also can move the Springfield head coach and put him on Johnson’s staff if one of his assistants gets another job. Then the Armor assistant can move up to head coach of the team.

    It’s a total minor league system with players, coaches and trainers all picked by the Nets. King is putting together a list of candidates for the head coaching position.

    “Guys will want to come and play for our team because we’re up and coming,” King said. “Coaches will want to come. I think it will be a great opportunity.”

    This move also is significant because most NBA teams don’t own or run their own Development League squad. The several that do are among the best run organizations.

    The Houston Rockets are the only other team with a “hybrid” affiliation (Rio Grande Valley Vipers). The Spurs (Austin Toros), Thunder (Tulsa 66ers) and Mavericks (Texas Legends) fully own and operate their D-League teams.

    For the Nets, this is another step in their organizational transformation. And who knows - it could become a league-wide trend.

    “I’d rather have a chance to develop a team and a roster and maybe find a young guy or find a young coach and have control over them because at some point it will become like Major League Baseball where you have an affiliate,” King said. “If it does I want to be in the front of the order and not be in the middle and try and learn it on the fly.”

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    Brook Lopez, the Nets’ leading scorer the past two seasons, had surgery Wednesday to remove bone mass and calcium deposits from his upper arm. He’s expected to begin rehab in about two weeks and should be able to resume basketball activities in roughly six weeks.

    The Nets’ center has played every game of his three-year NBA career.

    ***

    It should be a busy weekend at the Nets’ practice facility, as they will host a combine Saturday and Sunday for 44 NBA Draft eligible players.

    The Nets, Knicks and Rockets joined forces for this workout, which won’t feature any lottery picks but could - and we stress the word could - produce some late first-round and second-round picks. Coaches and personnel evaluators from about 27 of the 30 NBA teams are expected to be on hand.

    The Nets own Lakers’ first-round pick (No. 27) and either the 35th or 36th pick in the second round.

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    Follow me on Twitter: @Al_Iannazzone

    ***

    Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)

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    Nets hope to cut out losing

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011, 5:32 PM [General]

    Billy King’s season-ending session with the media Wednesday covered everything from his recent hand procedure to next week’s surgery to remove a calcium deposit in Brook Lopez’s right arm.

    That’s not the only cutting expected to happen with the Nets this offseason.

    To King, the Nets' general manager, the stated goal next year is to make the playoffs. It should be. The Nets have a superstar now, and having Deron Williams healthy is a great first step to that end. But there needs to be a roster overhaul to go from a 24-win team to one that sees the postseason.

    There is no doubt overall that the Nets made strides from last season. They built a foundation for the future as they doubled their win total from a year ago. They probably should have had a few more wins, but injuries, trade rumors, a lack of execution late and a dearth of playmakers led to another disappointing season. The two biggest issues were a lack of talent and all those injuries. You can’t help one, but you can fix the other.

    If Williams were healthy at the end of the season, maybe the Nets would have hung around the playoff race a little longer. Otherwise, it comes down to having the right players and the right talent, and the Nets need some upgrades in that area.

    "We got a star, so you’re not worried about a star,” King said. “We’re now in the process of building a team. You have pieces that you like, a nucleus that we like so you start trying to build around that.

    “I think we need to get more athletic at some of our wing positions, just because, if you’re watching these playoffs, you see what Carmelo [Anthony] can do, you see what LeBron [James] can do, you see what Dwyane Wade can do, Paul Pierce. You’ve got to have a lot of guys who can guard those guys. It can’t be. You’ve got to have two or three guys you can throw out there. You need 6-foot-6, 6-8 athletes, I think.”

    In other words, the Nets are looking to replace Travis Outlaw and trade him -- if they can -- and probably won’t re-sign Sasha Vujacic. King apparently got a laugh out of this blog entry about who could be staying and who could be going. But it’s clear the Nets don’t want to bring back too many players from a team that lost 70 percent of its games.

    This is where King, coach Avery Johnson, assistant general manager Bobby Marks and the Nets’ scouting departments come in. They have to find players who are available and can make an impact, or at least help them on a more consistent basis, than those on the current roster.

    The Nets have two draft picks: No. 27, which they acquired from the Lakers, and either No. 35 or 36 in the second round. King did well in Philadelphia either trading for or picking Andre Iguodala, Kyle Korver, Willie Green, John Salmons, Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young. King probably believes he can pick a sleeper. But banking on finding someone that late who can help right away is risky. So King may try to trade up, or try to package the picks with some players currently on the roster to move up or get a veteran who can help them now.

    If the postseason is the immediate goal, the Nets can’t necessarily wait for players to develop. That goes for Deron Williams’ sake, too. He already has said he could see himself staying with the Nets, but that’s with the understanding that they are are going to make some major changes and improvements.

    “I don’t think I’ve wavered in saying I expect [Williams] to be back,” King said. “My thought process hasn’t changed from the day we traded for him to him making those comments. When we made the trade and spent time talking to him, and the more I’ve gotten to know him and the more we talked, I felt like that’s the goal we’re working for -- to build something special here.”

    Williams plans to help the Nets get there, either through recruiting free agents or by giving King some suggestions on who he thinks could help them.

    Re-signing Kris Humphries remains a priority, but there is plenty of other work for the Nets to do. You don’t go from 12 to 24 to wins to the playoffs without making some major changes, and that means cutting out some players who can only take you so far and replacing them with those who can lead you where you want to go.

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    Follow me on Twitter: @Al_Iannazzone

    ***

    Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)

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    Nets' final evaluations

    Thursday, April 14, 2011, 5:25 PM [General]

    The Nets met for the final time of the season today and were given their exit interviews and evaluations from coach Avery Johnson and general manager Billy King.

    Now the real work begins as the Nets hope they don’t have another 58-loss season.

    “They’re fighters, but at the same time there needs to be some changes,” Johnson said. “We’re going to look at it. I’ve had a chance to have a front-row seat. I know exactly what we need in terms of our starters and what we need in terms of the type of role players we need.”

    Here is our evaluation of every player:

    Deron Williams: He was terrific in the 12 games he played as a Net, all things considered. With a healthy wrist, he won’t miss the shots and layups he did. But he averaged 15 points and 12.8 assists with a shooting hand that needed surgery. The Nets, and their fans, can’t wait to see what he does and can do when he’s healthy. He made it sound as if he's willing to sign an extension with the Nets. Williams said, "I definitely can see myself staying here." That would be huge for the Nets.

    Brook Lopez: A solid season, especially at the end. He became more of a leader and force, and the Nets hope it carries over to next season. Lopez still needs to be more of a presence on the boards and defensively. He needs to get stronger. He’s emotional, but needs to develop more of a mean streak on the court to take the next step.

    Kris Humphries: Finally, the Nets have a power forward and now they have to do everything they can to keep him. It’s amazing when you consider they were hoping Humphries would opt out last summer and had him No. 4 on the depth chart behind Troy Murphy, Joe Smith and Derrick Favors to start the season. Humphries became a glue guy, and now the Nets need to make sure he sticks.

    Anthony Morrow: Injuries derailed what was a good season for the sharpshooter. He showed he can score a variety of ways and gave the Nets what they needed on the offensive end, with plenty of big shots. He will get plenty more open looks next year having Williams from the start of the season. Needs to improve defensively, though.

    Jordan Farmar: Farmar had a nice season playing a different and much greater role than with the Lakers. But sometimes the offense sputtered or Farmar didn't get players the ball in their comfort zone, and he's a liability defensively. But he is a very good shooter and improving point guard, a solid backup.

    Sasha Vujacic: He’s a competitor, who earned another NBA contract –- just not sure it will be with the Nets. He looks for his shot a little too much. It was understandable on this team that had trouble scoring. But he needs to concentrate on the defensive end as much as he does on the offensive end.

    Travis Outlaw: The $35 million he signed for weighed him down as much as the franchise. He earned small forward starter money and ended the season as a backup power forward. Really needs to work on his confidence and getting to know all the nuances of playing the small forward position. The Nets will look for an upgrade for sure.

    Johan Petro: Too jump-shot happy and not enough of a presence inside. He needs to develop some post moves and make more of an impact as a rebounder.

    Damion James: He played with energy and was better defensively than offensively, but ended up appearing in only 25 games. So it’s really hard to know whether he’s a legit starting small forward. Has to improve his shot and he will work hard to get better.

    Ben Uzoh: Nice kid, who worked hard and got better. He needs to improve his shot and presence as a point guard. Could be a confidence thing. It will be interesting to see where he winds up. The Nets already have three point guards under contract for next season.

    Sundiata Gaines: He showed toughness and a knack for making big plays. Those things earned him a guaranteed contract. Next season he’s going to have to prove he earned his first guaranteed deal in whatever minutes he gets.

    Stephen Graham: Good professional and locker room guy, who played his role. Would have liked to see him hit more open shots –- he was open often.

    Dan Gadzuric: He’s a big body who plays hard and with energy. He can get inside and rebound, but is very limited overall.

    Brandan Wright: He has skills, but this tweener hasn’t lived up to his potential. He has an awkward jumper, misses seemingly easy shots around the rim and doesn’t seem to have a high motor.

    Mario West: Known for his defense and he did defend in the few games the Nets had him. But took too many long jumpers and has one of the worst-looking shots any of us has ever seen.

    ***

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    Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)

     

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    Look back at the first year under the Nets' new regime

    Wednesday, April 13, 2011, 11:24 PM [General]

    The Nets ended the first season of the Mikhail Prokhorov/Avery Johnson/Billy King era with 24-58 record after a tough, hard-fought 97-92 loss to Chicago Bulls last night.

    The Nets doubled last year’s win total but still have plenty of work to do to become not only a playoff team, but a championship contender as Prokhorov promised. The next phase of that process begins now, but here’s a look back at that first year.

    MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Naturally, if Deron Williams would have been with the Nets all season, it would have been him. He proved that in his 12 games as a Net. But for the duration of the season, it was Kris Humphries. He did it all for the Nets in terms of defense, dirty work, physical play and rebounding and finished the season with career-high averages of 10.0 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.08 blocks.

    MOST UNDERAPPRECIATED: Brook Lopez went backwards as a rebounder and many times disappeared in the third and fourth quarters. But he had a strong end to the season and looked as sure of himself as he ever has. He definitely grew at the end and will continue he get better. Lopez played all 82 games and averaged a Nets’ high 20.4 points. He needs to get tougher physically and mentally and has to improve as a rebounder and go-to guy, but he was there every night for the Nets and has been every game of his career. That counts for something.

    MOST DISAPPOINTING: When the Nets failed to get LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Rudy Gay, Carlos Boozer, Tyrus Thomas they decided to give Travis Outlaw a five-year, $35 million contract. Expectations come with a figure like that and Outlaw didn’t live up to them. He didn’t adapt to playing small forward, average of 9.6 points, on 37.5 percent shooting, and lost his starting job to rookie Damion James.

    BLOCK OF THE YEAR: Humphries had a few more than a few, but you have to give it up for the rejection he had on Brook’s twin brother Robin. That was some stuff.

    REBOUND OF THE YEAR: King had the best rebound in the NBA this year. After nearly six months of pursuing Carmelo Anthony – and losing him to the Knicks – in about a 24-hour period King was able to pry Williams from Utah in a franchise-changing blockbuster.

    RICHARD JEFFERSON INSANELY OPTIMISTIC AWARD: There are several candidates. We remember Humphries talking about the playoffs in January; Williams talking about it when he first arrived; and several players, including ex-Net Devin Harris, saying the team had gotten its swagger back. But Johnson gets it for always being outwardly positive about the Nets’ situation.

    On Williams’ future, Johnson said "I have no doubt and I'm really, really confident that we'll be able to re-sign him … All signs that I've seen and heard are that as we move forward, he'll be in a Nets' uniform.” Johnson on the Nets: “We still have as bright a future as anybody that does not win a championship this year. That’s the whole deal.”

    3 BEST WINS
    1. Nets 88, Celtics 79 (March 14): Williams returned from a two-game absence for the birth of his son and the Nets won their fifth straight game with Williams’ delivering a big-time three with 35.6 seconds left to make it a seven-point game.

    2. Nets 115, Nuggets 99 (Jan. 31): The Nets were fired up for this game against Anthony and the Nuggets and won big with Harris delivering 18 assists.

    3. Nets 137, Raptors 136 (March 5): In London, the Nets and Raptors played a classic game that New Jersey pulled out in triple-overtime behind a monster 34-point, 17-rebound, 8-block game from Lopez, a 21 and 18 night from Williams and 20 and 17-board effort from Humphries.

    3 WORST GAMES
    1. Wizards 97, Nets 77 (Jan. 7): The Nets didn’t show up for this game against one of the worst teams and trailed 26-6 in the first quarter.

    2. Charlotte 91, Nets 84 (Dec. 3): Just a terrible offensive game by both teams as 117 shots were missed and Lopez had with just two rebounds – none on the defensive end

    3. Indiana 105, Nets 86 (Feb. 6): The Nets were in a stupor on Super Bowl Sunday and got trounced for the second time in nine days by the Pacers. The previous game, Indiana shot 62.5 percent and won by 32.

    FORGETTABLE MOMENTS
    1. Sneak-er attack: Late in the March 30 loss to the Knicks, Lopez bent down to pick up his sneaker instead of finishing the offensive trip and the ball bounced off his back and out-of-bounds.

    2. Thunder Struck: Up three, the Nets were supposed to foul the Thunder, but Stephen Graham fouled with Jeff Green shooting a three. He made all three and ultimately the Nets lost in three OTs.

    3. The Boo-Dential Center: On many nights, there were more fans of the visiting team than the Nets in Prudential Center, but the worst cases of that were the two games against the Knicks. In February, Nets players were booed late in the game when they attempted free throws, and last week it sounded as if the game was at Madison Square Garden.


    ***

    Follow me on Twitter: @Al_Iannazzone

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    Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)

     

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    Nets make progress, in better shape than last year

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 5:12 PM [General]

    The last couple of weeks of this season have felt a little like last year. The Nets have been decimated by injuries and have lost 14 of 16 games heading into Wednesday's finale against the Bulls.

    But this season has been different. The Nets have doubled their win total (24) and are in a better place than at this point last season.

    First of all, the team didn’t have a clean-up day last year. The players left Miami after the finale and went their separate ways after one of the most dysfunctional and frustrating seasons in NBA history. Many of them didn’t fly back to New Jersey. They couldn’t wait to get rid of last season.

    This season, everyone is flying back from Chicago, doing their exit interviews Thursday with general manager Billy King and coach Avery Johnson, and then heading out.

    It’s been a frustrating year, but it hasn’t been dysfunctional, and these things are certain: the Nets have direction, unlike last year, and many of their players want to stick around.

    At this point last year, no one really knew if Rod Thorn would be back. It was well known Kiki Vandeweghe wouldn’t. So the Nets were going to need a coach and probably a general manager. They were undergoing an ownership change. They were praying they would win the draft lottery and get John Wall. They were formulating a plan of attack to use all the money they had to try to attract LeBron James and other members of the super free-agent class of 2010, believing Mikhail Prokhorov, Jay-Z and the eventual move to Brooklyn would be the ultimate appeals. There were so many ifs and so many unknowns coming off a 12-70 season.

    Things didn’t go the way the Nets hoped. Thorn left. The Nets got the No. 3 pick and wound up spending about $70 million on Travis Outlaw, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar and Johan Petro.

    But the Nets have much more of a foundation now than last year, with Prokhorov in charge of the team and Johnson and King running the basketball departments. You see where this team is headed.

    “I still think to do well in this league, you’ve got to have great ownership and really good management, and I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Johnson said. “We have that in Mikhail and in Billy.”

    It turned out losing out on Wall worked in New Jersey's favor. Derrick Favors was the chip the Nets dangled for Carmelo Anthony for months and the one that ultimately helped them get Deron Williams. He’s arguably the best point in the NBA and certainly gives the Nets someone around whom to build.

    The Nets are going to make a play for Dwight Howard. But they have other moves to make before then, especially if the Howard situation is one that plays out like Anthony. The Magic are not going to trade Howard unless they have to, and they’re not going to until they absolutely must. The Nuggets waited until the very last minute to move Anthony and made sure they got the most they could for him. Orlando could do the same, so you may be looking at February next season, or even after the season -– and then there’s also the possibility of a lockout that would impact everything.

    The Nets will try to make upgrades as soon as they can. They need to make moves to keep Williams happy and with the organization. He can leave after next season if he wants, so this offseason will be all about finding the pieces to keep Williams in a Nets uniform for a long time.

    But having Williams and Brooklyn being only a year away should put the Nets in better position to attract players than last season. Most every player wants to play with an elite point guard and in a big market. The Nets hope Howard is one of them.

    ***

    Follow me on Twitter: @Al_Iannazzone

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    Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)

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