Thursday, November 4, 2010

New Jersey Nets: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 12-70
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Derrick Favors, Troy Murphy, Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, Jordan Farmar, Damian James, Quinton Ross, Joe Smith
Key Losses: Courtney Lee, Yi Jianlian, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Keyon Dooling
Projected Rotation Players: Brook Lopez, Devin Harris, Troy Murphy, Derrick Favors, Travis Outlaw, Terrence Williams, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Joe Smith, Stephen Graham

Provided Devin Harris is healthy and recommitted to attacking the paint, look for the New Jersey Nets to more than double their 2009-10 win total.

Point guard play will be vital for this team. Despite a disappointing foray into the free agent market over the summer, in terms of talent the 2010-11 Nets have are much improved compared to last year’s model. However, for the considerable (seriously!) talent that the Nets now boast on the wings and in the paint- a core of Brook Lopez, Troy Murphy, Travis Outlaw, Anthony Morrow and Derrick Favors is not bad- they lack players that are capable of getting their own shot.

On its own, this is little more than a collection of skilled-but-disparate parts. However, playing alongside a lead guard that penetrates and draws in defenders turns each of these players into a legitimate threat. When Harris beats his man off of the dribble, he creates space open looks for his shooters and, once he gets into the lane, attracts opposing big men, creating layups and offensive rebounding opportunities for his own bigs.

In a season plagued by a groin injury and soul-crushing failure, Harris lost the aggression that had catapulted him to All-Star status in 2008-09. If he’s able to return to the form of two seasons ago- when 39.2% of his attempts came at the rim, compared with 34.2% a year ago (from Hoopdata.com)- it will go along way toward lifting the Nets out of the NBA’s basement. A clean bill of health, the optimism of a new season, as well as a reunion with new head coach Avery Johnson- with whom Harris had a strong relationship during their days in Dallas- set the stage for a season of dramatic improvement.

Through the Nets’ first four games of the Nets’ 2010-11 season, Harris looks to be back to his old self. He’s attacking the paint with more frequency, averaging 18.8 ppg, 8.3 apg and scoring very efficiently, with percentages of 52-86-42 from FG-FT-3-pt. More importantly, the Nets have won two of these games- they did not reach two wins last season until December 8- and lost a two-point heartbreaker against the Bobcats on November 3.

HOWEVAH…

If Harris is unable to recapture his 2008-09 form and remains stuck in last season’s rut, look for the New Jersey Nets to regret not selling high on him. When he’s right, Harris is one of the NBA’s most disruptive lead guards and, at $27 million over the next three years (aka, Mike Conley’s new annual salary), an absolute bargain for a player of his caliber. When he’s passive and seemingly uninspired, Harris is a jump shot-reliant volume scorer with an inconsistent outside shot (~30% on 3-pointer over the past three seasons).

With Terrence Williams improving by the day and seemingly mounting threat to steal the starting PG spot, the Nets will to be sure of what they’ve got in Harris. While Avery Johnson has said that Williams is strictly a shooting guard on this team, his fantastic rebounding, ballhandling and playmaking skills suggest that he may be in line for an expanded role. Although he doesn't have a knack for scoring efficiently, Williams' ability to penetrate and finish make up for this. Additionally, he's is already on par with Harris defensively, and should surpass him, since he’s still learning the NBA game. If Harris is unable to regain his 2008-09 form, Williams could cause a PG controversy in Newark by simply knowing his limitations and focusing on his strengths.

Bottom line: Heading into the season, Vegas had the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Nets at 24.5. On the surface, this may seem a bit optimistic for a team that managed a mere dozen wins last season, but thanks to a healthy and aggressive Devin Harris, a top-five center in Brook Lopez and a future star in Derrick Favors (11.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg; wasn’t he supposed to be raw and at least a year away?), the Nets should be competitive again.

This squad is a year (and another top-10 pick and a free agent) away from making a playoff push, but will be one of the NBA’s “best bad teams” in 2009-10. As Derrick Favors continues to develop (expect ~14-10 and a strong #3 ROY finish) and Troy Murphy is added to the mix, they will notch a few upset wins against playoff teams and beat up on the league’s bottom-feeders en route to about 30 wins.

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