NBA PM: Nets Conclude Hectic Offseason
NBA reporters have to keep a Smartphone handy, but that’s never been more of a necessity than right now—particularly for those who cover the New Jersey Nets. Any car ride, bathroom break or meal ends with a Nets beat writer rushing to look at the phone just in case general manager Billy King fired off a few more transactions.
In the past week they’ve re-signed Kris Humphries, waived Stephen Graham, Jerry Smith, JamesOn Curry and Ime Udoka (who was signed on the 15th), signed DeShawn Stevenson, sent star center Brook Lopez to have foot surgery and traded a future second-round pick for former Jazz center Mehmet Okur. And while all of this is going on, trade rumors continue to swirl concerning the Nets and Orlando Magic star center Dwight Howard.
For right now at least, the Nets have their team. Lopez is scheduled to miss six to eight weeks (although it could be longer) while Okur and Stevenson are preparing for the team’s opening game against the Washington Wizards on Dec. 26.
“I’m comfortable because I know they’re going to play hard,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said at Friday’s practice. “You know, when you have a team where Deron Williams is the point guard, he’s going to do a good job of quarterbacking the team. Damion James and (Anthony) Morrow, those guys play hard. Humphries is back, he’s playing hard and he’s eager to come back and have an eager better year than last year. That doesn’t just mean numbers. He’s helping the Nets win some more games.”
And by “more games” Johnson means anything above last season’s win total of 24.
The expectations are simultaneously very high and very modest. With Lopez sidelined, a slow start seems almost inevitable. And yet, this team has hopes of re-signing Williams and adding Howard while stealing Knicks fans as it moves to Brooklyn. Heck, owner Mikhail Prokhorov wants to be president of Russia.
But not matter how lofty the long-term goals are, this team has to find a way to beat Washington on Monday night and that’s not going to be easy with the roster as it is.
How does Okur fit?
Williams was quick to point out that as bad as Lopez’s absence is, Okur does a lot of the same things the Nets star center can do. Specifically, both players like to hit long jumpers. And while Williams knows the team needs Lopez to be successful, he’s also been through all of this before.
“It’s very tough,” Williams said of losing Lopez. “I’ve been in this situation before with Carlos Boozer where we had him for all of training camp and he goes down and we have to try to find someone to step up. It was Paul Millsap back then so now we got to find somebody right now whether it be Hump, now Memo. Guys are going to have to step up and give us a lift.
“Me and Memo know how to play together,” Williams continued. “We’ve had a lot of success together. We have a great chemistry and I know where his spots are on the floor. I’m looking forward to playing with him again… He’s a dangerous player when he’s healthy.”
Of course, Okur wasn’t healthy last season. He played in only 13 games after rupturing his Achilles in April of 2010. The good news is that he played well for Ankara of the Turkish league during the lockout , hitting 40% of his 3-pointers and, more importantly, grabbing 8.4 rebounds per game. Obviously that’s not against NBA competition, but the team is happy with his health and conditioning nonetheless.
“He’s rearing to go,” Johnson said of Okur. “He looked pretty good in their first two games just getting up and down the floor. So, again, it’s just good to have another guy that’s proven that we’ll be able to play opening night. Don’t know whether he’ll start, but he’ll play opening night.”
If Okur doesn’t start, Johan Petro will likely get the nod. The Frenchman had a rough outing in the first preseason game of the year, but followed that with a nine-point, 10-rebound performance on Wednesday against the Knicks.
Petro still commits bad fouls from time to time, so Okur will be relied upon heavily until Lopez comes back.
“It feels great,” Johnson said of acquiring Okur. “We needed another guy to fill in. He’s not just filling in. He’s a veteran player and he’s had a solid career so far. He knows how to play, he knows how to pass. He still shoots the ball pretty good.”
What can DeShawn Stevenson do for the Nets?
The Nets are going to be switching in and out of two-point guard sets this year which means Williams will have to spend time guarding shooting guards. To help accommodate this dynamic, the team needed a shooting guard who can also step up and defend small forwards from time to time. Enter DeShawn Stevenson.
“He can’t guard me,” Williams joked while describing Stevenson’s defensive abilities. “He’s a good defender. He’s a tough guy that gets out and guards people. He can guard twos and threes so we’re going to need that because I can slide over and guard twos and he can slide over and guard threes if we have to and that’s just a bigger bonus. Plus he has the championship experience. He knows how to win.”
Stevenson, who won a title with the Mavericks last season, admits he’s just been sitting on his “couch” but that he’s very close to being in game shape.
Where can the Nets get extra production?
Last season the Nets had high hopes for forward Damion James. The four-year man out of Texas was a solid rebounder and an even better athlete. Unfortunately, James struggled to get major minutes at the beginning of the season and by the time he was ready to contribute, he went down with a foot injury.
“To be honest, it was just so tough on me.,” James told HOOPSWORLD. “It was tough. I’m used to playing. At the beginning of the season I wasn’t playing as much. At the end of the day, I think the foot injury really helped me a lot. It helped me understand the game a lot more. Right now I’m just taking advantage of everything that’s happening right now.”
Things have changed quite a bit. James’ foot has healed, he’s shed some weight and the Nets used the amnesty clause to waive small forward Travis Outlaw. While James does call Outlaw a “role model” for the way he handled himself on and off the court, James knows the move means more playing time. And as if that wasn’t enough, Johnson told James he’ll be seeing time at both power forward and small forward this season.
“That just lets you know how much coach believes in me,” said James, who had 13 points and nine rebounds against the Knicks on Wednesday. “He came to me and said small forwards always play multiple positions, so it’s a plus for me.
“I feel like I did in college,” he continued. “I’m a lot more athletic, showing my athletic ability and stuff. I’m like eight pounds lighter than I was last year because I didn’t want to put a lot of pressure on my foot. It feels great. I’m playing a lot of minutes. It’s tough, but it’s fun and it’s a blessing.”
Now that he’s playing different positions, James has the opportunities to pick his spots. When Knicks big man Josh Harrellson was defending James on Saturday, the former Longhorn had no problem putting the ball on the floor. However, when smaller 3s try to match up with James, he might try to back them down into the post.
“All that is just a part of me slowing the game down,” James said. “Last year I might have put my head down and went but now I’m looking at matchups and seeing who I got on me and taking advantage of the opportunity coach is putting me in right now.”
Of course, this is Deron Williams’ team in a lot of ways, so his stamp of approval is almost a prerequisite before James can have a bigger role.
“He’s had a great camp,” Williams said. “He plays hard. He doesn’t say much. He just goes out there and battles every day. He’s a guy who can play the three… He’s a good defender. Good slasher and he rebounds great from the four position so he’s going to get a lot of minutes because of his hustle and because of how hard he plays.”
James’ stat line from a year ago is pretty negligible, but don’t be surprised if you see something similar to his numbers from his senior year in Austin. Perhaps reaching 18 ppg is a bit optimistic, but 10.3 rpg and a 50.1% mark from the field are well within his capabilities.
Check Out: Dennis Horner
Dennis Horner is a New Jersey native and a former D-League player who, after the release of Udoka, will is a surprise addition to the Nets 15-man roster. Ben Couch of NJNets.com has a feature on how the Nets have used their D-League affiliate, the Springfield Armor, to their advantage. Definitely worth a read.
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