Tuesday , Oct , 19 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

New Jersey Nets 2004-05 Season Preview

=== New Jersey Nets 2004-05 Season Preview ===

By Chris Ruddick, Contributing NBA Writer

2003-04 FINISH: 47-35

OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Travis Best (G) – Free agent; Rodney Buford (G) – New
Jersey; Nenad Krstic (C/F) – 2002 first round draft pick; Ron Mercer (G) –
Free Agent; Jacque Vaughn (G) – Free Agent; Eric Williams (F) – Free Agent.

OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Lucious Harris (G) – Waived; Kerry Kittles (G) –
Traded to LA Clippers; Kenyon Martin (F) – Traded to Denver; Rodney Rogers
(F) – Signed with New Orleans: Tamar Slay (G) – Selected by Charlotte in
Expansion Draft.

2004 DRAFT PICKS: 1. (22) Viktor Khryapa (F, Russia) – Traded to Portland;
2. (51) Christian Drejer (F, Spain).

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: PG Jason Kidd, SG Ron Mercer, SF Richard
Jefferson, PF Eric Williams, C Jason Collins

COACH: Lawrence Frank

(Sports Network) – The new-look New Jersey Nets begin their first full season
under head coach Lawrence Frank with far less expectations than in the past
two seasons.

For the first time since star guard Jason Kidd came to town there are plenty
of questions surrounding the Nets. So much so that it is believed that Kidd
wants out of town and could ask for a trade once he returns from knee surgery
sometime in December.

Gone are New Jersey mainstays Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles, as the former
was dealt to the Denver Nuggets, while the latter was traded to the Los
Angeles Clippers with an array of draft picks coming in return from both
deals.

General manager Rod Thorn, who is expected to have his contract extended
before the start of the season, has done little to replace those two reliable
veterans. Eric Williams is expected to fill Martin’s shoes, while Ron Mercer
should get the nod in Kittle’s absence.

One thing the team did do this offseason was to lock up young forward Richard
Jefferson with a multi-year extension.

“Richard’s work ethic over the past three years has produced a significant
development in his basketball performance,” said Thorn. “The Nets management
feels very strongly that Richard will continue this upward progression and be
a cornerstone of this franchise, and we are very pleased that he will continue
his basketball career past his current contract with the New Jersey Nets.”

The 24-year-old Jefferson started all 82 regular-season games last season for
the Nets and averaged 18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per contest.

After two straight Eastern Conference Finals, the Nets got off to a slow start
in the 2003-04 campaign and fired head coach Byron Scott, despite a 22-20
mark, in January. The 33- year-old Frank then took over and set a record for
major professional sports in North America by starting his coaching career
13-0.

Frank eventually guided the Nets to the Atlantic Division title and a
sweep over the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, before
falling in seven games to the eventual NBA champion Detroit Pistons in the
conference semifinals.

Kidd’s knee was a problem down the stretch and cost the team in the playoffs.
How he returns from the knee will decide how far the Nets go. However, he
is unhappy with the way the team handled this offseason and could make things
very uncomfortable in New Jersey this season.

BACKCOURT

When he is healthy there is not a better point guard in the game than Kidd. He
has the ability, as he has shown here in the Garden State, to lift a team to
unbelievable heights – no matter who he is playing with. Nobody runs the fast
break any better, as he has an uncanny knack of seeing the whole court and
knowing what is going to happen instantly.

Kidd, who is also a menace on the defensive end of the court, appeared in 67
games last season and averaged 15.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 9.2 apg.

Travis Best, a nine-year veteran out of Georgia Tech, was signed in early
October and should spell Kidd from time-to-time and will likely start the year
as the team’s starting point guard. He will be challenged by another veteran
Jacques Vaughn for the starting spot in the beginning of the year.

Best spent last season with Dallas and averaged 2.8 points and 1.8 assists in
61 games, while Vaughn averaged 3.8 ppg and 2.8 apg in 71 games with the
Atlanta Hawks a year ago.

The 31-year-old Kidd, who is expected to miss at least the first month of the
season recovering from the knee surgery, will be joined in the backcourt by
Mercer, who will be playing for his seventh team since coming into the league
in 1997 with the Boston Celtics.

Mercer brings a toughness to the position that Kittles lacked, but is nowhere
near the defensive presence that Kittles was. Kidd also meshed well with
Kittles in the transitionIn just 39 games for the San ANtonio Spurs last
season Mercer averaged 5.0 ppg.

Also seeing some time in the back court will be the “Sheriff” Rodney Buford
and European Zoran Planinic, who the team had hoped would be the backup to
Kidd. However, Planinic had trouble learning the English language and has not
adjusted to the fast pace of the NBA.

FRONTCOURT

Jefferson started to show signs last year of becoming an elite player in this
league. Now with a huge contract, and Kidd’s apparent desire to leave, he
could become the face of this organization. When Kidd and Martin went down
with injuries down the stretch last season, it was Jefferson who carried the
team.

The 6-foot-7 Jefferson, who is improving the range on his jumper and is above
average defensively, is probably anxious to get the season started after a
horrific showing as a member of the U.S. Olympic Basketball team that finished
with a disappointing Bronze Medal at the Athens Games.

However, he is a terrific finisher and a tremendous compliment to Kidd in the
running
game.

With Martin in the Rocky Mountains, power forward is a huge concern for
Frank’s squad. Williams should help and will start. A strong defender,
Williams also has the ability to knock down a three-pointer. He can also play
the three and will from time-to-time.

In 50 games for the Cavaliers last season, Williams averaged 9.4 ppg and 3.8
rpg.

Also seeing some time at the forward spot will be the seldom-used Brian
Scalabrine, who will likely spell Jefferson more than at the power spot
because he just simply does not have the bulk or size to handle the league’s
big men.

Things are so bad at the power forward position, that the Nets are actually
considering shifting centers Jason Collins and Aaron Williams there at times.
Without the center combination, there is just no inside presence at all.

Collins, 7-foot, will start the season in the middle for the Nets and will do
all the little things that do not show up in the box score for the team. He is
not about numbers, but he will take a charge, blocks out for others to rebound
and is a sound defender. With Martin gone though, his 5.1 rpg are going to
have to improve.

Williams will be his primary backup, but at 6-foot-9 is a bit undersized. The
team is also a bit worried how he will hold up with an expected increase in
his minutes, while playing both positions.

The one wild card could be seven-time All-Star Alonzo Mourning, who is
attempting another comeback. This time though he is not just coming back from
a kidney ailment, he is coming back from a kidney transplant.

Mourning, 6-foot-10, four-year, $22 million contract prior to the 2003-04
season, but his time with New Jersey lasted only 12 games because of a
condition known as focal glomerulosclerosis. He was forced to stop playing on
November 25, 2003 and underwent the transplant less than a month later with an
organ donated by his cousin.

In his 12 games with the Nets, Mourning amassed 8.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in
nearly 18 minutes per game, well short of his career averages. He is a
longshot at best, though, to make the team.

New Jersey might also get something out of 2002 first round pick Nenad
Kristic, a rail-thin 7-foot, 240-pound forward/center who played for Vlade
Divac’s Partizan Belgrade team. Kristic, who has terrific range, bulked up a
bit over the summer, but still might not be ready for the big time.

OUTLOOK

This team took a disastrous hit in the offseason when Martin expressed his
desire to leave. Not only did it draw the ire of the team’s star, but it also
caused the Nets to lose a lot of their toughness and defensive presence.
Without Martin rebounding will be a problem, but none of that matters if Kidd
is not healthy. Even if he is healthy he could be gone, as the Nets seem to be
ready to head in another direction for some unknown reason. Luckily, though,
they are in the Eastern Conference and with the new division alignment, the
Miami Heat – more specifically Shaquille O’Neal – are not in the Atlantic so a
playoff spot is not out of the question. However, if Kidd is gone or injured
it is lottery time again in New Jersey.

NJN