- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN Staff Writer
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Inspired by the thorough New York Knicks’ report card done by ESPNNewYork.com’s NBA guru Chris Sheridan, we decided to put together one of our own: on the New Jersey Nets.
Through the quarter mark of the 2010-11 season, the Nets, who have lost 15 of their last 19, are currently in last place in the Atlantic Division (6-15). They’ve struggled to score all season, ranking 29th in the NBA in both points per game (93.2) and assists per game (18.3). And those scoring struggles were magnified in the team’s two most recent outings against the Charlotte Bobcats and Boston Celtics; losses in which the Nets shot a season-worst 31.9 percent and then 37.5 percent, while putting up a season-low 75 points.
Luckily, they’re owned by a Russian billionaire who wants to win, are moving into a luxurious arena in the NBA’s biggest market in two years and have already amassed half as many wins (six) as they did all of last season just 21 games into the 2010-11 campaign. Plus, they have a wealth of young talent on their roster.
Yes, we realize this is all a stretch at this particular juncture, but there are bigger and better things looming on the horizon for the Nets.
Unfortunately, we can only judge them on the here and now. So here it goes:
Avery Johnson: It was hard to imagine the NBA’s winningest coach -- at least as far as winning percentage is concerned -- inheriting a rebuilding team devoid of established talent and laden with inexperience and potential, but Johnson has taken to the challenge like a true professional. Slowly but surely, Johnson is changing the team’s culture. He hasn’t been afraid to call out stars Brook Lopez and Devin Harris for poor performance. He also hasn’t been afraid of sending a message if a player like Terrence Williams violates team policy. Johnson is a no nonsense type of coach who is all about accountability. At the same, he also realizes he’s going to have to go through the growing pains that come with playing a rookie like Derrick Favors and has shown a commitment to being patient and developing his players. Nevertheless, he’s here to turn this team into a winner. And with Johnson, it all starts at the defensive end of the floor (the Nets are currently 13th in the NBA in points allowed, 98.1). We hope he’s given ample time to do so -- especially since there’s no Dirk Nowitzkis on this roster, yet.
Billy King: When you’re replacing one of the greatest executives in NBA history -- Rod Thorn, who once drafted Michael Jordan and then traded for the best player in Nets’ history (Jason Kidd) not named Dr. J -- there’s a lot to live up to. And because he hasn’t been in power that long, he hasn’t made that many moves. The ones he has made, though, like landing the fat $11.2 expiring contract of Troy Murphy have been calculated and smart. In the end, King’s success or failure with the Nets will come down to whether or not he lands the team a superstar scorer on the wing like Carmelo Anthony; a player that has been rumored to the Nets and a player they could certainly use right now. But, currently, his grade cannot be tabulated.
Mikhail Prokhorov: What good can be said about Prokhorov? A whole lot. Ever since he purchased majority interest of the franchise and announced he was moving the team to Brooklyn in two years, Prokhorov has said and done all the right things. From putting up a huge billboard in Midtown Manhattan announcing his team’s presence in New York City; to allowing his team the opportunity to pursue LeBron James; to recently saying he didn’t want the Nets to be like the Knicks, rather he wanted them to be like the Lakers, Prokhorov has shown himself to be a true character, much like Mark Cuban. Many people never thought the Brooklyn project would get off the ground, but when Barclays Center steel began going up at Atlantic Yards, Prokhorov showed he was for real. He hopes his team can eventually become a player in free agency and -- as he prophetically announced -- win a championship in the next five years. Lofty goals. Lofty expectations. Then again, he wouldn’t be a billionaire if he didn’t have those ambitions would he? Nyet.
Devin Harris: Coming into the season, the questions were flying left and right. Would Harris and Johnson be able to co-exist in New Jersey after clashing in Dallas? The answer, at least so far, has been yes. The 27-year-old Harris has been a steadying force for the Nets at the point guard position, leading the team in assists (6.4), while trailing only Brook Lopez in scoring (17.1 points per contest). He’s shooting free throws at a career-best .853 percent clip, which is huge because Harris gets to the line at lot with his ability to create off the bounce. There’s no question the Nets are at their best when Harris is either getting out in transition or beating his defender off the dribble and drawing traffic in the lane, which allows for layups, foul shots or kickouts for open jumpers.
Kris Humphries: No one expected the journeyman to start at power forward for the Nets and become a double-double threat. Then again, no one in their right mind would have expected Humphries to be linked to Kim Kardashian either. But apparently, Humphries likes to prove people wrong. He’s certainly gone from nobody to somebody for the Nets this season, averaging 7.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, while shooting it at a .563 percent clip from the field. He’s currently tied for 37th in the league with four double-doubles. And it doesn’t look like Humphries is losing his starting spot anytime soon. He’s got a much better chance of losing Kardashian.
Brook Lopez: A lot was expected of Lopez coming into the season. A whole lot. Especially for a 22-year-old center that, for as much talent as he possesses, is still acclimating himself with the NBA game. So far, Lopez has had an up-and-down season. He’s shown flashes of being a future all-star. He’s also shown flashes of inconsistency, which hasn’t made his coach very happy. Right now, Lopez is the Nets’ franchise player, the player they’re expecting to eventually be a shoe-in to average 20 and 10 a night. Scoring wise (18.7 ppg), he’s right there. But his rebounding average (6.2 rpg) leaves much to be desired. Lopez snagged just two boards against the Bobcats on Friday night. And he received a tongue-lashing from Johnson for his lack of effort in that department (he has snagged as many as 10 boards just twice). Still, as we pointed out, Lopez is just 22. He has a lot of growing to do. And eventually, we’d like to see what this third-year pro -- who has an array of post and perimeter moves not many big men in the NBA possess -- can do when he gets more talent around him.
Anthony Morrow: The Nets brought in Morrow as an unrestricted free agent -- signing him to a three-year, $12 million deal -- to knock down shots. And that’s exactly what the marksman’s shooting splits (.467/.415/.879) indicate that he’s done. For the price, the Nets couldn’t have asked for more. Morrow (13.1 ppg), became the second-most accurate 3-point shooter in NBA history earlier in the season when he connected on his 250th career triple Nov. 24 against the Atlanta Hawks. It’s possible that the Nets will eventually look to upgrade the two-guard spot. But for the time being, they’ll take Morrow’s offensive production -- as well as his underappreciated perimeter defensive prowess -- without question.
Jordan Farmar: Alright, so we admit we were a bit confused when Farmar decided to leave the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers to ink a four-year deal with a Nets team coming off one of the worst seasons in NBA history. But Farmar said he wanted a different challenge. He’s certainly gotten one. And so far, he’s flourished as Harris’ backup. In fact, when Harris missed two games recently with a strained left knee, Farmar earned the start and averaged 22.0 points and 9.5 assists in his absence. Farmar is ripping the chord from behind the arc (.356 3-point field goal percentage) and the free throw line (.865 percent). His field goal percentage (.381) leaves much to be desired, but he’s done everything else well (10.1 ppg, 4.7 apg).
Derrick Favors: How do you grade the youngest player in the NBA? Well you probably shouldn’t. Not 21 games into his fledgling career anyway. Still, we’ll do our best with this 19-year-old rookie that can jump out of the gym. Early on, Favors, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 Draft, was excelling, scoring in double figures in four of his first six games. Unfortunately, he’s mustered only one since. But everyone is just going to be patient with the kid and let him develop, because he’ll always be bringing his unteachable athleticism to the table. It’s when he combines that athleticism with an improved skill set and stamina level that he can be an unstoppable force on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
Travis Outlaw: This was one of those head scratchers for many NBA executives. Yes, it’s OK to miss out on LeBron James. After all, he could only sign with one team. But to “replace” James by signing Outlaw, a wing that has trouble creating his own shot, to a five-year pact worth $35 million? Well, what’s done is done. Outlaw has been somewhat of a disappointment. He’s had trouble finding his jumper (.408 field goal percentage) at times and hasn’t really meshed with Morrow, probably because they’re very similar players, in-spite of their height differential. At 26-years-old, the once-ballyhooed Outlaw you see now is probably the Outlaw you’re going to get throughout the duration of his stint in New Jersey. He’s a fringe starter. If the Nets are able to land an Anthony type, he’d be a solid sixth man off the bench.
Damion James: Like Favors, it’s hard to grade a raw talent like James 21 games into his young career. He’s been the beneficiary of Williams being sent down to the D-League, as he’s been getting his minutes. James has some nice tools and could one-day be a regular rotation player, but he’s shooting it at just 29.2 percent from the field. He has plenty of room for improvement and we can only hope he continues to see regular playing time from Johnson with the Nets floundering.
Johan Petro: How did Petro earn a three-year deal worth $10 million? We’re not really sure. But we do know Johnson liked him -- a lot. Petro has done an admirable job spelling Lopez off the bench. He can occasionally knock down the pick-and-pop 15-to-18 footer, but doesn’t have much of an inside game. He’s just about as average as they come.
Stephen Graham: Similar type of player to James, just with more experience. The swingman is also not shooting it well enough either (24.1 percent).
Troy Murphy: First, Murphy was injured. Then, he came back and struggled. All of a sudden, he had lost his spot in the rotation. It has been a tumultuous first season for Murphy, the nine-year veteran who was brought in to play until Favors was ready to assume the starting role. At this point, he’s playing sparingly. And our guess is he’d like to be traded somewhere else. Johnson has repeatedly said it’s going to be nearly impossible for Murphy to move ahead of Humphries and Favors on the depth chart. Murphy has handled all of the adversity -- all of the questioned surrounding a lack of communication between he and Johnson -- with class. If he isn’t traded before season’s end, his contract will expire and he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. We’d think there would be some interest in a guy that has averaged around 14 and 10 throughout his career.
Terrence Williams: You can’t help your team when you’re in the D-League. But that’s where the 23-year-old Williams finds himself after he was demoted for repeatedly violating team policy. It’s been reported that Williams was late to practice a few too many times for Johnson’s liking, so he decided to send Williams a message. And there’s no word on when Williams will be recalled. Just two seasons in, Williams’ career is already at a crossroads. It remains to see which path he chooses, because if he chooses the wrong one, he’ll find himself out of the NBA.
Joe Smith: Consummate pro hasn’t played much of late. Hard to believe he started early in the season. We have nothing bad to say about him, though
Ben Uzoh: Undrafted rookie out of Tulsa needs more run to earn a grade.
Agree? Disagree? Post your comments.