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In Praise of the New Jersey Nets

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If they play their cards well, the New Jersey Nets will be a title contender in the next three seasons, whether they get LeBron or not. This is more than we can say for most teams, and all the credit in the world goes to Rod Thorn and the basketball operations people for putting it together. While Devin Harris is looking more and more like an utter heist, the real foundation for future greatness has come from trading Richard Jefferson and the Nets' amazing draft this season.

Jefferson's an excellent player, but he's got such a big, long, contract that it was going to hamstring the team's ability to truly build toward a title. While they haven't gotten any single player as talented or productive as Jefferson to replace him, they've been able to build young, cheap, depth that's the envy of everyone this side of Boston. While Bobby Simmons is overpaid, his deal expires after 2010, and he's a reasonable bridge to start at SF until one of the youngsters takes his place. That youngster might be Yi Jianlian, who's so tall everyone wants to make him a four, but his offensive game just isn't suited to muscling on the block, so it might make sense to call him a three and let him defend fours on occasion.

As for the players drafted this year, the Nets' crop might challenge the 2001 Warriors' for single best draft in the modern era. You might argue that getting one transcendent player is more valuable than getting an All Star, a borderline All Star, and a solid starter, in a sense, and I'm not really in position to argue that the Ws' draft was better than, say, the Cavs' in 2003, but nobody else has achieved that feat, before or after the year the Ws picked Jason Richardson, Troy Murphy, and Gilbert Arenas.

Brook Lopez is in the process of proving himself a solid starting center in the league, and potentially Dwight Howard's All Star backup for years to come. Ryan Anderson was my pet pick for the Bobcats, and he's already outscoring and drastically outrebounding a similar player, Andrea Bargnani. Chris Douglas Roberts is hardly seeing any floor time because he's behind some guy named Vince, but he's a first round talent who's far from embarrassed himself when he has played. He'll get his chances.

All those guys are going to be underpaid for the next three seasons, relative to their production, so the Nets can make a play for a superstar in that time to go along with Harris and the solid supporting cast. Obviously, one could come in the summer of 2010--after LeBron, I'd love to see Devin Harris play with Joe Johnson--but, depending on how things play out, they could opt to let their young core carry the load until offering Melo or Pau a max deal in 2011.

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For tonight and tomorrow, Devin Harris is going to be a nightmare to defend. He's too quick for Raymond and Raja, too big for DJ. It may actually be worth our while to activate Shannon Brown and let him take a crack at defending him at times out of the one spot. Unfortunately, because Larry Brown and MJ have gathered a bunch of six foot and shorter point guards, none of them are going to be able to guard the Nets' twos, primarily Vince. I suppose, given the options, I'd take my chances with Felton and DJ on Harris. But I'd have Raja and Carroll guard Simmons when he's out there, and put Wallace on Vince. Diaw takes Yi or Anderson, and Emeka takes Lopez and the other centers.

If they go big and play Harris, Vince, Chairman, Anderson, and Lopez, we're kinda screwed because Brown keeps wanting to play small without playing a style conducive to a small lineup. He puts three guards out there, but they still walk the ball up the floor and play halfcourt ball, mostly neutering any advantage the small lineup offers. Could we see Boris as the nominal two, with Wallace, Howard, and Okafor? Will the 6-8 Adam Morrison get a chance to match up on Yi? The Bobcats have lots of roster flexibility, but Larry Brown will have to bend, first.