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Basketball Notes

Nets’ transition game bears watching

By Gary Washburn
October 11, 2009

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The New Jersey Nets are a team trying to escape the shadow of the New York Knicks, despite having exponentially more success than their neighbors across the river over the past 10 years. The Nets made the most astute move of the summer, trading Vince Carter to prep for a free agent showdown with the Knicks next summer.

The Knicks are eagerly awaiting the free agency of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade in nine months, but it is the Nets who have more cap space.

So this season, they will develop. The Nets’ transition is in its infancy. Carter, though still a talented player, was not going to lead them to elite status, not without Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson. So general manager Kiki Vandeweghe found a taker for the remaining three years and $51 million of Carter’s contract - the Orlando Magic, a team looking to capitalize on its championship window.

In return, the Nets received promising guard Courtney Lee plus Rafer Alston and Tony Battie, whose expiring contracts could help pave the way for a franchise-changing free agent. If anything, the Nets will be a painfully young team that will be fun to watch.

With the impending ownership of Russian Mikhail Prokhorov, perhaps a $20 million-plus player on the way, a potential move to Brooklyn, and the uncertain future of coach Lawrence Frank, the Nets are in significant transition.

“It’s a push-pull situation, because you want to win but you want to win at the highest level,’’ Vandeweghe said. “I think we recognized we weren’t going to get there as constructed.

“We traded away our bigger contracts and accumulated assets, that was the plan. And we accumulated [money] for what’s viewed as a very good free agent year. We currently have the most cap space available of any team.’’

The money and perhaps the lure of playing in Brooklyn should be good enough to attract one of the big-name free agents, a class that also could include Michael Redd, Dirk Nowitzki, and Amare Stoudemire if they opt out of their contracts.

But there is a full season to play before the 2010 bonanza, a season that could serve as opportunity for players such as Lee, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Terrence Williams, Devin Harris, and Brook Lopez.

With Carter gone, Harris is the team’s most talented player. Lopez turned in a sparkling rookie season at center, perhaps the steal of the 2008 draft. And Lee starred in Orlando’s playoff run; the Nets insisted he be included in the deal for Carter.

“Players have to understand they have to play defense if they are going to play for us,’’ Vandeweghe said. “And we want to play an up-tempo game, which is suited to the players that we have. We have players who are athletic and can run, so we want to take advantage of that. If there’s a word for it, it’s ‘attack basketball.’ ’’

Douglas-Roberts and Sean Williams are mysteries who could become cornerstones or fade away, especially Williams, the former Boston College player who followed a solid rookie year with a troublesome sophomore season. Williams, who was removed from the BC team, apparently for marijuana use, was suspended two games in March after an incident at a Denver mall in which he threw a computer monitor during an altercation with a store employee.

After he had dispelled concerns about his behavior during his first season, Williams’s issues came back even stronger, making this season a significant one. The Nets have until Oct. 31 to guarantee him, or he could be an unrestricted free agent.

“Sean’s been doing great,’’ Vandeweghe said. “Clearly a lot of athletic ability, but he has not found his niche in the NBA, and that’s an important thing for a young player. He’s a good kid and works very hard, and this year he needs to find that niche. It is a pivotal time for him.

“Sean had some things happen last year that if he could do it over again, he wouldn’t have had happen. I think he’s matured from that and finding that niche.’’

Williams isn’t the only one on uncertain ground. Frank has been heavily criticized the past few seasons for his underachieving teams, while Vandeweghe and team president Rod Thorn could be out if the new owner decides to hire his own people.

While the Nets are taking the correct path to success, there may be some unfortunate victims of that progress.

“The NBA is all about dealing with pressure,’’ Vandeweghe said. “Our coach has done a fine job, but this is a winning business. And it’s that way for all of us.

“We want to be one of those teams that plays hard every night. A team that mothers and fathers can come to the games and say, ‘Hey, those guys play hard.’ We may lose, but we’re building toward something.

“A lot of that heavy lifting has been accomplished and now the real work comes.’’

Stern is talking a good game

Commissioner David Stern visited London and Beijing last week to promote NBA Europe Live and preseason games in Mexico City and Taipei, and he addressed the financial state of the league. Stern is in the difficult position of trying to elevate the league globally in what is a harsh economic climate.

The NBA collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2010-11 season, and Players Association president Billy Hunter might have bookmarked Stern’s comments from London on the financial state of the league.

Asked about the world credit crisis, Stern said, “Actually, we’ve been remarkably unaffected by it. Our attendance will be strong, again, this year. Our television ratings have been up for two years and likely will go up. Our revenues will decline slightly because our teams have responded to our fans by freezing ticket prices or lowering them somewhere between 2 and 5 percent. We feel pretty good about our place in this difficult time.’’

Hunter may figure that if the league is doing so well and remaining strong during this tumultuous time, then there is no reason for the players to give more of a percentage of revenue to owners.

The commissioner maintained that the league isn’t planning to put sponsors’ names on game uniforms, as some WNBA teams did.

“We keep the door ajar,’’ said Stern. “We have on practice jerseys, on warmups. We have used the salami approach to slice things away, but nothing so far. But I would not say never.’’

The Celtics presented by Dunkin’ Donuts? Stay tuned.

Etc.

Exploring Africa
Commissioner David Stern said the league wants to open three offices in Africa by 2012. The NBA has conducted various camps and community service projects in Africa, but having offices there would further legitimize the continent as a recruiting base for talent as well as more expansive projects.

Defense department
Utah is a dark horse to win the Western Conference, but the usually disciplined Jazz need to improve, according to guard Deron Williams. “We need to get better defensively,’’ he said. “We couldn’t stop [the Lakers], and if you can’t stop a team from scoring, you can’t win a playoff series. Last year, our team dealt with injuries for the whole season. We could never get into a rhythm. This year, if we’re healthy, we could have a lot better team.’’ The Jazz were tied for 18th in points allowed last season and 20th in field goal percentage.

Men for hire
Former Celtic Wally Szczerbiak earned nearly $13 million last season and is now looking for a guaranteed contract, but he probably will have to wait until the season begins to find a team. He has lost a step or two after ankle surgery. Other notables who have gotten jobs or at least training camp invites: Jarron Collins (Portland), Juan Dixon (Atlanta), Melvin Ely (Sacramento), Paul Davis (Washington), Maceo Baston (Detroit), Dan Dickau (Phoenix), Kareem Rush (Los Angeles Clippers), and Marcus Williams (Memphis) . . . Seen at Celtics practice last week was former Durfee and Boston College guard Chris Herren, ex-Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo, ex-UConn standout Scott Burrell, and former Georgia coach Dennis Felton.

Point of emphasis
One of the more overlooked free agent signings this summer was Andre Miller’s defection to Portland, leaving the 76ers without their starting point guard. The question for new coach Eddie Jordan is, who will run the fast-paced Philly offense? The answer could be Louis Williams, a scoring guard in the mold of Allen Iverson who has yet to play full-time at the point. “Certainly Lou has the upper hand,’’ said Jordan. “He has shown he can be very exciting in the open floor, which is the way I like to play. He has shown a knack of getting to the basket. We’d like to develop him to be a starting guard.’’ Williams will have to improve his 1.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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