Challenge for the Eastern Conference Playoffs? Become relevant after near-total roster turnover? Vince Carter be a leader for young veterans? Devin Harris being better than Jason Kidd? All things occurred with the 2008-2009 New Jersey Nets. The team showed signs of life and a large part of that was the point guard running the show.
Stifled by a restrictive regime in the Dallas Mavericks organization, Harris became an elite point guard and a first-time All-Star for the Nets, after head coach Lawrence Frank totally reworked the entire playbook in order to play to Harris’ strengths (particularly as an attacker, distributor and helter-skelter shooter off-the-dribble). All the while, “Vinsanity” showed a maturity and a zest for the game that recalls when he was first traded to New Jersey from the Toronto Raptors. Armed with a strong backcourt, the Nets were legitimate contenders for a spot in the East as playoff participants (though they fell short to the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, who were the 7th and 8th place finishers in the East, being the last two teams eligible for the NBA Playoffs).
A cause for the surprise by some NBA observers was because of the lack of seasoning that the roster showed. Most of the players hovered in their early-20s and the few veterans such as Trenton Hassell, Keyon Dooling, Bobby Simmons, Eduardo Najera and Jarvis Hayes were mostly backup players who had moderate career success, but were not considered talents that would change the course of a team’s future in terms of wins and minutes played. Rookie center Brook Lopez was a wonderful addition, being the 10th overall selection in the 2008 Draft, and he challenged for the Rookie of the Year Award, as it looks as if Lopez will be the cornerstone center of New Jersey’s future. Rookie combo forward Ryan Anderson was a good surprise as well, using his 6’10” frame and versatility to be effective all around the court.
While New Jersey certainly built a good foundation and direction with the team, other roster members have yet to make a definite impression and will need to do so in order for the Nets to re-emerge as Eastern Conference powers. Chinese forward Yi Jianlian looked for New Jersey to rebuild his start to his young career after bombing out in Milwaukee with high expectations as the 6th overall pick in the 2008 Draft, but turned up mixed results as an underperforming power forward, but also showed potential as a three-point shooting “small” forward at 7’0″; Maurice Ager has yet to make an impact being the talented swingman he was as a first-round pick out of Michigan State in 2006; Josh Boone, the team’s starting power forward in previous years, regressed as a result of getting his minutes cut away with a crowded frontcourt; rookie swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts failed to receive minutes with veterans Dooling, Hayes and Hassell playing in his spots, and the talented, but troubled Sean Williams seemingly did everything in his power not to succeed and get the minutes at power forward and center that he should’ve earned.
2009 ended reasonably well; the next years can be even better with more development and competition.