Heading into the 2008-2009 season, not much was expected from the New Jersey Nets. Just two players remained from the start of the previous season, and this year had the looks of a throwaway year waiting for the 2010 harvest of salary cap heaven and a new Brooklyn home.
On paper, the Nets may have been the worst team in the Eastern Conference. They were led by a point guard who hadn't proven he could lead and a shooting guard whose motivations were questionable. Surrounding them was a group of veteran cast-offs and unproven young players.
Needless to say, coach Lawrence Frank had work to do to keep this team competitive and develop the young players to see who was worth keeping around.
First-round picks Brook Lopez and Ryan Anderson were asked to contribute right away. So was Yi Jianlin, the athletic big man who did little in Milwaukee in his first professional season.
Bobby Simmons, Keyon Dooling, Jarvis Hayes, and Josh Boone were some of the other pieces Frank had to try to fit into a winning puzzle.
And 40 games into the season, the Nets are 19-21 and still hanging onto the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, tied with Philadelphia for seventh.
The biggest reason for the team's modest success has been the revelatory play of Devin Harris. The point guard has made the Jason Kidd trade a resounding success. He is eighth in the NBA in scoring at 22.7 points per game.
He's always been lightning quick on the court, but this year he has finally harnessed that skill and applied it to breaking down defenders.
The enigmatic Vince Carter checks in at second on the team at 22.2 points per game. For someone who still puts up as much stats as Carter does, nobody receives more flack from the fans and media.
And there have been plenty of times where he disappears, and you wonder why he doesn't play well or it doesn't seem as if he's giving it his all. But from time to time, he'll remind you why they call him Vinsanity.
The third option offensively has been manned at times by Lopez and Jianlian. Lopez averages 10.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game as a rookie, and he has been almost everything the Nets could have asked from him.
Jianlian looked lost for a while this season, particularly on the defensive end, but in his last few games, he was hitting his shots and playing confidently and aggressively. Unfortunately, a broken pinky finger will keep him out for about a month.
As far as the rest of the supporting cast goes, Dooling has probably been the best acquisition. The Nets yearned for his services for years, and he would have been a big help for them off the bench in their playoff runs. He's been effective replacing both Harris and Carter off the bench.
Simmons and Hayes have split time at the small forward spot, but both are bench-caliber players. Simmons has been reliable from three-point range, but he's a very limited player at this stage of his career.
Hayes has been a scrappy player with a nice mid-range jumper, but like Simmons, he would be better off in a more limited role.
Anderson has shown flashes of scoring and rebounding ability, but a back injury has hampered him recently. The rookie from California definitely hasn't yet made a name for himself, but at just 20 years of age, he's on the right track.
Boone has gotten a little lost in the shuffle with all the new pieces this year. He's still a pretty good rebounder, but with all the young guys in place, he's struggled to find a niche this year.
He's also been banged up at times, but he needs to be assertive and improve on his putrid 38.5 free throw percentage
Eduardo Najera, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Trenton Hassell, Stromile Swift, and Maurice Ager fill out the rotation.
The Nets' play has surprised many observers this year. If the season ended today, the team would sneak into the playoffs.
However, that playoff spot is hanging on by a thread, and with little hope of advancing in the playoffs, is it even worth trying to get there?
Purgatory in the NBA is mediocrity. It's that horrible place where there's no hope of a deep playoff run and no high lottery picks to come in and change that.
At some point this season Rod Thorn will have a decision to make. Go for the playoffs or stick with the plan? There are merits to each side of the argument.
One train of thought is that if you can make the playoffs, go for it. In that case, the Nets would likely need to improve the small forward position and maybe get another guard who can score.
On the other hand, a one-and-done in the playoffs with guys like Hayes, Simmons, Carter, and Dooling all receiving extensive playoff time might not be the best long-term solution.
Thorn could shop Carter around and try to move him at the trade deadline. This would propel the team to a higher draft pick and possibly some other young talent as well as opening up cap space for the 2010 season.
With the trade deadline coming up on Feb. 19, the Nets will likely be looking to make a move. But will they dump Carter and try to get some more young pieces around the core of Harris, Lopez, and possibly Jianlian, or will they try to get a Gerald Wallace or a Mike Miller and actually make a run at the playoffs?
Because for the long-term success of the team, Thorn will need to make a decision with Vince Carter. How long is he worth keeping around? What value is there for him at the trade deadline? Or, on the flip side, which players can be brought in that complement the current group?
These decisions will determine the future of the Nets, for 2009 and beyond.