After making the playoffs for the previous six seasons, but not making it past the second round the last four, the New Jersey Nets finally faced reality last season when they struggled to a 34-48 record.
Jason Kidd finally undermined the team enough to force his way out of town, causing the Nets to start the rebuilding process with Devin Harris.
Today, the second step has finally been completed.
By moving Richard Jefferson for Yi Jianlin and the expiring contract of journeyman wingman Bobby Simmons, the Nets have effectively done three things.
Yi is listed as a 21 year old (though he may be 24), 7'0", 238 pound power forward with shocking athleticism, a nice touch around the rim, and a mid-range jumper to go with it. He would have certainly been one of the first few picks in this draft as well, and the Nets view him as a long-term project with one year already under his belt.
He did show some talent, winning rookie of the month in December by averaging 12.1 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game
But basketball skills are not all he has to offer. Yi offers a major marketing tool. New Jersey tried to generate interest for its team, but it just could not muster up enough consistent support to get it done.
When the Nets fell to NBA purgatory, consistently making the playoffs, but never showing any real chance to win it all, the fanbase begin to lose some excitement. When the team announced the move to Brooklyn, much hope was lost.
Yi provides a built-in fanbase: the Chinese population. Remember that despite a mediocre rookie season, he nearly made the all-star team based on the Chinese vote.
At the very least, the Nets will be able to always have a circus-like atmosphere around the team, which will be a welcome replacement from the indifference most of the NBA gave them.
But there is a third reason why this trade gives the Nets a chance to rebuild. If the Nets move to Brooklyn as planned in 2010, they will have only about $27 million dollars committed in salary (to Devin Harris, Vince Carter, and Yi). Obviously, the Nets will have more than three players at that point, but they will certainly be under the cap.
That year also happens to be the year of perhaps the craziest free agency period ever. I could write an entire paragraph, talking about Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, or any of the numerous potential free agents whose contracts expire or who could opt out of their deals.
But there is only one name that matters. LeBron James.
James can opt out of his contract in 2010, and there has already been over a year of rumors saying that King James will join forces with Nets minority owner Jay-Z, and make the new Brooklyn Nets the face of the NBA.
Now, the Nets are under the cap and more than willing to give whatever they can to entice James to come to Brooklyn in 2010.
With Harris, Yi, Josh Boone, Sean Williams, and whoever they draft this season, the Nets have a solid talent base. They lack a superstar. LeBron James would be a perfect fit. Vince Carter would also still be on that team.
But that's still two years away. However, the potential of the snowball effect of James and Brooklyn is worth discussion now.
Even besides that, Yi is a great prospect who could end up being a very good player. The Nets lose Richard Jefferson's lengthy, expensive contract in order to get a lottery talent who brings a huge following.
The Nets are taking one step back to take a giant leap forward soon.
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