If there is any doubt the New Jersey Nets are a franchise on the rise, look no further than the massive billboard new owners Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z erected across the street from where their cross-town rival New York Knicks call home.
The giant, pro-Nets advertisement, situated across the street from Madison Square Garden, features the two success stories—Prokhorov, a self-made double-digit billionaire from Russia, and Jay-Z, a rags-to-riches rapper from Brooklyn—posing with the title, "The Blueprint for Greatness," written above them.
Their message? We're gonna run this town.
Already, the wheels are in motion. Money isn't an issue, the roster is stocked with talent like a beer-filled fridge at a frat party, ground has been broken on a new stadium build in Brooklyn, superstars' ears are perked up, and with an already forgotten 12-win season at their backs, the Nets are ready for the world to know them.
Why not start with a playoff run?
Here are ten reasons why the Nets will make the playoffs next season.
Rod Thorn is an NBA lifer. He played eight years in the league after being drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in 1963. Once his playing days were up, Thorn went on to coach in Seattle, New York and St. Louis until 1978, when he became the general manager of the Chicago Bulls.
As Bulls GM, Thorn drafted you know who and we know how that ended. Thorn wouldn't stick around much longer for he became the league's Executive Vice President of Operations, a position he held for 15 years.
Thorn would join the Nets in 2000 and lead them to the Finals two years later, a feat for which he won Executive of the Year honors. The Nets returned to the Finals again the following season.
You get the point; the man knows what he's doing. So even though he just stepped down as GM, at the age of 69, everything the team is right now is the result of his work.
History tells us to expect a leap in the right direction.
Aside from his barely average athletic ability, Brook Lopez has the makings of an all-time great center.
He's huge (7'1", 265), highly skilled with excellent footwork, intelligent (Stanford), a good shooter (82 percent from the line), and perhaps most importantly, he will not back down from anyone, a rare quality in today's young players.
Lopez, who turned 22 in April, led all centers last season in points per game (18.8). The last second-year centers to average that many points were Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning, both in 1994.
The Nets currently have the best collection of young talent in the NBA. Let's take a look:
Anthony Morrow : 24-year-old, 6'5" two-guard who's the best three-point shooter in the league. In two seasons, he has connected on 46 percent of his 491 attempts. In the 31 games last season in which he played at least 30 minutes, Morrow averaged 19.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.1 threes and shot percentages of 50-50-91.
Travis Outlaw : At 6'9", the 25-year-old is an elite athlete who can play spots two through four on both sides of the ball. He was injured last season, but in the two previous years Outlaw averaged 13 points and 4 rebounds in just 27 minutes of action per game. He's a good three-point shooter and always plays big in the fourth quarter.
Jordan Farmar : A poor man's Tony Parker, the 23-year-old Farmar is a super quick, scoring-minded ball handler who's strength is getting to the rim. In 18 minutes per game last season with the champion L.A. Lakers, Farmar averaged 7.2 points and shot 38 percent on threes. He makes for a great reserve.
Terrence Williams : The 23-year-old, second-year player out of Louisville came on strong the final two months of last season, averaging 14 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists in just 31 minutes of action per game. Williams may never be a consistently good shooter, but he does everything else on the court on an above-average level.
Derrick Favors : The No. 3 overall pick in June's draft, some scouts call him the most athletic big man (6'10", 250) to enter the league since Dwight Howard. At 19, Favors still has much to learn about the game, but he should be able to contribute immediately (at least with rebounds, put-backs and defense) and get votes for Rookie of the Year.
Damion James : Selected at No. 24 in the draft by the Atlanta Hawks, James was acquired by the Nets via trade in exchange for the No. 27 and No. 31 picks. At 6'8" and 230 pounds, the 22-year-old is one tough customer. He's the Big 12's all-time leading rebounder and has the ability to guard positions two through four. His energy and tenacity are otherworldly.
Johan Petro : The 24-year-old, 7'0", 250-pound center will serve as a quality rebounder and defender off the bench. Petro averaged 3.6 rebounds in just 12 minutes of action per game last season. Adjusted for 36 minutes, that's the equivalent of nearly 11 rebounds per game.
Courtney Lee : A former member of the 2009 Orlando Magic team that reached the Finals, the Nets acquired Lee in the Vince Carter swap. The 24-year-old started 66 games last season and averaged 12.5 points and 3.5 rebounds. He's an excellent free throw shooter (87 percent last season), doesn't turn the ball over and, at 6'5", is an exceptional perimeter defender.
In addition to these eight talented youngsters, the Nets feature a core of Lopez (22) and All-Star Devin Harris (27), as well as rookies Brian Zoubek and Ben Uzoh.
Zoubek is a 7'1" center out of Duke who helped the Blue Devils win the National Championship (8 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks). Uzoh is a guard from Tulsa who is a physical freak of nature at 6'3" with a 6'9" wingspan.
Let's not forget 25-year-old Kris Humphries, the No. 14 pick of the 2004 draft.
In all, this Nets roster features:
-Two players older than 26 and none over 30 (Defensive specialist Quinton Ross is the oldest player at 29).
-Four lottery picks (Harris, Lopez, Williams, and Favors).
-10 players whom were first-round draft picks.
Devin Harris is an excellent player but his days as a Net are numbered. He's not the pass-first point guard the team needs and his injury history is becoming a red flag.
It's in the team's best interest to trade the 27-year-old, who's owed $26.8 million over the next three seasons, for a veteran floor general like Andre Miller who will command respect in the locker room.
Given the market for undersized scoring guards (see Jason Terry, Ben Gordon and Leandro Barbosa), Harris' contract is a bargain. Expect the Nets to move him this season for an upgrade.
As I mentioned earlier, the 6'6", 220-pound Williams can play point guard; the 6'9", 220-pound Outlaw can play shooting guard; three 7-footers can patrol the middle; Harris and Farmar are two of the fastest guys with the ball.
This team is built on size, speed, length and hustle.
At any time, the Nets could put out on the floor a disruptive lineup of Williams, Lee, Outlaw, James and Petro. Or the team could go small and fast with Farmar, Harris, Morrow, Outlaw and Favors. Or it could put Lopez alongside Zoubek and clog the paint.
You get the point. Because the team has so many tall, athletic and active interchangeable parts, the Nets could throw many different looks at teams and frustrate them.
The Nets currently have a payroll that's roughly $14 million under cap, with only four players signed beyond the next three years. At an average just under $9 million per season, Devin Harris is the team's highest-paid player.
With the young talent, draft picks and cap room, don't be surprised to see Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul end up on the west side of the Hudson River.
Laugh all you want; the numbers don't lie.
Avery Johnson's career .735 win percentage is the best mark in NBA history.
Yes, he has only coached for four seasons.
Yes, he was fortunate enough to coach talented Dallas Mavericks teams.
But in just four seasons, Johnson has won more playoff games (23) than 247 of the 290 men whom have coached in the NBA. His rate of playoff wins per season ranks him 11th all-time.
Johnson was preceded by Don Nelson and succeeded by Rick Carlisle. Neither coach was able to do what Johnson did—take the Mavericks all the way to the Finals, an accomplishment that earned him Coach of the Year honors in 2006.
So go ahead and hate all you want; the reality is Johnson, who also served as the starting point guard on the 1999 champion San Antonio Spurs, knows what it takes to win.
Listen, you don't become the richest man in Russia without incredible drive, a genius IQ, mastering the art of business and some level of ruthlessness (I'm sure some people went, um, missing).
Mikhail Prokhorov will follow up on his word to make the Nets a contender within the next few seasons. Don't even doubt it for a second.
The combination of Prokhorov and co-owner Jay-Z, an expert on cool, will completely turn the Nets from loser to winner, much in the same way Mark Cuban rescued and transformed the Dallas Mavericks.
Opened just three years ago, the Prudential Center in downtown Newark, New Jersey, is huge step up from where the Nets previously played, the Izod Center, a 29-year-old stadium located literally in swamp land in East Rutherford.
If you wanted to go see the Nets before, you were forced to either drive or take a bus, which with traffic could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour coming from Manhattan. Unless you arrived early to the parking lot, you would have a good 15 to 20-minute walk to get inside the arena (brutal in the winter).
Now, the Nets are a 15-minute train ride from Manhattan and just two blocks away from the station. In addition, unlike the location of the previous venue, here fans have many bars and restaurants within walking distance.
Overall, the experience of going to the game is far more convenient and enjoyable. This means more fans will be in attendance, which means a greater home-court advantage.
Since the year 2000, the No. 8-seeded playoff team in the Eastern Conference has averaged 40.2 regular season wins. In other words, the Nets need to be close to a .500 team in order to have a realistic shot at the playoffs.
The question is: can they do that?
I think so.
For starters, the Nets were nowhere near as bad last season as their paltry 12 wins suggest. Right off the bat, six players landed on the injured list; only Courtney Lee and Terrance Williams appeared in more than 67 games. These injuries aren't factored into the team's Pythagorean Win-Loss record, which claims the Nets should have won five more games.
So, let's say the Nets won 17 games last season, and assume had guys been healthy, the team would have won, say, five more games, bringing the win total to 22. Give or take, this means the Nets have to make somewhere in the neighborhood of a 18-win improvement next season to make the playoffs.
Is that easy? No. But let's not forget the 27-win improvement the Oklahoma City Thunder made last season from 2009 (in the Western Conference).
Meanwhile, what's everyone else doing?
The Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks are the only locks to make the playoffs. The Milwaukee Bucks stand an excellent chance but with the injury histories of Andrew Bogut and Corey Maggette, one can never be sure.
Let's say the Bucks get in. That leaves us with nine teams fighting for the final two spots.
Right off the bat, we know the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards are going to be God-awful. That cuts the list to seven.
Cross out the Cleveland Cavaliers for obvious reasons. Six.
The New York Knicks will be the worst defensive team in the league. Even if they get Chris Paul, there just won't be enough surrounding him and Amar'e Stoudemire to win. Count them out. Five.
The Philadelphia 76ers' success all depends on Elton Brand; whether or not he'll return to form or if the team can unload him. Forget it. Four.
The Indiana Pacers are starting the rebuilding process. Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, TJ Ford and Jeff Foster are all in walk years. No. Three.
The final three teams that have the best shot of making the last two playoff spots are the Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons and Nets.
What will all three of these teams have in common next season? They will give defensive effort night in and out because of their coaches.
The 'Cats have Larry Brown and were arguably the best defensive unit last season. The Pistons have John Kuester, Brown's assistant on the 2001 Sixers and 2004 Pistons. The Nets have Avery Johnson.
The Bobcats won't be sexy but they'll be tough. The Pistons and Nets will both, if healthy, be vastly improved and challengers for the 40-win mark.
Count on the Nets sneaking in.