An underrated one-two punch.
The New Jersey Nets finished with an utterly embarrassing 12-70 record last season and their 2010-11 campaign is off to an uninspiring 5-10 start, but here's the kicker:
The Nets have a legitimate shot to make the playoffs this season.
Yup, I said it. But before you attack my wishful thinking, at least allow me the opportunity to explain.
The '10-'11 Nets have a new, deep-pocketed owner in Mikhail Prokhorov, a well-prepared GM in Billy King, and an established , successful head coach in Avery Johnson. Management has improved, the culture of the organization is changing, and the roster is surprisingly deep.
The Nets have two quality wins at the Cleveland Cavaliers (the current surprise team in the East) and hosting the Atlanta Hawks, who began the year with six straight victories.
I'm a believer in the old adage, "A loss is a loss," but the Nets have held their own and battled hard @ Heat, vs. Magic, @ Jazz, @ Nuggets, and @ Celtics. Simply put, their schedule has been brutal.
Looking specifically at their personnel, the Nets have an underrated core. Brook Lopez (18.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg) is one of the premier centers in the NBA, and he is expanding his offensive repertoire on a nightly basis.
Point guard Devin Harris (17.7 ppg, 6.8 apg) could be a better distributor; nonetheless, he is exceptional at creating his own offense. Harris uses his well-documented quickness to make himself one of the top slashers in the game. Few, if any defenders can keep Harris out of the paint.
Who will be the eighth seed in the East?
Harris has also committed to becoming one of the better defensive players on the Nets' roster, and Avery Johnson deserves credit for Harris' improved attitude.
Shooting guard Anthony Morrow is one of the greatest three-point shooters in the history of the NBA (second only to Steve Kerr in percentage), and small forward Travis Outlaw has been a positive-but-streaky addition.
The Nets' most pleasant surprise has been starting power forward Kris Humphries. Humphries opened the season fourth on the depth chart behind Troy Murphy, Derrick Favors, and Joe Smith, but has played his way to the top spot.
Humphries has posted double-digit rebounds in six of his last eight games, and is shooting an incredible 63.3 percent from the floor. In addition, he recently went on a date with Kim Kardashian.
Life is good for Mr. Humphries.
The Nets' quiet strength is their bench. Favors has showcased athleticism and surprising skill as a rookie, Jordan Farmar has been outstanding in the back-up point guard role, Johan Petro has been productive filling in for Lopez, and the combination of Murphy and swingman Terrence Williams is expected back soon.
The Nets are miles away from being a powerhouse, but they may have what it takes to squeak into the postseason in the weak Eastern Conference. Exactly how weak is the bottom of the conference? Well, the Nets are five games below the .500 mark and only 1.5 games out of the final playoff spot.
Ultimately the Nets' coaching, defense, and talent have improved, and they've shown that they can be very competitive against some of the NBA's best.
It's a bit of a long shot, but don't count this team out for the No. 8 seed. Crazier things have happened.
(John Frascella is the author of "Theo-logy: How a Boy Wonder Led the Red Sox to the Promised Land," the first and only book centered on Boston 's popular GM Theo Epstein. Check it out on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble online. Follow John on Twitter @RedSoxAuthor.)