Last week gave us a pretty good idea of where exactly the New Jersey Nets are.
It is clear now that they are capable of beating playoff-caliber teams, but aren't good enough to put together any type of sustained winning streak.
They have also yet to win a divisional game—something they will need to find a way to do before the season is through.
Here's a quick recap of the week:
The Nets went 2-1 last week, are 17-38 overall, sit in fourth place of the Atlantic Division and are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings.
So who are these Nets? Are they better than their record suggests? Or are they truly a 21-games-below-.500 team?
Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but I don't believe they are 17-38 bad. While we can't base our judgments on "What Ifs," it's reasonable to say that the team's record would be better if not for some of the outside factors and injuries they've had to deal with.
There was, of course, the Carmelo Anthony saga that was hanging over the players for most of the season. Since Mikhail Prokhorov took that distraction away, the team is 7-7.
New Jersey also had to deal with the 17-game stretch where Anthony Morrow was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Morrow is by no means a game-changing player, but he is a very good shooter and a presence the team clearly missed while he was out.
The Nets also lost Jordan Farmar for a few games right when they started playing better, and his second unit was unable to help the team in his absence. As soon as he came back, the bench started playing well again.
This team has shown us, however, that they are able to compete with squads who are, on paper, better than them.
What this tells us is that, while the team is obviously moving in the right direction, they are not yet ready to take that next step forward. They could take that leap during the season, or it could take until next year for them to do so.
The important thing is that they are currently getting better.
We'll know they've made that stride when they win three-straight games. The Nets have had three two-game winning streaks in the past month. They've come close to nailing down that third game (they lost by one to Dallas and many will feel they should have beaten New York), but have thus far been unable to cross that bridge.
Many of the issues that have been present all year were again on display last week.
The Nets did not shoot well (43 percent), had too many turnovers (16 against New Orleans and 18 against New York) and gave up too many three-pointers.
New Jersey is in the bottom-third of the league in three-point field-goal percentage against at 37 percent. Last week their opponents hit 45 percent of their three-point shots, and the Knicks particularly killed them by draining 16 threes.
This speaks to breakdowns on the defensive end and an inability to rotate and close out on the perimeter.
Other than that area, teams didn't shoot a high percentage against New Jersey last week (44 percent overall). Preventing teams from getting a large number of open three-point looks is something the Nets need to improve upon immediately.
The Nets were actually quite good in two other key areas—rebounding and free throws.
New Jersey out-rebounded their opponents by an average of 47-42 and 12-8 on offense. When they are able to start knocking down their shots more consistently and play better perimeter defense, this is an advantage that should pay huge dividends.
With an average of 28 free-throw attempts per game, the Nets also displayed a good attacking mentality and again held an edge in a key area of the game (opposing teams got to the line an average of 24 times a game).
The only problem was that they did not make their free throws at a great rate, hitting only 70 percent of them, which is well below their season average of 76 percent.
This is why I'm saying they aren't as bad as their record suggests.
They are just a notch below being a decent team. They've generally been playing teams tough, and improvements in just a few areas would should allow them to get closer to .500.
Again, these advancements might not happen this year. We could have to wait until next season to get there, but the point is that this team is on the right track.
As for individual performances, Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries and Sasha Vujacic were the stars last week.
Lopez averaged 23 PPG and seven RPG. He even recorded a double-double against Charlotte. His rebounding still needs to get better, but perhaps he's starting to come along in that department. He also got to the line an average of eight times a game last week.
Humphries was impressive as usual, averaging 12 PPG and 13 RPG while hitting 58 percent of his shots. The only thing he really needs to work on is his free-throw shooting.
Vujacic seems to have found his way out of the shooting slump he was in and shot 55 percent from the floor last week. He scored a career-high 25 points against the Hornets.
How will the Nets do next week?
Derrick Favors showed us a flash of how good he could be against the Knicks by grabbing 14 rebounds. He missed some dunks and other shots close to the basket, but that part will come with time. It's very encouraging that he seems to be finding his way.
Devin Harris was able to score (13 PPG) and appears to have found his stroke again (46 percent field-goal percentage), but his assists went down (six APG) and his turnovers went up (five turnovers a game) last week.
The point guard is clearly trying to find a balance between scoring and distributing. He's done both very well at different points this year, and the next step for him will be to put both areas together. Once he's able to do that, the team as a whole could be ready to ramp up the production as well.
The Nets have a very short two-game schedule next week as we move into the All-Star break.
Going 1-1 in those two games would be a great success.