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In Season One, Nets' New Armor Shines (Page 3)

May 11, 2012

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—In their first season as a one-to-one "hybrid" affiliate of the Nets, the Springfield Armor set a franchise record for wins, made its first playoff appearance and had three players called up to the NBA -- two to the Nets.

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It is two weeks before another opportunity. Again, due to injury. This time in the frontcourt: big men Jordan Williams and Shelden Williams go down in the same game, the former with a concussion; the latter, an eye injury.

Springfield gets a short-notice special, and Dennis Horner returns to the NBA. He's immediately shipped out to the West Coast, for a three-city California swing. Over the phone, he laughs, deadpans that he can't complain. Except it's not a joke. He means it. Must be nice. Probably is.

Horner's second go-round plays out much like the first: mostly on the bench, but with a good vote of confidence in his NBA potential. This is twice now the Nets have turned to him. But the injuries heal, and Horner too returns to Springfield. He will spend the summer bulking up, to better challenge NBA power forwards defensively, and expanding his game to include post play. Horner will be careful to maintain his shot; he efficiently averaged 21.0 points (.471 FG%, .373 3P%) for the Armor.

"I want to work to where hopefully I can be in here, and this is what I want," Horner says. "I don't know if it is my future, but it's what I want for my future, so I'm going to work this summer to hopefully stick this year."

In the final weeks, needing a point guard who can score and also run the offense, the Nets add Armon Johnson from the D-League's Idaho Stampede. He is their sixth Call-Up, helping push the D-League's season total to an all-time record 50.

Meanwhile, Horner and Smith return to Springfield for the stretch run, helping the Armor clinch a playoff spot and the best record in the East (via tiebreaker with Dakota). Matched up against the seventh-seeded Canton Charge -- the top eight of 16 D-League teams (both conferences) make it and are seeded by record -- the Armor drop Game One on the road after shooting just 33-of-84 (.389) and being outrebounded 53-41.

In the best-of-three First Round, the teams return to Springfield, where the Armor start strong (43 points, .700 FG% after one) and weather a comeback before prevailing in overtime, scoring the game's final eight points. Curry, Horner and Smith score 88 of the team's 125 points; Horner and Smith each add 11 rebounds; Curry hits a franchise-high 15 of 43 made free-throws, also an Armor best.

But in the decisive Game Three, they again cannot contain the Charge's offense, allowing .562 shooting and losing the rebounding battle, 48-31. Curry and Horner each drop 20-plus, but Smith (11 points) and Foote (10) struggle to score. The team cannot overcome an average night from the floor (.440 FG%). The season ends April 16, and by the next morning, players are going through exit interviews with the coaching staff.

Lee, MacKinnon and assistant Chris Carrawell discuss things each player should work on, and whether or not the player's future lays in Springfield.

"Not all of them should come back," Lee says. "There are certain guys at certain points in their career that need to earn money. There are certain guys that might have reached a ceiling. And it's no reflection on the fact that you wouldn't want them back, because they're very high character, coachable guys that can play; but it's more a reflection on what's best for their careers.

"We talk about it as being a 'developmental league' -- it's not only developmental for (the) NBA; it's developmental for whatever stage in your basketball career is, so that might mean going to China next year, that might mean retiring next year for somebody and trying to get into coaching. And then there are a handful of guys that we said, 'Hey, we think you can make these improvements; we think you can play a bigger role next year.'"

Lee calls it a curious process, wondering what the decision of every player on the roster will be, even as he begins diving into preparations for November's D-League Draft. By then, Lee should have an idea of how many will return, but there's an element of finality when he knows it's possible half could be traveling new paths.

With the NBA Draft approaching on June 28, Lee becomes another set of eyes to evaluate players at places like the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, grading them not only for NBA potential, but whether they might fit in Springfield. MacKinnon, in addition to evaluating talent, will helm both the D-League's national tryout in Chicago (one of four this offseason) and its Elite Mini-Camp, held shortly before the NBA Draft and featuring the top 30-35 players who weren't called up last season.

Given so many opportunities to scout, and a year under their collective belts, Lee believes his staff will be more prepared for this year's Draft, and also for trade proposals. The focus remains upon developing players while creating a culture and atmosphere that can easily absorb Nets players on assignment. They are confident the wins will follow.

"We'll have four draft picks; last year, we didn't have a first-round draft pick," Lee says. "And I wouldn't be surprised, if just because of our success this year, more players want to come back. We didn't have much success within the last two years and six players came back because there was a chance that it was gonna get better. And then we proved it.

"We showed that it got a lot better, so we might have a nice problem of a lot of them wanting to come back. I think we're going to have good problems going forward."


For more on the Nets, be sure to follow Ben Couch (@viewfromcouch) or @BrooklynNets on Twitter or visit our Fan Page on Facebook.

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