By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Sep 22 2011 10:26AM - Updated Dec 23 2011 9:23AM
There's no two ways about it: general manager Billy King and his New Jersey Nets are all-in on Dwight Howard.
For King, one star is not enough. He pulled off a blockbuster deal in February, acquiring a franchise cornerstone in point guard Deron Williams in a swap with the Jazz. But in this abbreviated offseason, King sacrificed the opportunity to build a solid playoff team around Williams in order to stay in position to trade for star No. 2.
King and the Nets are dreaming big, relishing the idea of opening the Barclays Center in Brooklyn next fall with a top-three point guard in the league and its most dominating center. And these dreams are closer to reality than the dreams the Nets had of landing a pair of stars in free agency 17 months ago, because Williams is already on board and Howard has reportedly indicated that New Jersey (and eventually Brooklyn) is the place he wants to be.
When the lockout was lifted, the Nets talked with top free agents like Nene and Caron Butler, and they had the cap space to offer deals comparable to the ones those two signed with the Nuggets and Clippers. But King chose to stay frugal and flexible, using the amnesty provision on Travis Outlaw and signing only modestly priced forwards Shawne and Shelden Williams, before bringing back Kris Humphries on a one-year deal (to turn over that cap space to next summer).
"I think our fans shouldn't panic because we didn't get names," King said. "I didn't want to get guys and just spend money because if it doesn't work, that's your roster. I've done that in the past and then once you get that, that's where you are. So you want to be prudent."
Prudent in being always ready to trade for Howard, who the Orlando Magic won't give up without a fight. Beyond 23-year-old center Brook Lopez (who will miss a few months with a broken right foot), the Nets' tangible assets are limited. But they still have all their future draft picks and about $11 million in cap space, which can be used to provide salary relief to the Magic (who would love to include Hedo Turkoglu in any trade) or a third team involved in a Howard deal.
If he wanted to aim for a top-six spot in the Eastern Conference, King could offer free agent Andrei Kirilenko a lucrative deal. But that would reduce King's payroll flexibility.
So for now, the Nets will roll with Damion James and Shawne Williams at small forward. And King will just wait on Magic GM Otis Smith, knowing that it could very well be March before Smith is ready to deal.
Of course, King's plan comes with a lot more risk than just playing games with matchup issues at the three and four. Deron Williams will likely opt out of the final year of his contract next summer to be a free agent. And if he doesn't see a winning future in Brooklyn, he could leave King and the Nets high and dry.
But while the Hornets had no choice but to trade Chris Paul and the Magic are actively fielding offers for Howard, King has no intention of doing the same for his star. And since Williams returned from Istanbul, he has appeared entirely comfortable with what his general manager is doing, even telling local radio that there's a 90 percent chance he'll be going with the Nets to Brooklyn. The point guard has a different demeanor than he had when he was acquired from Utah, seemingly confident that his friend Howard will be joining him sooner or later.
Williams is also a lot healthier than he was 10 months ago. So even though the Nets are lacking at the forward positions, they should be an improved team, even with Lopez's injury in mind.
Is there a chance that the Nets' strategy will fall apart? Absolutely. But King isn't hedging his bets. He's all-in on The Howard Plan, holding $11 million and a dream.
1. Stay ready and work the phones. There's no going back now. The Nets must remain flexible, talk to other teams and find the right package that will get the Magic to pull the trigger on a Howard deal.
2. Feature the trade assets. It can't hurt if James proves himself to be another young asset worth trading for. Last season, Denver GM Masai Ujiri got more comfortable with trading Carmelo Anthony when he saw the Knicks' trade assets playing well.
3. Defend. The Nets were short on talent last season but had little excuse for being a bottom-10 defensive team. Howard would obviously help them tremendously, but they can't wait for him to save them there.
1. Despite an injured wrist that eventually needed surgery and caused him to shoot 35 percent in his 12 games as a Net, Deron Williams gave the offense a boost upon his arrival. Now that his wrist is healed, the offense should be even stronger.
2. With Anthony Morrow and Shawne Williams, the Nets have two of the best 3-point shooters in the league. That's not a bad way to complement a star point guard and top-five center.
3. Avery Johnson wants to push the pace this season, hoping to get easy baskets early in the shot clock. The Nets ranked 24th in pace and 26th in fast-break points per possession last season, in part because they were the worst team in the league at forcing turnovers.
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LAST YEAR: 24-58, 4th in Atlantic
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2010-11 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2010-11 Stats|
DERON WILLIAMS, POINT GUARD
20.1 PPG | 10.3 APG | 4 RPG
One of the best point guards in the league, Williams is recovering from wrist surgery that sidelined him for a portion of last season. A healthy Williams, who is in a contract season, is sure to improve the Nets substantially.
ANTHONY MORROW, SHOOTING GUARD
13.2 PPG | 42% 3PT | 3 RPG
Morrow is a consistent long-range threat anytime he is on the court. His shooting efficiency went down last season once he became a starter.
DAMION JAMES, FORWARD
4.4 PPG | 3.4 RPG | 0.8 APG
Injuries limited James to 25 games in his rookie season. The Nets will need him to defend and rebound at both forward positions.
KRIS HUMPHRIES, FORWARD
10.0 PPG | 10.4 RPG | 1.1 APG
Will his unsuccessful foray into the world of reality television be a distraction? Was last season a contract-year phenomenon?
MEHMET OKUR, CENTER
4.5 PPG | 1.5 RPG | 1.5 APG
The sweet-shooting big man is reunited with former teammate Deron Williams and will fill the middle while Brook Lopez is injured. He thrived in a pick-and-pop role with Utah.
|MarShon Brooks||6-5||200||G-F||Rookie who has length and can create his own shot.|
|Jordan Farmar||6-2||180||G||Could play alongside Deron Williams quite a bit.|
|Shawne Williams||6-9||230||F||Shooting fell off after the All-Star break last season.|
ADDED: C Mehmet Okur, G-F MarShon Brooks, G Jordan Williams, F Shawne Williams, F Shelden Williams
LOST: C Dan Gadzuric, F Travis Outlaw (amnesty), G Ben Uzoh, G Sasha Vujacic, G Mario West
BROOK LOPEZ, CENTER
The Nets are all-in on the quest for Dwight Howard, but dangling Lopez and cap relief in front of the Magic as bait took a hit with Lopez having surgery on his right foot. If Billy King can't pull off a deal, he's left with Lopez (when he's healthy again), who is a 23-year-old with All-Star potential, to buoy his attempt to get Deron Williams to re-sign next summer.
|Dwight Howard Block|
Dwight Howard comes up with a big block.
|Dwight Howard Dunk|
Terrence Jones gets the rebound and finds Dwight Howard for the transition slam in traffic.
|Brewer's Big Slam|
Corey Brewer finishes with a powerful slam.
|Evans to Davis|
Anthony Davis takes the pass and finishes with a ferocious slam.
The Trail Blazers pull down the rebound and Nicolas Batum finishes on the other end with the dunk.