You could argue that the Eastern Conference is short of fresh
ideas. When the 76ers were looking for someone to lead them to
the Finals two seasons ago, they traded for 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo.
When the Nets wanted to improve their defense this summer after
being swept by the Lakers in the Finals, whom did they acquire?
Though the 36-year-old Mutombo was third-team All-NBA last
season, he also had career lows in rebounds and blocks, prompting
Philadelphia to deal him for forward Keith Van Horn and center
Todd MacCulloch. Mutombo says he had been fatigued by the Sixers'
shortened off-season, which also resulted in a spate of injuries
on the team. "I am going to bounce back," says Mutombo, who has
missed only 30 games in 11 years. "Here the bench is much
stronger than it was in Philadelphia."
With Jason Collins and Aaron Williams backing Mutombo up, New
Jersey is hoping that he will play far fewer minutes than the
36.3 he averaged last season. But a bigger issue is his role in
the Nets' motion offense, in which the center is often the first
option. Mutombo is a capable scorer and an underrated passer who
sees the court well and creates room to maneuver with his
notoriously sharp elbows. His one glaring weakness: He has
trouble catching the ball. "We're not going to change a thing for
him," says coach Byron Scott, who believes Mutombo's offensive
skills have been ignored in recent years. "In fact, we're adding
more pieces to the offense."
Scott predicts that not only will the Nets' system of reads and
cuts run efficiently through Mutombo, but that the center's shot
blocking will also create more easy baskets for Jason Kidd in
transition. As the new starter at small forward, Richard
Jefferson should force more turnovers and open up the floor, too.
"With Richard," says Scott, "we have five guys who have the same
Jefferson must also replace Van Horn's rebounding (a team-high
7.5 per game in 2001-02) and his offense. "Whether Keith was
missing or making his shots, you still had to guard him," says
G.M. Rod Thorn. In nine starts last year the 6'7" Jefferson
averaged 15.2 points--.4 more than Van Horn's mark for the season.
Despite playing just 24.3 minutes per game, he was also second on
the team in free throw attempts. Jefferson spent the first month
of summer vacation improving his ball handling and shooting with
the idea of moving to off-guard, a plan that was scrubbed after
the Van Horn trade. "Scoring is not going to be an issue," vows
Kidd. "The issue is defense. If you play defense in this league,
you can win."
Rather than take a low-key approach--or worry about Kidd's being
in the last year of his contract--Scott wants the Nets to act like
perennial contenders and has set goals of 60 wins and a return to
the Finals. "We have targets on our backs anyway," says Scott.
"We want to be in the top two this year in defense. It's worked
well for the Lakers the last three years, and it should work well
for us." --Ian Thomsen
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN BOTH SIDES NOW The Nets hope that Mutombo, acquired primarily for his defense, will add to the offense, too.
The Nets became the first team since the 1977-78 Sonics to
reach the Finals after failing to make the playoffs the previous
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Nets
"At first I didn't like the trade for Dikembe Mutombo, but I'm
starting to come around. Apparently the Nets felt they really
needed to get rid of Keith Van Horn. He had too many nights of 1
for 10.... Richard Jefferson will be able to replace his scoring.
Jefferson is not the threat Van Horn was, but you still can't
afford to leave him alone. Plus, Kenyon Martin's improved a lot
as a scorer, and Rodney Rogers will be coming off the bench....
Trust me: They're not going to be able to run their Princeton
offense through Mutombo. They'll give him some touches, I'm sure,
but anything more isn't going to work, because if he catches the
ball, it takes him a half hour just to move it up to his chin and
back down again. Still, they should be able to keep running their
offense for the other guys.... Rogers looked heavy in preseason,
but he's always had problems with his weight, and I don't think
they're going to ask him to be very active. All they need is for
him to play physical defense off the bench and spot up for jump
shots. With him, Jason Collins and Aaron Williams, New Jersey
should be able to limit Mutombo to fewer than 30 minutes a game
and keep him fresh. We'll see if Mutombo accepts that.... I'm a
Kenyon Martin convert. He has to keep improving that jump shot,
but he's a better shot blocker and rebounder and a far more
aggressive finisher than I thought he'd be.... The Nets are
dramatically improved at point guard with Chris Childs as their
backup. He's highly competitive and knows how to run a team.
Their added depth will allow the starters to play defense at a
higher level, knowing they'll get rest.... Assistant coach Eddie
Jordan does a lot with their offense, but Byron Scott obviously
makes the final decisions, and he earned a lot of respect for his
work in the last playoffs. Of course, Jason Kidd is more
important than either of them."
2001-02 record: 52-30 (first in Atlantic)
Points scored: 96.2 (13th) Points allowed: 92.0 (5th)
Coach: Byron Scott (third season with Nets)
STARTERS PVR* 2001-02 KEY STATS
Jefferson 91 9.4 ppg 3.7 rpg 1.8 apg 0.81 spg 45.7 FG%
PF Kenyon Martin 31 14.9 ppg 5.3 rpg 1.66 bpg 1.23 spg 46.3 FG%
Mutombo 46 11.5 ppg 10.8 rpg 1.0 apg 2.38 bpg 50.1 FG%
SG Kerry Kittles 69 13.4 ppg 3.4 rpg 2.6 apg 1.59 spg 46.6 FG%
PG Jason Kidd 16 14.7 ppg 7.3 rpg 9.9 apg 2.13 spg 39.1 FG%
BENCH PVR* 2001-02 KEY STATS
F Rodney Rogers 96 11.9 ppg 4.5 rpg 0.86 spg 47.1 FG% 37.4 3FG%
G Lucious Harris 189 9.1 ppg 2.8 rpg 1.6 apg 46.4 FG% 37.3 3FG%
F-C Aaron Williams 224 7.2 ppg 4.1 rpg 0.9 apg 0.93 bpg 52.6 FG%
C Jason Collins 254 4.5 ppg 3.9 rpg 1.1 apg 0.61 bpg 42.1 FG%
G Chris Childs 275 4.1 ppg 2.2 rpg 5.1 apg 0.81 spg 32.8 FG%
 New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 92)
NEW JERSEY'S ADDED DEPTH WILL ALLOW THE STARTERS TO PLAY DEFENSE
AT A HIGHER LEVEL.