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New Jersey Nets 2003-04 Season Preview

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By Mark Bodenrader, NBA Editor

2002-03 FINISH: 49-33

OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C , G , F , G

OFFSEASON LOSSES: C , G , F

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP: PG , SG , SF , PF , C

COACH: Byron Scott

(Sports Network) - Be warned. The NBA is making a strong push to sell the world on the New Jersey .

The have represented the Eastern Conference in the last two NBA Finals and have just locked up their best player and the league's best point guard, , through this decade. New Jersey also has two young, budding superstars in and and a head-coaching prodigy in Bryon Scott.

And as if this nucleus wasn't solid enough, over the offseason the made their only acquisition a doozy, signing former center to round out an imposing starting five that also includes guard .

Taking all this into account, the NBA realizes that the are destined to contend for the East title for years to come and is starting to heavily market the team in hopes of building up some kind of fan base. In June the league suffered through its worst NBA Finals TV ratings since 1981, as New Jersey fell to San Antonio in six.

This summer, Kidd, Jefferson and Martin were chosen to play for the United States in the qualifying tournament for the 2004 Athens Olympics (Martin replaced ), giving the ' trio some great exposure. Only one other team had two players on the roster -- the Seattle (Ray Allen, ). You can argue a case for Kidd making the squad, but there are too many American players that trump Jefferson and Martin at their positions.

Still, it's going to be tough for the the draw interest in the immediate future, especially if they don't bring back those old-school uniforms full- time. No team using the New Jersey name has ever generated excitement in a sports league, as evidenced by the Devils' three silent Stanley Cup wins over the last nine seasons.

But who knows, if the keep on rising and the New York continue to slide, you may see some fans jump the Hudson River and begin packing Continental Airlines Arena.

BACKCOURT

Throughout last season Kidd wouldn't commit to re-signing with the , instead choosing to keep his options open before testing the waters after the playoffs. Kidd was intrigued by the idea of playing alongside out West and wasn't afraid to let everyone know it. At one time Kidd appeared to be leaning toward the , especially after rumors surfaced that the guard was not happy with Scott's coaching style. Kidd may have been in San Antonio right now if it weren't for his wife's broadcasting career and the emergence of point guard .

In the end, Kidd chose to stay with the .

"We put ourselves in the free agent market and every professional athlete dreams about being wanted," said Kidd. "It could have been easy to go to San Antonio and play with and those guys after they just won a championship. But I have some unfinished business and that's to win a championship in this league and to win that championship as a Net."

Kidd stepped his play last season when the went through a mid-season funk, and was probably more of an MVP candidate than the year before when he finished second in the voting to Duncan. Kidd was forced to take a lot of uncharacteristic shots with teammates struggling to put up points and ended with a career-high scoring average of 18.7 ppg, while shooting just 41.4 percent from the field.

Kidd doesn't have much help in the form of a backup point guard. With now in Indiana, the are left with first-round pick and to spell Kidd, which might force the team to pick up a veteran along the way.

Kittles, an essential ingredient to the ' fast break, remains the team's starting shooting guard, while re-signed in the offseason to keep New Jersey's nice three-guard rotation intact.

Harris averaged a career-best 10.3 points in 25.6 minutes per game last season, but shot just 41.3 percent from the floor.

FRONTCOURT

Another thing that made Kidd's decision to stay in New Jersey easier was the team's signing of Mourning, who returns to the NBA following a one-year hiatus.

Doctors had advised Mourning to skip last season after his kidney condition had worsened. Mourning was originally diagnosed in October 2000 with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a kidney disease that can eventually require a transplant.

But Mourning was cleared to play in May after a physical examination and signed on with the since they were so close to capturing that elusive NBA title. In a bit of a gamble, New Jersey gave the 10-year veteran a four-year contract worth a reported $20 million.

In his last NBA season, Mourning played 75 games -- starting 74 -- for the Miami in 2001-02, averaging solid numbers of 15.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.48 blocks and 32.7 minutes. The seven-time All-Star was once regarded as the fiercest pivot in the game and owns career averages of 20.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.03 blocks per game.

But it remains to be seen just how effective the 33-year-old Mourning can be. If Mourning ends up being just 75 percent of the player that he was during his prime, the finally have a chance at coming out on the winning end of the NBA Finals. But if Mourning can't handle the rigors of the long NBA season, the might have their second straight former All-Star center soaking up money on the sideline.

, Mourning's former teammate at Georgetown, was supposed to be the acquisition that put New Jersey over the hump last season, but instead he averaged career-lows of 5.8 points and 6.4 rebounds in 24 games, while missing most of the year with a broken wrist. He and the agreed to a buyout in early October.

The injury to Mutombo last year turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the fast-breaking , as the more mobile was ultimately a better fit in their starting lineup. Collins should be a solid backup for Mourning this upcoming season.

Martin is coming off an NBA Finals he'd love to forget. The power forward scored a playoff career-low four points on 2-of-8 shooting in Game 5, then hit just 3-of-23 field-goal attempts for six points in the sixth and final game. For the series, Martin shot a horrid 34.3 percent from the floor. In fact, his performance declined with each series in the playoffs, going from 22.3 ppg vs. Milwaukee, to 20.5 vs. Boston, to 18.5 vs. Detroit, to 14.7 vs. San Antonio.

Despite the Finals woes, Martin still produced his best season as a pro (16.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg) and is regarded as one of the best power forwards in the game. As a result, he's looking to get some respect in the form of a maximum six- year contract from the worth $90 million. Martin is in the final year of his current deal and will become a restricted free agent after this season.

Jefferson took advantage of his new role as starter last season, averaging career-highs of 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds. He also shot a stellar 50.1 percent from the floor, which ranked 13th in the NBA.

However, Jefferson still has trouble creating his own shot and could have struggle if defenses start to clamp down on him. Fortunately, the small forward has the luxury of playing with Kidd, who can always get the ball to Jefferson in his spots.

is a solid veteran to have coming off the pine, but the would love to get some more production out of the versatile forward this year. In his first season with New Jersey, Rogers collected career-lows in points (7.0 pg) and field-goal percentage (40.2). His biggest contribution came during the first round of the playoffs when he hit the game-winning shot against the in Game 3.

The reliable brings muscle off the Net bench, plus one of the sweetest touches for a big man.

CRYSTAL BALL

With the addition of Mourning, it seems the are poised for a third straight Eastern Conference title. However, both Detroit and Indiana improved themselves over the offseason and should give New Jersey a run for its money. But given that they're a year wiser and there's top-notch talent at each starting position, the appear to have enough to lose to a West juggernaut in seven games this time.

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