The Week That Was

Label Conscious: The Ghosts of Def Jam’s Past

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A Week With the New Jersey Nets

Our man in the Tri-State Area spends some time with Avery Johnson and his team

Teams hurriedly dealt with free agency and training camp once the lockout finally ended and gym doors reopened. The Nets, a franchise in transition, opened their training camp for Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams. The organization allowed him to watch every practice and attend nearly every morning coaches’ meeting in a week that culminated with their first preseason game. The following is one team’s attempt to ready itself for the season on the fly.

SUNDAY

On Avery Johnson’s depth chart, the empty rectangles are more noticeable than the ones that have been filled in. The dry-erase board in Johnson’s office resembles a child’s gap-toothed smile. After Deron Williams at the point guard position, Johnson’s roster is dicey, at best. Brook Lopez will return at center. But since the end of the lockout was announced, Lopez has been inundated with trade speculation. Johnson has walked Lopez through the process by talking about his own career as a player and as a coach — how he was often the last man to make a team, how he was waived and traded, and the numerous times he had been on the chopping block during his coaching stint in Dallas.

Outside of Williams and Lopez, the Nets are an open question with no immutable answers. They are thinnest at power forward, where, at least for training camp, Jordan Williams, a second-round pick from Maryland, and Dennis Horner, an undrafted forward with a tattoo of a basketball emerging from flames on his shoulder, have been penciled in as the team’s backups. Horner possesses little odds of making the regular-season roster, and is one of three Development League players promoted for the sole purpose of providing bodies for training camp. Still, for Horner, just being able to play in an NBA setting is a dream realized. He grew up a couple of hours away in Linwood, N.J., and was not drafted after graduating from North Carolina State in 2010. Bob MacKinnon, the coach of the Nets’ Development League affiliate, the Springfield Armor, and their general manager, Milton Lee, notified Horner of the invite to this year’s camp. He checked into a hotel the next day. Horner had heard of a stipend for meals from the team. For now, he is too meek to inquire about it.

Everything about the Nets is targeted toward the future: next year’s move to Brooklyn, the retention of Deron Williams past this season, the luring of Dwight Howard, even majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s bid to become the future president of Russia. Looking over the current roster, it is hard to imagine who, exactly, might be present after the move. Williams, certainly and hopefully. Rookie guard MarShon Brooks will probably be there as well. The rest of the roster is subject to being traded at a whim, having their contracts expire, or being cut before the end of camp.

Avery Johnson voted to delay training camp for a couple of days in the hopes of plugging the holes and to avoid having the frenzy of free agency distract his players from the rigors of training camp. Everyone in the league is in the same predicament to varying degrees.

“I don’t look at it,” Johnson says of the depth chart, “I don’t go by what I see. I’m a visionary. They say birds see, but eagles have vision. I’m going with the eagle part, because if you go with the bird part, you’ll see the holes.”

The Nets coaches all wear the same red shirt to present a unified front to the team. The coaches’ retreat that Johnson usually conducts is another lockout causality. Larry Krystkowiak (University of Utah) and John Loyer (Lawrence Frank’s staff with the Detroit Pistons) are absent from last season’s staff. Johnson tagged P.J. Carlesimo, the coaching lifer, to join this year’s staff. The two talked often when Johnson served as an ESPN analyst during his coaching sojourn after being fired in Dallas. Johnson promised Carlesimo that he wanted him on his bench whenever he got another coaching opportunity. Mario Elie is also new to the staff. Johnson and Elie played together in San Antonio. Carlesimo coached there.

Johnson will guide the team through their first intrasquad scrimmage tonight. The team is only three practices deep, including one this morning. Of the players Johnson does have, many ended last season with him and are at least generally familiar with his terminology and pace.

The roster is broken in half with the talent distributed. Lopez, Horner, Jordan Farmar, and Anthony Morrow are on one side. Deron Williams, Brooks, and the veteran center Johan Petro are the mainstays on the other. Elie coaches one team, and Popeye Jones, another assistant coach and longtime NBA player, coaches the other. Johnson sits in a chair planted near the midcourt out-of-bounds and is flanked by Carlesimo and Tom Barrise, another assistant. Travis Outlaw runs sprints behind them as Lopez and Petro jump for the ball thrown by a referee. Outlaw started more than half of last season at small forward, but he disappointed through much of it after signing a large contract, and he arrived at camp with a broken right hand sustained in a boxing workout.

The play is uneven and stops often. “TV timeout, TV timeout,” Johnson calls out. He shuffles from huddle to huddle and discusses with Elie and Jones what he wants to see. Jones’ team wins 51-41 after the sides play two 12-minute quarters.

MONDAY

The coaches’ meeting room is sparsely furnished with a table and a stray collection of chairs. There is the dry-erase board with the depth chart, a calendar filled with practice times and games for the rest of the month, and a television in the corner. Johnson reviewed the scrimmage film last night and plans to review it with his coaches this morning.

MacKinnon and Chris Carrawell, a former Duke player who now serves as the Armor’s assistant coach, arrive first. Elie, Jones, and Carlesimo soon round out the table.

“The first thing is, we’ll just start with defense,” Johnson says. “If we have three guys back on defense, or four, and here comes the offense, however they’re running, Brook does not go back and protect the basket. He stops at the free throw line because when the ball swings, he wants to stop here in front of the guards. So, we’ve got to let him know, especially as a big guy, when you’re the first big guy back. It’s the same thing, basically, as transition offense — you’ve got to go and protect the basket.”

The night before, Lopez deflected questions from reporters about the possibility of being traded for Dwight Howard. Johnson’s more immediate concern is a vexing perplexity: Lopez’s lack of rebounds. Lopez is gifted with one of the game’s best bodies: a legitimate 7-footer with a sculpted frame. He possesses a versatile post repertoire and a feathery jump shot that extends to 15 feet. His rebound totals, though, are nowhere near where they should be. Lopez averaged a mere six last season, his low in three NBA seasons.

Lopez’s jumper puts him out of position to grab offensive rebounds. Johnson says sometimes Lopez does not attempt to grab a rebound because he is not in the post when the ball is released. Johnson relays his concern to his coaches about where Lopez posts up.

“Our guards, they don’t make good seal passes, and it’s primarily because — well, the first problem is this: As the ball’s coming up the floor, Brook wants to start sealing from the 3-point line,” he says. “He has to sprint and get inside the free throw line and start sealing, because as he starts to run and he wants to start to seal at the 3-point line, it’s not good timing. It’s not good spacing.”

Johnson moves on to Petro, who had trouble defending Lopez in the post earlier.

“He commits what I call a double error,” Johnson explains. “We want to make the elbow catches tough. But once you make this elbow catch tough, then you must get back around in a square position where your feet are parallel with the 3-point line. Petro reaches on the elbow. When his man catches the ball, he stabs at it. Then, he gets out of position, which then opens the gate for the drive. We’ll talk to him about making his elbow catches tough, but then square, stay down, be disciplined. Remind him he led the NBA in fouls per minute because he was out of position.”

“Those are the little things,” Johnson says. “With this team, I had about 17 different things I can talk about defensively, but I’m just going to kind of narrow it down to those four or five things. Anything else you guys think is really important?”

The Nets will use what Carlesimo calls a “small-menu” playbook. There are too many moving parts right now to do otherwise. Johnson estimates the team had about 100 offensive plays last season and ran only about three or four to perfection en route to a 24-58 record in Johnson’s debut year. Carmelo Anthony rumors consumed the team. When the Knicks acquired Anthony, general manager Billy King swooped in and landed Deron Williams, regarded as one of the top point guards in the league. He mortgaged a large part of the team’s future for Williams, who will either be a marquee name at the Barclays Center or a high-priced rental who will play the prime of his career with another franchise.

Johnson, himself a former point guard, says that Williams needs to be more vocal in communicating plays. “My point guards just don’t have enough bass in their voice,” he says.

The practice itinerary is relayed. “Any questions on anything in practice?” he asks. “Any of the drills? Any questions or comments?”

He is constantly asking these questions, and wants input from his assistants. Johnson likens it to a business board where the chairman does not have the only voice. All of the coaches are vocal, but Carlesimo speaks often as a lead assistant. He is the type of coach who cannot let a person walk by without making an endearing and usually expletive-laden comment.1

“We’re not thrilled about a couple of guys with the refs,” Carlesimo says. “Brook, Jordan, A-Mo2 a little bit, and MarShon. MarShon just one time, but 50 percent of the referees would have T’d him because he’s a rookie. He kind of made a big face and walked away. I told him, but he’s going to get banged.”

“Just stress to them no fouls,” Johnson says, as he wraps up the meeting. “We’re fouling too much. Too many. Yeah, we want you to be physical, but physical without fouling.”

TUESDAY

The coaches’ meeting is shorter with no scrimmage to review or rehash. Johnson goes over the day’s itinerary and cannot recall the name of a drill he would like to use. “We used to call that the Chinese fire drill,” Barrise says. “But then we got Yi and we couldn’t call it that anymore.”

Barrise is another lifelong coach and a link to a forgettable past. He took over for Lawrence Frank when the Nets started the 2009-10 season with 16 straight losses. The Nets fired Frank and preserved him from the career black eye of leading a team to the most straight losses to start a season.3 Barrise landed on that sizable sword and lost the 17th and 18th straight games to set a new mark of futility.

The Nets’ first team and a couple of rotation players wear blue uniforms at practice. The reserves wear white jerseys. Horner had practiced in a blue uniform the past couple of practices. It is more of a numbers issue than anything. The Nets simply did not have anybody else on their roster suitable to fill in at power forward. Jordan Williams is struggling with drills and appears generally lost to the new pace. Horner, though, is not embarrassing himself and gains confidence by the day. But he will relinquish his first-team role today. One of Johnson’s depth-chart holes has been plugged. The Nets have signed veteran big man Shelden Williams. He practices for the first time today. Williams’ availability came up when King had talked to agent Arn Tellem about a variety of players.

Williams is quiet and stoic. Still, it is hard not to notice how seamlessly he jumps into each drill with little counseling.

The team moves on to a close-out drill. Five players span across the 3-point line with a defender in the middle. The players on the perimeter pass the ball around. It is the defensive player’s onus to chase the player who receives the pass and close in a proper defensive position. The offensive player goes one-on-one against the defender after the fourth pass. The drill is lively. Deron Williams is the last to catch it on one possession and drives on Brooks, but is fouled. “Brooks said he wants it last,” player development coach Doug Overton says when Williams is on defense.

Brooks and Horner are both rookies, and both were born in New Jersey. That is where their similarities mostly end. Brooks is assured of making the team. He attended Providence College and bloomed late. His defining moment came when he scored 52 points against Notre Dame in his senior year. He is 6-5, long and athletic. He will provide the Nets with a slasher from the wing position, someone who can run the floor for easy baskets, an aspect they desperately need. Morrow, the incumbent starting shooter guard, is one-dimensional. He is one of the league’s best 3-point shooters, but has struggled on the defensive end of the court.

Brooks received a couple dozen text messages before he woke up when the lockout finally ended. “Nervous as hell,” he says. “That’s exactly how I felt.” He went to a gym and started lofting up shots. The eagerness did not prevent a rookie mistake. The Nets could not get in touch with Brooks for a couple of days after the lockout ended because he had changed phone numbers.

Johnson always pairs Brooks with Williams in shooting drills. He wants Williams to impart how a professional is supposed to go about preparing for a game. Williams practices each drill hard and at game speed. The move is a subtle piece of psychology by Johnson, who has to be a psychologist, coach, tutor, mentor, teacher, taskmaster, and disciplinarian. Johnson switches to another hat when the team gets lazy in a transition drill. “We forget every drill we’ve been working on,” he says. “We don’t build all these drills for you to forget everything you’ve done in the last hour.”

The Nets have not signed a marquee free agent, and, more important, have not yet traded for Howard. The Nets had talked to free-agent center Nene. He opted to stay in Denver. Howard remains the sole large target, and reports have intensified in recent days that the Nets are working to trade for him.

“[Michael] Jordan can come out of retirement and play for us,” Johnson tells reporters after practice. “It’s still going to be a process.”

WEDNESDAY

Johnson arrives at the PNY Center most mornings at around 6:30 a.m. He works out and calls home to Texas and makes sure his son, Avery Jr., is awake. Johnson and his wife, Cassandra, agreed that Avery Jr. should finish high school back home. After talking to his son, Johnson spends time with his spiritual devotional before his assistants arrive to type up the practice itinerary.

He considers himself more mature than in his four years coaching in Dallas. There, he guided the Mavericks to their first NBA Finals. Johnson insists that he was happy for the Mavericks after they won their first championship last season. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, two crucial members in the Finals win over Miami, had suffered in the 2006 championship loss to the Heat.

Here in New Jersey, there is little evidence of the reputation Johnson developed in Dallas. His voice is the most prominent, but he is far from a dictator. His assistants are heard. Johnson normally drifts from drill to drill and offers advice and input. He is generally encouraging, and mostly uses a level voice. Today he is concerned with rookie Jordan Williams.

Kathleen D’Angelo normally starts her day around the same time as Johnson. She is the team’s personal chef, and works with her assistant, Dania Almonte. The facility’s kitchen was recently renovated, and the smells of D’Angelo’s cooking often waft onto the practice court. She prepares a buffet of food this morning: eggs, pancakes, fruit, oatmeal. There is a much deeper emphasis these days concerning what players consume. D’Angelo has been with the organization for four years. She is constantly preparing for the next day, from shopping to cooking, always lunch and breakfast and, in training camp, often dinner. She will start on lunch — a roasted loin of pork — before breakfast even ends.

Most players stop at her station before stepping into their locker room. Williams is one of those players.

He asks, “Can I get a to-go plate, please?”

“A to-go plate?” D’Angelo responds.

“Yeah,” Williams says. “I have to go the hospital. I’ve been dehydrated and can’t play for two days.”

Williams started feeling ill at Tuesday’s practice and vomited afterward. The entire week he had not felt hungry and often skipped meals. He had entered camp with weight to lose and started dropping it pretty rapidly. The effects exhausted Williams, and doctors recommend he sit out at least a week’s worth of practices.

The television outside the team’s locker room reports SportsCenter‘s latest on the Nets’ developments of talks for Howard. The Magic, reports say, have ended discussions for their All-Star center and are unwilling, for now, to part with him.

The practice is lively, and, by now, familiar to most of the new players. They warm up, go to shooting drills, and then work on offensive techniques, spacing, transition offense, and defensive techniques. Williams returns in time to ride a stationary bike for the last portion.

“Come on, rook, you’ve missed four in a row,” Johnson says to Brooks at one point. “You can’t miss four in a row. It’s not a rebounding drill.”

The practice ends in a drill familiar in gyms across the country. Johnson summons players to the free throw line. The team does not run if the player hits both free throws. If he misses one, they either run the length of the court and back or, worse, a suicide, which is touching the free throw line, running back, touching midcourt, running back, touching the other free throw line, running back, and running the full court and back. Deron Williams smoothly makes both free throws. Johnson calls Brooks out.

“Make a three and I have a really big surprise for you,” Johnson says.

The surprise is not a surprise to the coaching staff. They decided to cancel that evening’s scheduled practice after starting to see fatigue in legs of players. Johnson plans to inform the team they have the night off if Brooks makes the shot. Johnson wants it to be a confidence booster for Brooks.

Instead, Brooks’ attempt kicks out. “Gaines, get out here,” Johnson says. In some ways, Sundiata Gaines reminds Johnson of himself: a journeyman point guard who lived on 10-day contracts until finding an NBA home. Gaines walks out and makes the 3-pointer, and practice ends after about an hour and a half on the court.

Lopez

THURSDAY

The players don pristine white jerseys and are shuffled from a photography station to an interview station by team public relations mavens Aaron Harris and Patrick Rees. Today is media day. It will be one of the only times some of the players wear the game jerseys, and for one player, his last.

“Hi, this is Brook Lopez,” Lopez says in front of a camera. He pauses. “Should I say ‘and’? It feels kind of weird without it.”

“Yeah, you can say ‘and,'” responds Annette Ricciuti, a television producer for the NBA.

“Hi, this is Brook Lopez,” he continues, “and big things are coming.”

Ricciuti then interviews Lopez on the team’s hopeful identity, the post player with the best bank shot, and the player with the best post moves. “If you could see anyone at one of your games, who would it be?” Ricciuti asks. “Well, you’ve probably seen a lot of them already.”

“Well, not at Nets games,” Lopez answers. “Maybe in L.A.”

Despite Lopez’s comments, the Nets have drawn their own celebrity backers as of late. Part owner Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé have attended a handful of games. And whenever Kim Kardashian attended a game to watch Kris Humphries last season, the Prudential Center took on a Hollywood vibe.

Practice is pushed back to handle the media obligations. Johnson concludes his coaches’ meeting with the following laundry list of what to look for:

“Just kind of the theme for practice today is competitiveness, physicality, getting in a defensive stance, proper closeouts, sprinting back in transition, ball movement on offense, finishing our plays, taking care of the ball. That’s kind of what I’m thinking of practice. Really make sure we have our eyes in all of those areas.”

Johnson grows frustrated with players during a one-on-one drill. “You’ve got to play as though you’ll make this shot and you’ll make a million dollars,” Johnson says. “We’ve got guys taking B.S. shots and not making your teammates better.”

Billy King has been scarce throughout the week, at least during practice. He does not watch many, even in a regular camp period. He considers it Johnson’s job to judge the players at practice and his duty to assess them during games.

The Nets began the week as major players in the free-agency market because of their obvious openings and available money. But King reeled back as the week progressed, and players who surprised him started to cash in on large salaries over multiple years. He watched as Nene, David West, Tyson Chandler, and other targets went elsewhere. King presided over the Philadelphia 76ers during Allen Iverson’s peak. After the team made the NBA Finals, King made the mistake of weighing the roster with questionable contracts: Kenny Thomas, Theo Ratliff, Eric Snow. He is intent on not going back down that road. He will still be busy even if he is not overly active during free agency. King is tasked with dual jobs in convincing one superstar to stay, Deron Williams, and convincing another one to eventually join in, Howard, whom the organization squarely has its sights on.

“We signed a player,” King says with a grin.

The player is not Howard. Shawne Williams, a needed forward, agreed to hop across the Hudson River and join the Nets. He is in New York City for his physical. Williams had arrived in New York a week ago in hopes of re-signing with the Knicks, who had resurrected his career.

Williams waited for the Knicks to contact him, and met with Allan Houston. He found it offensive that the Knicks offered him only the league minimum and had turned their sights toward Jamal Crawford. When Crawford signed with Portland, the Knicks offered Williams an improvement with their $2.5 million exception. The Nets offered two years and more money, and Williams, finally desirable for the first time in his career, selected the Nets over the Knicks. He still struggled with the decision and called it one of the hardest of his life. Williams is expected to practice tomorrow.

King beckons for Travis Outlaw after practice. Outlaw has participated in more drills as the week advanced, but still can’t go through the contact portion of practices. He instead rides a stationary bike or runs from baseline to baseline.

King informs Outlaw that the organization will use their amnesty provision on him. The clause was included in the resolution of the lockout and allows teams to waive a player and not have it count for salary cap or luxury tax purposes. The organization is still in line to pay out the contract. Outlaw had signed only a year earlier for five years and $35 million.4 King tells Outlaw that it is not a reflection of him, only a business decision, and it allows the organization flexibility. He adds that he will inform inquiring teams that Outlaw is in shape and ready for contact. The conversation is brief, and Outlaw, a quiet person, exits quickly.

FRIDAY

Barrisse and Patrick Spurgin are first to arrive to the coaches’ meeting. They discuss an innovative thought, occasionally allowing the guards to crash the boards and the bigs to race down the court. Carlesimo enters the room, and they relay the idea to him.

“That’s what I wanted to do with [Andrea] Bargnani last year, but [former Raptors coach Jay] Triano wouldn’t let me,” Carlesimo says. “He said it was demeaning. At least our smalls had a chance of getting the rebound.”

Johnson walks into the room and all eyes turn to him. The Nets will host the Knicks tomorrow in their first and next-to-last preseason game before opening the season at Washington on Dec. 26.

“Let’s talk about grouping the guys up today, because we’ll have Shawne Williams for practice,” he says. “Before I do that, I’m thinking of him more as a 3 right now.

“Looking at our team, obviously we can start Damion tomorrow until we get a starting 3, but I know he’s a 3-4, 4-3. But I’m looking to see if he can get us some minutes at 3. Anybody have any thoughts on Shawne Williams? Anybody think he’s more of a 4 than a 3?”

Williams mostly played power forward for the Knicks. He created mismatches by spacing the court. But he also allowed advantages for other teams. The 6-9 Williams often guarded Howard when the Knicks played Orlando, to preserve Stoudemire’s fouls.

“I think he’s more of a 3, really,” Popeye Jones says. “I think the Knicks just used him as a shooting 4. He was drafted as a 3, and we didn’t have him long in Dallas, but when he was there, we used him as a 3. We didn’t even think of using him as a 4.”

“He creates more of a mismatch at the 4,” Spurgin says.

“Yeah, because he spaces the floor,” Elie adds.

Johnson ingests the information. “Yeah, but you’ve got to think about it,” he says. “You got him in the game with Brook, boy. There’s nobody to protect the basket at all. I mean, team defense has to be really, really good.”

“I don’t know him well enough at all,” Carlesimo says. “I was thinking he was a 3. To me, mismatches are bullshit. I vote for playing him at 3, and even bump D.J. But you tell D.J., ‘This doesn’t mean the other guy’s a 3 and you’re not.’ We could use D.J. at 4 and alleviate the crowding the first couple of days and teach Shawne the position. But god, I’m hoping if he plays for us, he’s playing a 3.”

Johnson discusses the practice itinerary. “Just overall and talking to [athletic trainer] Tim [Walsh], he was just saying overall the guys’ energy, he could tell when they walk in and this is, like, seven days into this,” Johnson says. “So, we’re going to just have to read them today, take a look at how their body language is. But this is kind of when you start to hit the wall a little bit. They’ve all been out for an extended period of time, so we’re going to have to make sure we motivate them, pump them up a little bit. They’re going to have Sunday off. Tomorrow’s nothing but a game. At most, somebody’s going to probably play 24 minutes. We’ve all been through situations where we had training camp for 30 straight days. This is a different generation.”

The coaches laugh. “Did you tell them already about Sunday?” Carlesimo asks, knowing that Johnson will provide the first day off since camp started.

“I did not,” Johnson says.

“Do you want to throw that bone out to them today to try and help today’s practice?” Carlesimo asks. “‘Hey guys, all we’ve got is a game tomorrow, we’ve got Sunday off. We need a good practice this morning.’ I don’t know, just see if we can jerk them to try and get a better practice this morning.”

Johnson agrees. “But it’s normal,” he says. “Your body starts talking to you around this time. But again, we don’t have a lot of time to prepare. We all know it as adults and guys that have been in the business for a long time. But, you know, it’s just a different group.”

The coaches agree that Shawne Williams will start rotating in with the starters immediately. They do not have any other options, and Williams, at the very least, has NBA experience. Johnson turns to his board. “I’ve got all these dang gone Williamses,” he says of his growing collection that includes Deron, Shawne, Jordan, and Shelden.

Johnson begins practice by introducing Shawne Williams to the team. “Hey guys, we’ve got a new guy, Shawne,” he says and claps. The rest of the team follows suit. “This is one of the days where you hit the wall a little,” he says to the players at the baseline, “but we’ve still got some work to do.”

On a drill in which the ball is exchanged only when the defensive team gets a stop, the backups retain possession four times against the starters. “Maybe we should start the white team tomorrow instead of the blue,” Johnson tells his coaches, audible enough for all the players to hear. The practice runs smoothly despite the hiccup, and Johnson sees most of the energy he desired. The team will simulate a shoot-around in the afternoon to prepare for the Knicks.

Billy King’s office is on the second floor of the practice facility in a spacious corner. His dry-erase board reflects notable free agents for the next few years and possible amnesty candidates around the league. After practice, he hosts a visitor and Gary Sussman, the team’s vice president of public relations. Deron Williams walks in with Bobby Marks, the assistant general manager. Williams, who often eats his lunch in King’s office, carries a tray of a sandwich and chips. Williams and King are building a tight bond that will be crucial to retaining him. Williams often says that he will stay and headline the team’s move to Brooklyn, as long as the team is capably built. He eschewed signing the contract extension offered to him in recent weeks. The most he could sign for now is an added two years and about $39 million. If he stays and signs with the Nets, his deal could be for five years and around $100 million. Before he signs, the roster needs major reconstructing, and Williams and King often discuss moves during their lunch.

“This is my lunch spot,” Williams announces.

“I’ve got to get him an office, get him a phone, get him an assistant,” King says.

“I’ve been waiting for my sign,” Williams says with a laugh.

“That is my work station,” Williams motions to the couch where Sussman sits. “That’s the most comfortable couch. You should try laying down. I work from a laying-down position because the blood flows to the brain and you can think better. They did a study. You think better laying down. It’s true. Try it.”

“That’s why a lot of times you need to take Xanax to help you sleep,” King says. “Lay down and the mind keeps going. Or drink some scotch. Then it helps you.”

The talk shifts to the amnesty board and who has actually been waived. “Has anyone bid on Baron Davis yet?” Williams inquires.

SATURDAY

Horner wakes up in the hotel at around 8 a.m. He wanted to sleep longer, but once his sleep is interrupted he cannot return to it. The butterflies are starting. It is a preseason game, but Horner will be matched against Amar’e Stoudemire.

Johnson selects his game-day attire based on what he wore the last time his team won.5 Today he will wear a blue shirt, silver suit, and multicolored tie. Meanwhile, Shawne Williams wakes up sick and is unable to play against his former team.

The team meets at a hotel before caravaning to the Prudential Center. The arena is only an interim home until Barclays Center is complete, but is still a large improvement over the Izod Center, which lacked accessibility to mass transit and needed renovations.

Horner shares a locker at the arena with Jerry Smith, another Armor player. Horner is one of the first Nets on the floor, and some of the nervousness eases with each jumper. The Nets start Deron Williams, Anthony Morrow, Damion James, Shelden Williams, and Brook Lopez. The Knicks start Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Toney Douglas, Landry Fields, and Tyson Chandler.

The game is predictably sloppy after the long layoff. Morrow begins with seven quick points. Johnson is upset with Petro for collecting three fouls in three minutes, which had been a point of emphasis when the week began. But Lopez is gravitating toward every rebound he can find on his way to 11, and Johnson cannot even remember if he had that many in a single game a year earlier.

Horner checks into the game with a little more than a minute left in the first quarter. His parents and about 20 friends came to the game and cheer from the stands, a few rows behind the Nets’ bench. Horner did not even know how to ask a team employee for some tickets. Instead, his clan bought them on their own.

Horner quickly knocks down a 14-footer and finds Shelden Williams for an assist. The Knicks pull away in the second half, but Horner has another nice moment when he predicts Jared Jeffries’ pump fake and blocks his shot. The Nets lose, 92-83. Deron Williams turned the ball over an uncharacteristic six times and labels his play “pretty bad.” Johnson is mostly impressed and tells his team so. It is doubtful that they will turn the ball over 25 times in a regular-season game, and those lost opportunities will transfer into more points for them and less for their opponent.

Horner put up four points and four rebounds in 18 minutes. His play was solid. He was at the right place at the right times, and the game served as an extension of his practice. Despite the long odds, he is forcing Johnson to reevaluate him. Maybe there is a position for him after all. The team needs forwards. An option on the horizon is reaching out to Humphries, who had his status hurt across the league by the Kardashian affair. The Nets can sign him to a one-year deal and preserve their cap space for Howard and others.

Johnson walks from the locker room and addresses the media. “We don’t have half a season to figure out a rotation,” he tells the cameras and recorders. “It’s all me. I’m going to have to figure out a rotation early in the season. That will give us a better chance.”

He has visitors waiting to see him. The season, for a while, seemed far away. Now it is rapidly approaching. He will grab dinner with his coaches and review the film. The assessment, the goal to improve, will begin anew in the morning.

Ed. note: The Sacramento Kings claimed Travis Outlaw off waivers on Sunday evening. Their winning bid was for $12 million over four years. On Wednesday, the Nets announced that they re-signed Kris Humphries to a one-year deal.

Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Jonathan Abrams:
Stephen Curry Goes Back to School
Winners and Losers of the NBA Lockout
The Murder of Tayshana Murphy
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Filed Under: Jonathan Abrams, People

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Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. He is working on a book about the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation of players.

Archive @ JPdabrams

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