By Jake Appleman

In what appears to be their penultimate year in the swamp, the New Jersey Nets will look to improve upon their mediocre regular season and pleasant, mildly surprising run to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Bettering a regular season that could be best described as “Meh” and cynically described as “excrement” could be tough, thanks to newfound depth in the conference. However, a healthy squad and the return of Nenad Kristic, even at 90% of his former self, should yield dividends. Put it this way: Despite winning half of their games, the Nets were outscored by their opponents last year. That needs to change. And it probably will.

The latter goal, advancing past the second round in the much improved East, will probably prove troubling. The conference boasts 4 teams explicitly better than the Nets (Cleveland, Boston, Detroit and Chicago), 3 teams just as good as them (Washington, Miami and Toronto), and two teams (Orlando, New York) that will be nipping at their heels and barking at them like Andrea Peyser—woof.

Other swamp-relatedness worth discussing:

Vince Carter has re-signed. The positive to this is obvious: the Nets retain their top scorer. Carter is one of the few guys in the league who can score at will. Admittedly, he often does this when it doesn’t matter, but even so, having a guy that can fill it up simply by turning on an internal switch is a good thing. He should be better than he is, but the fact remains: his offense carries the team to victories some nights. More to the point, can you imagine how difficult it would be for this bunch to score without him? Exactly.

Generally speaking, when it comes to Carter’s periodic vitriol shower—and the media and fans do work up quite a lather; shampoo and conditioner, baby!—these positives are overlooked. This is mostly because:

1) A disinclination to consistently take the ball to the rim makes him tough to like.
2) The way Jason Kidd plays the game makes Vince look like a chump in comparison.
3) He’s earning a ton of money.

Speaking of #3, HE DID NOT DESERVE THE AMOUNT OF MONEY HE GOT ($61.8 for 4). I said it in May and I’ll say it again: Vince Carter is not that dude; the crunch time performer that can work with arguably the second best point guard in the league to raise his team’s level of performance when it matters most.

It really makes you wonder if Rod Thorn got played by paying VC so much money. What? Vince was going to leave the bright lights of the tri-state area and the chance to play in Brooklyn for Orlando because he wanted to go home? Really? What…alleged master pedophile Lou Pearlman was going to give him a chance to be the next Justin Timberlake in a boy band called “ILL-ADVISED” featuring Antoine Walker, Delonte West and Nate Robinson? Really?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that, given the money he wanted, VC knew that no situation would be better than living in the tri-state area while spending his twilight running with J-Kidd. It’s sad that veiled threats at leaving and the front office’s desire to keep him happy may have cost the Nets millions of dollars.

The other side of the coin is that there is no way the Nets could justify paying him less than RJ, so market value stuck them in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” bind. If they signed him, they’d be damned to salary cap hell for the next two seasons. If they didn’t sign him, they’d miss the playoffs. They made the safe play, and as strange as it sounds, they had to. The last thing this franchise needs before moving to Brooklyn is a withering fan base.

Lawrence Frank has also re-upped. There were many Net fans that bitched and moaned about Frank’s performance last year, calling for him to be fired. For the most part, the people that felt he let the team down last year had it backwards. If you’re working with an injury-bugged, depleted roster filled with VETERANS that aren’t bringing it every night, then there’s not much else you can do. Bottom line: The man knows how to coach, works his tail off and rarely sleeps.

Jason Kidd: Marvel at this man. This is a point guard that led his team in defensive rebounds last season, which is simultaneously pathetic and amazing. He’s a 34 year old that might be able to successfully turn back the clock in the latter stages of his career like only John Stockton has before him.

— At 27, you would think Richard Jefferson should be entering his prime. Only time will tell if, a season after right ankle surgery kept him out of 27 games, he can regain the explosiveness that defined his game in the early stages of his career.

–While he may not have recovered from his reportedly atrocious 2Ball performance with Ben Osborne at Nets media hoops challenge day, Boki Nachbar, aka The Boston Snackbar, will be back and hungrier than ever. (Speaking of Nets media day, can I get an invite next year, Gary? I’m fiending for Schuhmann’s 3 point crown.)

Concessions at the Snackbar include Brand name stuffing and whipped cream facials a la Dalembert, the soup du jour—usually a dagger-3-over-an-outstretched-arm-bisque with a hint of marmorata (the national trout of Slovenia)—and an all-time classic, the LeBron-inspired “eye-ball sammich”.

–It appears that Jason Collins will once again be the worst offensive starter in the league. I think we should all strive to be less hard on him. At least he plays something that resembles defense. (Cue Russ killing me for saying something not negative about Jason Collins.)

Sean Williams gives the Nets their most athletic shot-blocking presence since God fused Tony Massenburg with a pair of windshield wipers in this one dream I had. No one is quite sure whether Williams will be able to step in and contribute right away, but we do know that he loves to smoke weed. It also seems that SW may be one of those angry types that need weed to relax. If this is the case, I think it’d serve him best to smoke without getting caught, i.e. it’s better for him to keep smoking than for him to get angry and lose control during what promises to be a season that tests his emotional maturity. Being unable to handle the rigors of college life is one thing. This is the next level. Regardless, retired spiritual mentor Spliff Robinson and Williams will give the Nets an interesting joint tandem off the bench.

–Jamal Magloire, who will be replacing the loveable Mikki Moore, is being hailed as an x-factor by team brass. He should provide some much needed interior toughness and rebounding. Kidd, who has made a habit of making soup from a stone when it comes to underwhelming surrounding talent, will now have to take it a step further with Magloire as he tries to make soup from a stone hands.

Marcus Williams, once he recovers from his foot injury, needs to have a more efficient second season. He was overly flashy at times last season and somewhat of a disappointment.

Josh Boone, who made strides late last year, needs to learn how to hit a freaking free throw.

–Hopefully, Malik Allen will be able to contribute.

Antoine Wright needs more confidence in his jumpshot.

Robert Hite is supposed to be the next E. House, which, if you’re scoring at home, is a one dimensional, modest abode with great personality and inconsistent electricity.

–Read Rod Benson’s website. He needs to be signed.

Allan Houston????

Prediction: Barring injuries, 43-45 wins, second or third in the Atlantis and a #7 seed with the potential for a first round upset depending on who the opponent is. You have a pretty good idea of what Carter and Kidd will provide; it’s what you get from Jefferson and Magloire (on both ends of the floor) and the recovery of Kristic that will dictate where exactly this team is at the end of the year.

Bottom line: They may only be a little bit above average, but it’s better than being irrelevant.