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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? Mutombo.
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 defensive mentality."
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."
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