EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The New Jersey Nets are not going to be as bad as last season.
It's just impossible. No way they lose their first 18 games, or win just 12 overall.
This is a different team, from the ownership, to the front office, the coaching staff and even the players, where only four return from last season's franchise-worst 12-70 debacle.
Even their home court is different. New Jersey will be playing at the Prudential Arena in Newark after a long run at the Izod Center in the Meadowlands sports complex.
"I really don't want to compare this team to last year's team, but we are improving very well and becoming a real team," center Brook Lopez, who is the Nets' one up-and-coming star, said Monday. "Since we started camp, we've had a lot of guys improve tremendously. I'm sure we'll be a better team this year in terms of wins. That's what we're all shooting for."
The days of the Nets' dealing their best players to clear salary cap space also are over. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has taken possession of the team and given the NBA its first non-North American owner. He also is not going to settle for mediocrity after buying 80 percent of the team and 45 percent of an arena project in Brooklyn from developer Bruce Ratner.
Since he took over, the face of the team has changed. Billy King has replaced Rod Thorn as general manager and Avery Johnson has taken over as coach, giving the team someone who knows how to teach defense.
What's missing is a star. Prokhorov and the Nets tried to make a big splash in the free agent market in July and lost.
LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Carlos Boozer all turned them down. Instead, they signed Travis Outlaw, Johan Petro, Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow and acquired veteran power forward Troy Murphy in a multi-team deal.
New Jersey also drafted power forward Derrick Favors with the third-pick overall in the draft, and it toyed with the idea of acquiring Carmelo Anthony in another multi-team deal involving Denver.
It failed, but don't be surprised if the quest for 'Melo' continues during the season.
The goal is to get a star, who will attract other stars to the franchise before it moves to Brooklyn in two years.
"We're just going in the right direction," Harris said. "We have a lot of younger players. We have a coach who has a good understanding of his players and where they should be. He's going to put them in the right situations. We've shown great improvement, great strides in the short time we've been together. But we're still figuring things out."
Under Johnson, the Nets will learn how to play defense, something they haven't done in recent seasons.
They also should shoot the ball better with Harris and Lopez probably being joined in the starting lineup by Murphy, once he gets over a balky back problem, Morrow and Outlaw.
Johnson, who posted a 194-70 mark with the Mavericks and guided them to the NBA finals in 2006, laughed when asked if the Nets can improve by 20 wins this season.
"I would say from when we started Sept. 25, we've made major strides," he said. "Not enough to become a very good basketball team, but we've made some strides. We know the teams at the top of the (Eastern) Conference are very good and the middle-of-the-road teams like Milwaukee, Atlanta, Charlotte, we're not there yet. We're playing catch-up right now."
The cornerstones of the team are Lopez and Harris, who is hoping to regain his All-Star form of two seasons ago.
Lopez has averaged 20.5 points and 6.7 rebounds in the preseason, while Harris still hasn't found his best form, averaging 12.4 points and 5.4 rebounds.
Morrow was one of the NBA's top 3-point shooters last season and Murphy can score inside and outside while helping Lopez handle the rebounding. Outlaw is a young athletic player who can score 10 points a night while fitting into Johnson's scheme.
Entering his second season, Williams will be the spark plug.
"We're making the turn in the right direction, from the owner to the coach to the general manager to the team," Williams said. "We had a team that if we were down by six with 10 minutes left last year, it could become down by 30. Now, we have a chance to win the game. I see that total improvement."