Nets believe they can be legitimate contenders in East

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NEW YORK — The Nets are no longer concerned about getting back to the playoffs after a five-year drought.

Deron Williams (left) and former Atlanta Hawk Joe Johnson have joined forces to give the Brooklyn Nets one of the top backcourts in  the league for the 2012-13 season.  MARY ALTAFFER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
MARY ALTAFFER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Deron Williams (left) and former Atlanta Hawk Joe Johnson have joined forces to give the Brooklyn Nets one of the top backcourts in the league for the 2012-13 season.

The more pressing issue for Brooklyn’s new team is getting a few more pieces so the franchise can challenge for the Eastern Conference title.

While it sounds optimistic, that’s the mood of the Nets as they approach their first season in Brooklyn with a roster that includes an All-Star backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, a veteran small forward in Gerald Wallace and a talented center in Brook Lopez.

Having Dwight Howard at center, of course, would have catapulted the Nets from woeful to wonderful in a split second, but the much ballyhooed deal with Orlando fell apart earlier this week. Still, the Nets should be a lot better than their 22-44 mark in the lockout-shortened season.

“I really believe this is a playoff team,” coach Avery Johnson said Friday after the Nets held a news conference in Brooklyn’s Borough Hall to showcase Williams and Johnson. “Once we can become a playoff team and get into the playoffs, then anything can happen.

“It’s all about size, athleticism and versatility. You saw it with the Miami Heat last year and you’ll see it again this summer in the Olympics.”

The Nets will be much more athletic with Williams, Johnson and Wallace, combined with a healthy Lopez, who missed most of last season with foot problems. Second-year guard MarShon Brooks fits right in, as well.

Where the Nets need help at is power forward. Reggie Evans was acquired from the Clippers earlier this month and general manager Billy King said the team is close to re-signing Kris Humphries, the team’s leading rebounder last season.

Brooklyn also this week signed Mirza Teletovic, a 6-foot-9 free agent who can play both forward spots, to a three-year, $10 million contract.

King has made several big moves this off-season. The most notable is Williams, who signed a five-year, $98 million deal, and engineered a trade with the Hawks that brought Johnson to Brooklyn for five players and two draft picks. King also re-signed Wallace to a four-year, $40 million pact, and re-signed Lopez to a four-year, $60 million deal after the Howard trade fell through.

Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov didn’t give King a green light to spend as much money as he wanted, but he didn’t oppose any move that would make the team better. The transactions have pushed the Nets over the cap, and they will have to pay a luxury tax next season.

King said the Nets have a team – on paper – that can be in the playoffs.

“Now, the goal is to work together and see if we can be a team that ultimately can be in the top four (in the conference), so you can have home court in the first round of the playoffs,” King said. “We’ll see how quickly it comes together.”

Johnson and Williams were excited about the chance to play with each other, noting opponents can’t concentrate too much on one.

“We have some great pieces here,” said Johnson, a six-time All-Star who has averaged 17.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists in his career. “Some pieces that can really get us over the hump, and be an NBA contender.”

Williams, who averaged a career-best 21 points last season, said one of the big reasons he decided to stay with the Nets was because of all the moves the team made. He added that he has never played with someone of Johnson’s caliber.

“This is a fresh start for us all,” Williams said. “I am excited to see where this team can go.”

When asked if the Nets were a playoff team, Williams didn’t hesitate.

“No doubt,” he said.

Time will tell.


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