EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -Being out of the spotlight in the Eastern Conference is just fine with the New Jersey Nets.
Let the new-look Celtics, the young Bulls, and LeBron James and his Cavaliers have all the attention heading into the season.
The Nets believe that with Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and a two-deep rotation at every position, they have more than enough to make the playoffs for a seventh straight season and to challenge for a third trip to the NBA finals since 2002.
With the season opener against Chicago on tap for Wednesday night, Kidd went so far as to say this is the best team that he has played on, other than the U.S. team that qualified for the Olympics this past summer.
His boldness is linked to the combination of talent and ambition - veterans playing for contracts mixed with young players working hard to earn more minutes.
``There's a lot of pieces that I'm very excited about,'' the eight-time All-Star point guard said. ``If we can be consistent throughout the long haul, then hopefully we'll be the team at the top - and not just the top of the Atlantic, but the top of the Eastern Conference.''
There are some who think the Nets are on the downward cycle after posting a 41-41 record last season and being eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by James and company.
During the offseason, the Nets re-signed Carter to a big contract, but really didn't make any other major moves in the free agent market. They signed veteran big men Jamaal Magloire and Malik Allen, and 39-year-old guard Darrell Armstrong.
It was nothing compared to the Celtics getting Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in blockbuster trades.
What the Nets have for now is their health.
Jefferson missed 27 games last season with mostly ankle problems that required surgery, while starting center Nenad Krstic did not play after Dec. 22 because of major knee injury.
With the two of them out of the lineup, New Jersey lost about 33 points and 11 rebounds per game.
Jefferson returned to the lineup in early March and the Nets finished the season by winning 10 of 13 games. They upset Atlantic Division winner Toronto in the first round, then took the Cavaliers to six games in a competitive series.
The only major offseason loss was veteran center Mikki Moore, who had a career year, averaging almost 10 points while leading the league in shooting percentage. He went to Sacramento as a free agent.
Krstic, however, was also having his best season before getting hurt, averaging 16.4 points and 6.8 rebounds.
``I think it's going to take some time and I have to be patient, but I can be even better,'' Krstic said. ``When I was playing back home (Serbia) I had a couple of serious injuries and I came back even better. That's part of my nature.''
The 27-year-old Jefferson has seen his scoring average dip the last two seasons after averaging 22.2 points in 2004-05, a season in which he missed 49 games with a broken wrist.
``I think he has a chip on his shoulder,'' coach Lawrence Frank said. ``Richard is ultracompetitive, and I think he understands and knows how good he can be, and he wants to prove it.''
If Jefferson and Krstic can regain their form, it's bound to make the Nets tough, knowing that Kidd and Carter will produce.
Kidd averaged 13 points, 8.2 rebounds and 9.2 assists last season, and he seems energized at 34 years old after helping the United States qualify for the Olympics.
Carter got a guaranteed contract for at least $66 million after averaging a team-high 25.2 points along with six rebounds and 4.8 assists.
Veteran Jason Collins and Magloire will vie for the starting spot at power forward, but Frank intends to rotate his front line using second-year forward Josh Boone, rookie Sean Williams, Allen and Bostjan Nachbar, who had a team-high 19.8 point average in the preseason.
``He is a player who compliments everyone because he spreads the floor,'' Jefferson said of Nachbar. ``He can run the floor and he can play the 4 spot. He helps the bigs. There are not too many players who don't benefit because of his shooting ability and his ability to run the floor.''
Magloire has added a toughness on a team that has lacked a defensive presence inside. Williams' athleticism in the middle has been impressive. Allen can hit the short jumper and is excellent on pick-and-roll plays, while Boone had flashes last season that were exciting.
Antoine Wright, whose third-year contract option was not picked up, also showed flashes in his second season, averaging 4.5 points in 63 games. Second-year point guard Marcus Williams will miss the first month of the season with a broken foot.
Looking at the team, Carter likes the depth, experience and the confidence. Having almost everyone pick the Celtics to win the Atlantic Division and ignore the Nets is fine, too.
``We can go out and play our style of basketball and never get questions of what we are bringing to the table because they didn't expect much anyway,'' Carter said.
Frank laughed at the predictions, then joked about whether the Nets should file an application to be readmitted into the league.
``The predictions starting Wednesday, they don't matter,'' he said. ``That's when the record matters, and that's all we have to concerned about.''

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