The way Coach Kevin Loughery explains it, the New Jersey Nets will be getting their act together just about the time the curtain is due to fall on the National Basketball Association's regular season.
What Loughery is referring to are three deals New Jersey has made in the past few week that seem to have ensured the last-place Nets (Atlantic Division) a brighter NBA future, at least by 1981.
The super trade, from Loughery's standpoint, is the one that brought the Nets all-stars forward Maurice Lucas from the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for rookie cornerman Calvin Natt. Lucas, when he's 100 percent physically, is a great rebounder, defensive intimidator, and 20-point-a-game scorer.
But Kevin is also pleased about two first-round draft picks (1982 and '83) New Jersey has acquired from the Phoenix Suns and the arrival of Roger Phegley, a 6 ft., 6 in. guard, from the Washington Bullets. The two players the Nets subtracted from their roster (center Rich Kelley to Phoenix and guard John Williamson to Washington) no longer fit into their plans to run more and rely less on a patterned offense.
"What this team needs more than anything else right now is a six-week training camp where everybody can get to know everybody else," Loughery said. "You just don't put new people into your lineup 50 games into the season and get the fit you want, especially on defense.
"But when the opportunity is there to get quality players you know you can turn your club around, you have to go for it," he continued. "We hope to get at least some of our rebuilding done in what remains of the season, and the rest we'll probably handle through the draft."
If Lucas hadn't been having contract problems with Portland, New Jersey probably wouldn't have had a shot at him. And if the Nets hadn't been willing to give up a very promising rookie in Natt, they probably wouldn't have gotten Maurice, either.
Because of physical problems, Lucas started slowly with the Nets, coming in off the bench as the club's sixth man when he first arrived. Of late, however, he's begun to flex his considerable muscle as a starter, scoring a season-high 32 points in a victory over the New York Knicks Sunday. By next season Lucas and his 6-9, 220-pound frame should be all-star material again.
"We're going to build with Lucas, but we're also going to build through this year's college draft, which our scouts say is going to be a strong one," Loughery explained.
"I haven't decided yet whether we'll draft to fit a particular need or simply take the best athlete available," the coach said. "But we've got two first-round picks and I figure we can't lose."
New Jersey has also stockpiled two first-round choices for 1982 and '83.
The chances are, Loughery knows exactly whom he wants to draft and, if he's available when the Nets' turn comes, it is probably going to be seven-foot center Joe Barry Carroll of Purdue.
Although Carroll seemed to have ignition problems in both his sophomore and junior year with the Boilermakers, he has matured so much this season that almost every NBA team has him high on its draft list.
Loughery's current Nets lineup has George Johnson at center, with 6-11 Bob Elliott as his backup. The forwards are rookie Cliff Robinson of USC, who figures to keep his job, and Jan van Breda Kolff, who goes into a reserve role as soon as Lucas is physically sound.
New Jersey has two aggressive guards in Mike Newlin, who has found more unconventional ways of getting 20 points a game than anyone else in the league, and Ed Jordan, who is better than he gets credit for being. Phegley, coming off the bench, plays almost as many minutes.
With the right personnel, Loughery's switching tactics on defense can be devastating. But until the draft comes and goes, the Nets' timetable for success remains clouded.