Nets may make best bid yet
They're the team to beat in the East again, but the Nets might finally have a team that can beat the West's best.
Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the New Jersey Nets.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The fan was loud and whiny. The Nets, supposedly his team, could do nothing right. Even though this was a meaningless preseason game, the fan was in midseason screech. After a quarter and a half of this nonsense, Byron Scott, standing in front of his bench, had heard enough (and because there were about 4,000 or so persons in Continental Airlines Arena, you could hear just about everything).
Scott wheeled around, faced the fan and said, calmly, "It's a long season. Relax."
Indeed, the Nets could care less how they play in October. June is the only month that matters now.
The Nets have proved beyond much doubt that they are the class of the Eastern Conference. For the past few years, that distinction has reminded me of those people on "The Price is Right" who are asked to come on down, but who don't ever guess the correct price and get to walk up on stage and shake Bob Barker's hand. Never get to spin the big wheel in the Showcase Showdown or bid on the Brand New Cars. They just sit there, forlornly looking up at the real winners, immortalized in the heartbreaking sentence, "Contestants not appearing on stage receive a supply of Turtle Wax."
But this season, New Jersey is ready to play with the big boys. The team's core group -- Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles, Lucious Harris, Jason Collins, Aaron Williams -- is entering its third season together, with 101 regular-season wins in two years, and only Harris and Williams are older than 30. New Jersey's depth will only increase this season with the additions of Alonzo Mourning and first-round pick Zoran Planinic, who will spell Kidd at the point.
"I think we've closed the gap with a lot of teams in the West," Scott says. "I'm sure everybody's still going to talk about San Antonio and the Lakers. A lot of people are talking about Minnesota. I think getting Alonzo was the biggest acquisition of this whole summer. I think he can have just as big an impact as any other player who's been picked up by any other team. We have a chance to be one of the elite teams in this league."
With Mourning and Planinic, the Nets can now go a legit 10 deep. They have a perennial MVP candidate in Kidd, a budding star in Martin, athletic wings in Jefferson and Kittles, veterans with something in the tank and an overarching incentive: not to become the Buffalo Bills of the NBA. They think they're ready to walk the walk with the Spurs and Lakers and Mavs and Kings.
"We proved that last year," Martin said. "We won two games (in the Finals). It's unfortunate that somebody had to get the flu (Martin sleepwalked through the last two games after catching it, going 3-for-21 from the floor in Game 6). We just came up a little short. With the pieces we have this year, with our experience of making it, hopefully that'll take us over that hump."
It was a nervous summer in the Swamp. Kidd was wined and dined by the Spurs, who saw a chance to create a dynasty, but Kidd ultimately came back to Jersey for $103 million. At 30, Kidd is in the prime of his career, and the Nets' window of opportunity will never be more open than it is now.
"I can't think of a player in this league that doesn't want to play with Jason Kidd," Mourning said. "I knew that in order for us, in order for me, to accomplish the goal of winning a championship, I had to be part of a team that had a great point guard. And Jason Kidd is the best in the business right now."
Even so, the Nets got overrun in the Finals by Shaquille O'Neal in '02 and Tim Duncan in '03. Collins is the perfect center for New Jersey's offense. He doesn't demand the rock, and he is a solid passer and finisher. (Scott didn't think there was any comparison between Collins and Dikembe Mutombo. Saving money wasn't the only reason the Nets bought out Mutombo's contract.) But Collins and Williams couldn't hold off the Diesel and TD at the other end, as New Jersey's halfcourt defense got shredded from the inside out. Mourning is in East Rutherford to shut down that flow. Scott is toying with the idea of bringing Mourning off the bench, but at the ends of games, 'Zo will be on the floor.
|“||I think we can be the best team in the league. We needed to get someone who could clog up the middle and defend, and we got that. We needed a backup point guard to take pressure off of J Kidd, and we added that ... We've got a lot we can do. ”|
|— Richard Jefferson|
"For years and years, being in Miami, one of the things that was constantly drilled in my mind through Pat Riley was 'Win, win, win.' I want more, more, more, more," Mourning said. "It's a part of me, now. Just living that way for so many years, and practicing at that high level and doing all of those things, to (compete) for a championship and coming up short was extremely disappointing to me."
New Jersey's halfcourt attack should be as lethal as ever, with Martin cowboying over most East power forwards and Jefferson and Kittles feasting off of backdoor cuts for lobs and layups from Kidd and Planinic. The Nets got solid backup play from Anthony Johnson the last couple of years, but they think the 6-foot-7 Planinic, who's wowed his teammates in training camp with his handle and passing ability, is an upgrade.
"I think we can be the best team in the league," Jefferson said. "We needed to get someone who could clog up the middle and defend, and we got that. We needed a backup point guard to take pressure off of J Kidd, and we added that. We're really not going to need 'Zo to average 38 minutes a game. We've got a lot we can do."
But New Jersey does have questions. Can Kidd coexist with Scott? The Finals were rife with rumors about how the duo clashed, and how much Kidd relied on since-departed assistant Eddie Jordan not only in the traditional assistant's sounding board role but also for in-game strategy. Then, the New York Post reported during the summer that Kidd had asked for Scott's ouster as a condition for his own return. Obviously, that didn't happen. Right now, Kidd and Scott profess undying respect for one another. Kidd has noticed that Scott is more involved in pregame discussions and chalk talks; Scott says the two talked several times in the offseason.
And the Nets didn't hide the fact that they looked hard at moving Martin this summer after negotiations on a contract extension bogged down, trying to get Rasheed Wallace from the Blazers.
"I didn't know whether (he would be traded), and I didn't care, really," said Martin, who averaged 14 and 10 in the Finals despite the bad Game 6. "If I was, great, if not, I'd still have to live with it. It wasn't my choice. I don't make phone calls, and I don't work in the front office."
For now, though, the focus is on the court. The Nets have back-to-back Atlantic Division titles and back-to-back Eastern Conference titles. But no one will likely remember those in 10 years. For this group to be immortalized, it has to win the Showcase. Barker's Beauties don't hobnob with just anybody.
"It's just a great feeling to walk in here and know that you have a team that each and every year competes for a championship," Scott said. "That's all you want, is a chance. We've been able to have a chance the last two seasons, and each season we felt we made ourselves a better team ... if there is a time, the time is now, if everything goes right."
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.