- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Something's wrong. Something's missing. You just sense that watching the New Jersey Nets labor through this season. Given what we've seen in Indiana and Detroit, you also have to wonder if the Nets have what it takes to even get to the Eastern Conference finals, let alone a third straight appearance (and third straight loss) in the NBA Finals.
It's been a weird year in the swamps, made all the more weirder with the firing of Byron Scott and hiring of unknown Lawrence Frank and the news that a businessman who wants to move the team to Brooklyn is its new owner. For that, we say, hurrah! Getting the Nets out of that horrible, white elephant on I-95, with parking lots harder to navigate than the streets of Boston during the Big Dig, is a major plus.
But the basketball tenants of that dreadful building still have to play there for a while. They've been a very good team there -- until this year. They were 33-8 in the Meadowlands last season. They've already lost there eight times this season -- and they still have 20 games left to play there. Attendance, never a big factor, is terrible.
Through 42 games, the Nets are a just-above-sea-level 22-20. At this point last year, they were 28-14. The year before, they were 29-13. And their next four games are on the road, although the next two opponents are Eastern, sub-.500 teams.
Last week, the Nets were licking their wounds after getting beaten up in Texas on consecutive nights by the Mavericks and Spurs. No crime there; it happens to just about every Eastern Conference team. (The Nets have to do a U-turn this weekend to go back to Houston, the day before the Super Bowl.) But the latest loss was the team's fourth in a row -- the second time this season it has had a four-game losing streak. In the previous two years, they had only two losing streaks of that length -- and none any longer.
No one should be shocked that the Nets have settled into a state of mediocre bliss -- at 22-20, they still lead the otherwise pathetic Atlantic Division and are the only team in the division with a record above .500. All the signs were there at the start of the season -- and a few more have developed along the way.
Let's start with an obvious one: ennui. The Nets may be the Eastern Conference version of the Lakers in that they know what to do, how to do it, and may possibly have come to the point where the regular season utterly bores them. We saw signs of that last year, when they slipped from 52 to 49 wins, ceding the conference's homecourt advantage to Detroit. They still swept the Pistons in the conference finals because they know how to play when the stakes are the highest.
So maybe they're bored. Who can blame them? Lurking inside most of these guys is a "been there, done that" mentality. The key players from their two previous teams are still there. They know what lies ahead -- and they know they have not lost a playoff series to any of the other conference pretenders. They know that if Jason Kidd is healthy and ready, they have as good a chance as anyone.
They also might be tired, which goes hand-in-hand with ennui. Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin all played this past summer on the Olympic qualifying team in Puerto Rico. That was a month-long commitment and Kidd was not himself during the tournament. No one played big minutes, but the team's top three offensive players (and two of the league's best defensive players) were practicing and playing at a time when a lot of others were chillin' or playing golf.
Then came the decisions by management not to extend either Scott or Martin. One decision made fiscal sense -- why extend Martin until he proves that he is what he says and thinks he is: an All-Star. If you can't make it to an All-Star Game as an Eastern Conference power forward, you don't deserve the big bucks.
Not giving Scott an extension was harder to understand. Unless, of course, the intention all along was to give the guy enough rope to hang himself. Scott won two conference titles but had no contract beyond this season. (Then again, neither does Phil Jackson.) Most teams don't want their coaches to be lame ducks, unless they want them to be dead ducks. It sent conflicting signals to the coach and, by extension, to the players he has to coach.
Injuries have hit the Nets harder this year than in the last couple of years. Two years ago, in their run to the Finals, the Nets' main players were healthy from beginning to end, save for Todd MacCulloch. Last year, Dikembe Mutombo was the major injury -- and the Nets proved not to miss him at all. This year, Jefferson and Kerry Kittles are the only Nets to have not missed a game while rotation reserves Aaron Williams, Rodney Rogers and Lucious Harris have missed 35 games. Martin has missed seven games.
Then there's Alonzo Mourning. He signed with Nets to play with Kidd and got his wish for a month. While he was not the same player he used to be, he was expected to give the Nets a degree of toughness and intensity that, come playoff time, might be enough to get them over the proverbial hump. He says he's retired, but he also has had a kidney transplant and he's only 33 (34 next month.) He has played only 96 games in the last 3½ years.
Out went Alonzo and in came Eddie Griffin, a most revealing personnel decision. When the Nets drafted Griffin in 2001, they had no intention of keeping him. They wanted nothing to do with him, having seen his tired act at Seton Hall. He was drafted solely for the purpose of trading him to Houston, which is what happened. Now, two years later, they suddenly like the guy? The same guy who since then has piled up a couple of, shall we say, legal transgressions? What's up with that?
Now, they may be moving to Brooklyn, which is not nearly as imminent (or automatic) as it sounds. There's land to be taken, train tracks to be moved, city officials to be, er, persuaded. It's a few years away at the minimum.
Until then, it's the New Jersey Nets, your Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets. They have one thing going for them that no one else does: a sense of being there, a sense of entitlement, a sense of (false?) security that only comes from experience and success. But it's a tightrope act to fall back on all those things -- because there's always someone ready, willing and, this time, able to knock you off.
They're still the champs until someone else displaces them. Right now, however, they look eminently displaceable.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Back-to-back trips to the Finals have made the regular season even more monotonous for the Nets.