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Every Net must step up

11/26/2003 - New Jersey Nets

Editor's note: Each week during the NBA regular season, Dr. Jack Ramsay makes a house call with an ailing team.

This week's team: New Jersey Nets.

The Symptoms
The Nets were the consensus preseason favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference and make it to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season. They had re-signed superstar point guard Jason Kidd; they had brought on board the Samurai-like warrior center, Alonzo Mourning; and they retained the nucleus of last season's team. Hopes were high that this was the year to contend for the NBA championship.

But so far, the Nets are 5-7 overall and have won only two of five games at home, where they were 33-8 last season. The Nets also find themselves temporarily without the injured Kidd, their all-around catalyst. Then on Monday, team president/general manager Rod Thorn announced the retirement of Mourning because of his recurring kidney disease, focal glomerulosclerosis.

Even with Kidd and Mourning in the lineup, the Nets didn't play up to expectations. Kidd put up creditable numbers (16.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 9.6 assists) despite a bruised left knee sustained on opening night at Toronto, but there were games when he clearly was not at his best.

Mourning was never able to regain his All-Star form. Acquired to give the Nets a dominating presence in the paint, 'Zo played in all 12 games but averaged only eight points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.5 blocked shots in less than 18 minutes played off the bench.

There were other significant injuries. Sharpshooter Lucious Harris has suffered from back spasms and has yet to play. Power forward Kenyon Martin sat out five games with a leg injury (the Nets went 2-3 in his absence). And forward Rodney Rogers missed 10 games with a lacerated thumb.

Despite having excellent fast-break potential, the Nets are averaging only 85.3 points a game -- 10.1 points per game less than they scored last season -- and rank 28th in points scored in the NBA. They have scored 100 points only once (100-85 at Atlanta), and own a field-goal percentage of .418 (24th in the league).

The Nets have lost twice to Toronto, the lowest-scoring team in the NBA (76.6 points a game). Six of the 12 players on New Jersey's roster -- including starters Kidd and Jason Collins -- shoot less than 40 percent from the field. The team also ranks 25th in total rebound percentage.

Now, amid the turmoil of recent days, the Nets begin a five-game West Coast road trip Tuesday night at Seattle .

The Diagnosis
The Nets haven't really gotten their game together at either end of the floor. Their team defense is better than adequate (84.5 points allowed, fifth in the league; .421 field-goal percentage defense, 11th in the league). But weak rebounding has hurt them badly. In addition to their low percentage rebound standing, they give about a four-rebound-per-game advantage to opponents.

Strong defensive board work helps to initiate the running game, and the Nets just haven't gotten it. In addition to the high-percentage scoring that fast breaks provide, they prevent being forced to grind it out in the half court, where the Nets' perimeter shooting is weak -- especially with Harris unavailable.

Some of the rebounding deficiency is because Mourning wasn't able to perform as hoped. 'Zo didn't have the lift off the floor that he had before his illness, and was often out-quicked and out-maneuvered for rebounds. Coach Byron Scott played Mourning in every game, hoping that his performance would improve -- but it didn't.

That was most unfortunate for the Nets and for Alonzo, who gave his best effort as always. Now his time with the Nets is over. New Jersey gambled in giving Mourning a guaranteed four-year, $22 million contract, but the dice turned up snake-eyes.

Adding to this year of discontent is the team's decision earlier in the season to buy out the remainder of Dikembe Mutombo's contract. Although Deke didn't contribute much to the Nets last season (5.8 points, 6.4 rebounds in 24 games), he's now beginning to put up better numbers for the Knicks with increased playing time. Mutombo would have been a positive big-man alternative now that Mourning is gone.

Although the stats of starters Kerry Kittles (12 points and team leader in steals) and Richard Jefferson (about 15 points and 6 rebounds) appear to be adequate, both need greater consistency in their games.

In addition to that factual data, the Nets don't appear to have the same aura of compatibility as in the previous two seasons. A number of factors might have contributed to the visible change in chemistry, including: Scott's lame-duck status as a coach; the departure of popular former assistants Eddie Jordan and Mike O'Koren; an absence of a strong coach-player bond between Scott and Kidd; or the frequent needling among the players -- especially the near altercation between Martin and Mourning.

The Cure
Although hindsight is 20/20, the Nets can't afford to look in the rear-view mirror to survey "would'ves" and "should'ves." What's done is done. They must focus on what they can do in their present dilemma to right the ship and get a head of steam going. It's still early in the year -- 70 games remain to be played. There's plenty of time.

The first priority is to get everyone healthy. Kidd's bruised knee needs about another week of therapy. Jason is the team's most vital component, and the Nets must allow whatever time is necessary for him to heal. Lucious Harris is soon to be activated and will contribute his shooting accuracy to improve the half-court offense.

Every player needs to upgrade his contribution to the team effort. The 7-foot Collins is the Nets' No. 1 center and must step up his production. He's playing about 30 minutes per game, averaging 6.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and less than one block a game. That's not enough.

Rogers, already back in the rotation, now becomes a player in the quest to fill the big-man void. Rogers is a capable post defender and can stretch opposing defenses with his 3-point shooting when his game is right. He needs to focus on maximum-best conditioning if he's to make a viable contribution in New Jersey's time of need.

Aaron Williams, best as a reserve big forward, now becomes part of the Nets' center by committee. His special knack for offensive rebounding is vital if the Nets are to upgrade their scoring potential around the hoop.

Martin, Jefferson and Kittles can take no nights off. They run the floor extremely well, and Kidd always has them in his sights in fast-break situations. They must score in the half court, too. Martin, a solid post defender, has improved as a low-post scorer and perimeter shooter. Kittles and Jefferson need more consistency from the perimeter.

The Nets also need better input from their reserves. Getting Harris and Rogers back helps considerably, and Williams is reliable. But in times of emergency, Brian Scalabrine, Brandon Armstrong, Robert Pack or Zoran Planinic must step up and contribute more.

Finally, the Nets need to focus on these basics: defend, rebound and run and then execute with precision in the half-court game. They'll love the winning that takes place.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.