A bargain in the end

Updated: February 11, 2005, 2:22 PM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Back in the beginning, Rod Thorn remembered, the model of the max-out player never fit Kenyon Martin profile. When the NBA delivered the concept into the collective bargaining agreement, executives believed it belonged to the Kobes and Shaqs, the Duncans and Iversons.

Kenyon Martin
Kenyon Martin likely won't hear from Nets fans who long for his return to New Jersey.
Do you win championships?

Do you sell tickets?

To get max-out money, you would have to be capable of one of those two things. Duncan wins titles, but doesn't sell out buildings. Iverson doesn't win, but puts people in the seats. The NBA is running into trouble when it pays that next tier of ballplayer, like Martin, a superstar's ransom. Thorn gambled that no one would offer Martin max-out money, and he was right wrong: Atlanta and Denver did.

Thorn was willing to bite his lip, pay the salary, and hold onto the nucleus of his two-time Eastern Conference championship team. Yet new Nets ownership balked, and let Martin leave for draft picks. Most yelled and screamed when it happened, yet it was understandable considering that Bruce Ratner cared only about cutting a real estate score in Brooklyn, not winning basketball games.

It never had to come to the Nuggets frontloading an offer sheet, forcing the Nets to pay nearly $45 million in salary and luxury taxes in the first year of the contract. Once Martin left, the Nets franchise was close to implosion. There was an investment group surrounding Ratner who pushed him to let Martin go, and spare everyone a deeper financial hole with the money-bleeding Nets. Thorn considered resigning, but once those investors flushed out, replaced with a crew committed to spending money to make money, Thorn signed a contract extension.

So, Martin comes back to Jersey to play the Nets on Sunday, the No. 1 pick in the 2000 Draft back where he grew up as a player, transforming from a Cincinnati Bearcat knucklehead into a controlled, athletically and offensively advanced Maurice Lucas. Martin comes back with the Nets fighting for an Atlantic Division title and a three seed in the playoffs, where they could be the kind of athletic, eager opponent no one wants to play in the East.

More and more, they don't cry about Kenyon Martin in Jersey anymore. The truth is, Vince Carter has been mesmerizing. It's a two-man show with Carter and Jason Kidd now, with Richard Jefferson done for the season with a wrist injury. They had empty seats with K-Mart, and they have empty seats without him. Size is always better in the NBA, but the way his cap space and the draft picks allowed the Nets to trade for Vince Carter, the blow of losing Martin has been softened.

Suddenly, the Nets have a developing young power forward, Nenad Krstic, and an inspired Carter looking like Vinsanity again. Jason Kidd has stopped sulking and returned to old form, and with Thorn and GM Ed Stefanski getting creative this summer, the Nets could be back competing for the Eastern Conference championship sooner than later.

Martin has been solid for the Nuggets, but Kiki and Karl are finding out what Thorn always suspected: Martin's 15.7 points and eight rebounds make him the complementary piece on a good team. No more, no less. Carmelo Anthony needs someone to get his back, and Martin will always take care of those things. It's funny, too: You would think the arrival of a max-out player in Denver would inspire criticism of Martin after the Nuggets' slow start, but all of that falls on Anthony.

No, the Nets never did keep Kenyon Martin, and looking back, maybe it wasn't the worst thing that ever happened in the franchise's dreadful history. This isn't Duncan or Iverson or even Kidd coming back to his old team. After all, K-Mart just isn't the place -- or the player -- to be paying full price.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, will be released on Feb. 17. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.