It’s Time to Build a Team

A few weeks ago, I finished Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. You’ve probably seen the terrible Jimmy Fallon romantic comedy, based on this fantastic memoir, about the Red Sox fan who for seven months consumes nothing but baseball. His room is covered in Red Sox posters, pennants, pictures, he has Red Sox blankets and Red Sox pillows, sleeps in Red Sox pajamas, etc. I thought the movie was unrealistic and ridiculous, until my girlfriend told me a while ago that my life is like Fallon’s — only there isn’t a five month break, because when basketball season ends, football training camp starts, and by the time football season ends, we are two months into the NBA. There is only about a three-week span where I’m not devoted to sports — and that is during the Bills OTA’s, where I am frequently reading workout reports and predicting my final depth chart.

I’ll bring up Gerald Green’s windmill alley-oop to a table of his fraternity brothers who don’t even know what an alley-oop is, much less Gerald Green or what team he plays for. I make my girlfriend sit through rounds four through seven of the NFL draft, when teams are reaching for prospects no one has ever heard of. I have a Fathead of Jim Kelly in my college dorm room, and chose Kelly because he would be a Bill for life and didn’t know if he could take the heartbreak of having a life-sized poster of a guy who left his team for greener pastures. My Phi Mu Delta letters are in Nets fabric, which I donned proudly with a Bills wristwatch all day Wednesday — and told people that it was because tomorrow would be the biggest day in both of those teams’ history, without a single person actually asking why. Maybe there is something wrong with that, that it is impossible for me to have a completely normal conversation without making a sports-related reference, or incredibly difficult to resist the urge to check Twitter from my phone in the middle of class — even though I will be able to cruise through it in an hour at the most.

The point of me saying all of this is because I want you to understand, not only how invested I was in the Dwight Howard fiasco, but how invested I was in the Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James runs, and how invested I was into runs that nobody even remembers. Did you know that two seasons ago, the Bills made a play to go after Donovan McNabb and Randy Moss? Those lost me more sleep than I care to remember, skipped heartbeats with every text message, thinking it would be my ESPN or Schefter updates, delivering me the big news. And don’t even get me started on Dwight Howard, waking up at five A.M., grabbing my phone and checking for any update, as if Otis Smith would actually complete a trade at that hour.  On December 9th, when Chris Broussard tweeted out that Dwight Howard had demanded a trade to my team, I was so excited that I called my friend at one in the morning, accidentally dialing his home phone and waking up his mother.  That happened because trade rumors removed all the thinking from my brain.

But here is the thing, none of this has anything to do with the product on the court or on the field. It has everything to do with marquee names, that for whatever reason, have been determined the only way to win games. Instead of rooting for the actual roster, I root for the team on the internet — the team that they are trying to build, not the team that has actually been built. This is the problem with the New Jersey Nets. And we are all a part of it.

For the third straight year, Nets fans have been under the assumption that the current team would not be the team walking into Brooklyn. First it was LeBron, playing and living in his favorite city, a chance to lead a new franchise in a new arena. Then it was Melo, the hometown kid, with the Nets offering an insane amount of draft picks and players for a shoot-first-shoot-second-shoot-third-pass-fourth kind of player. And now, Dwight. But here’s the thing: none of these players are opening Brooklyn. The guys who will be are the supposed “fillers” for the future. At what point are we expected to hit this “future” everyone is so excited for?

Deron Williams will be the name ending this season and while Billy King is “very” confident he’ll re-sign, what is the purpose? Sure, getting Deron Williams to stay is exactly what Nets fans want to hear. But, if the reports are true that Deron had a say in the Gerald Wallace acquisition, is the win-now attitude really the best attitude going forward? Is this really the best way to dominate New York City?

Trading away a high-protected first-round pick in a deep draft for a 29-year-old small forward who could opt out twenty-five games from now was a terrible decision, because again, we are now stuck in this mode of waiting for “the guy.” What was the point of conserving cap space and finishing 12-70? Getting LeBron. What was the point of not signing any free agents bigger than Jordan Farmar? Getting Melo. What was the point of signing DeShawn Stevenson and Kris Humphries to one-year deals? Getting Dwight. Every significant move the Nets have made (with the exception of the Deron Williams trade) has a had an ulterior motive — getting the superstar. And none of them have worked.

The James’, Melos and Howards of the world are rare. But they exist and they are out there. And there is nothing wrong with taking a few years, stock-piling draft picks and veterans and building a team — not sacrificing three seasons for a shot at a superstar. In the time it’s taken us to fail at getting LeBron, Melo and Dwight, the Nets could have kept the draft picks, signed better, more expensive free agents, taken a few years, and rebuilt a franchise from the ground up. They could have let LeBron go to Miami and Melo go to New York and not panicked.

Bottom line: What was the biggest story of the Nets last season before the Deron Williams trade? Carmelo Anthony. What is the biggest story of this season? Dwight Howard. Neither of them play on the Nets. Plain and simple.

Who does play for us and who will be playing for us next season guaranteed? Right now, it’s Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro and MarShon Brooks. That’s it. Unless we land in the top-three, there isn’t a first round lottery pick draft pick and no marquee free agents other than our own players (D-Will and Brook).

So when I think about the best teams in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder succeeding, it makes me jealous, because those guys were their own. One thing that I loved about New Jersey Nets of old was the fact that the key players — Kittles, K-Mart, Van Horn, Jason Collins, Jefferson — those were homegrown guys. The Nets added the big name (Jason Kidd) and we were off. That’s what could have happened with Deron Williams. But instead, it started with him. A team of scrubs, plus a superstar. And at the end of all this, he could very well walk away.

I know that you are reading Nets Are Scorching and not Bills Are Scorching, so bear with me on this next point. What made last season so special (at least until the injury bug hit) was that Buffalo was succeeding with their guys: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Stevie Johnson, Fred Jackson, Kyle Williams. They were no names who, for whatever reason, starting kicking ass. And the best part about it was, they were never did it for anyone else. They lived and died Bills football. Say Buffalo gutted the roster and replaced their starters with Manning, Calvin Johnson and Ray Rice, and played incredible football. Not a Bills fan in the country would tell you that it would be as special as what we did for those first six games.

Maybe it’s time for the Nets to do the same. Forget buying a superstar, build their own. What do we love more about MarShon Brooks — that he is scoring in bunches and bursting with potential, or that he’s doing it for the team that raised him? Why does Chicago love Rose and OKC love Durant? Why does L.A. love Kobe? Because he is theirs.

Even the way the Nets have drafted has been following the pro-superstar model.  I’m convinced the only reason they took Derrick Favors over DeMarcus Cousins in the 2010 draft was because Favors was better trade bait than Cousins’ terrible attitude.  Let’s say that the Nets strike out with LeBron, Bosh, Wade, Boozer, Amar’e, etc. and they decide to start from the ground up and build a team from scratch, create their own superstars and a solid, young team.  The Nets would have taken either Cousins or Favors in the first round, started him and Brook at the four or five (whichever was deemed more appropriate), still probably would have traded T-Will, Devin Harris would have been a better point guard with two big men presences and the Nets probably finish with around the same record.  They don’t take Kanter because they have a solid enough paint presence and likely end up with Tristan Thompson — and maybe they still wind up with MarShon Brooks, especially if he was still undervalued by everyone but New Jersey. Now, the Nets suddenly have a starting lineup that contains nothing but crazy potential, a young team that is still a few years away, but these guys are locked up.  They will learn to play together.

Okay, okay, I know this is an elaborate hypothetical and a unique example. But it’s not unreasonable.  Instead, we trade away our young talent, chase superstars and continue to tank.  All Deron Williams sees are years away from his prime.  At least with the young guns, losing is a part of a process of getting better.

David Thorpe has this theory about “royal jelly” — that any player can reach his full potential in a positive environment.  Guys like Russell Westbrook flourished in Oklahoma City because his coaches believed in him and believed they could get past his attitude.  Even to go back to a football reference — Tom Brady was a product of the “royal jelly” system, a sixth-round pick who found himself in the perfect system for developing a quarterback.  Honestly, do you think Terrence Williams was lathered up with “royal jelly”?

Derrick Favors faced trade rumors from the Nets front office the day he was drafted.  I watched that draft and watched the Nets take Favors and I remember hearing on screen, “he will be good trade bait for Carmelo Anthony,” as he was walking to the podium.  How is a nineteen-year-old rookie ever supposed to accomplish anything when he knows he is nothing more than an exceptional piece of the superstar puzzle?

The Nets made a mistake trading their draft pick for Gerald Wallace, and they may have made a mistake not trading Deron Williams at the deadline for more draft picks and pieces. This whole idea that we have to “please Deron” to win is ludicrous. He’s a top-tier point guard, but the point of basketball is to win a title, not make one guy happy — and sacrifice the ability to win to do so. I, quite frankly, don’t care if Deron isn’t interested in rebuilding with young talent. If it gives you a better shot of winning, of creating a dynasty, you do it. Gerald Wallace doesn’t start a dynasty.

Maybe this is just how the NBA is now, a trend started by LeBron, Wade and Bosh. And maybe, someday, the Nets will succeed and get their second superstar to play along side D-Will. But all I know is, for three straight years, the Nets have gone in thinking superstar, and mostly failed. And that is driving me crazy.