A Look Back at a Decade of Nets Basketball

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For a franchise that has been defined by so much failure and futility, the 2000s may have marked the most successful decade in New Jersey Nets history. In that ten-year span, the Nets made the playoffs six consecutive years, and they took their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals (which they then followed-up with another trip to the Finals the very next year). They had one of this generation’s best point guards at the helm for the majority of the decade in Jason Kidd. They featured charismatic scorers like Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, intimidating defenders like Kenyon Martin, and one of the most unlikely head coaches in recent memory with Lawrence Frank. During the 2000s, the Nets even got involved with the turbulent real estate market, as they spent the better part of the past decade trying to get a new arena built in Brooklyn, seemingly succeeding before the start of 2010.

Personally, from the moment Kidd was acquired by the Nets, until very recently, the New Jersey Nets never stopped entertaining me through this decade, which is a tough thing to say considering the current state of the NBA and its perceived entertainment value. With 2010, and a new decade upon us, I thought it would be a great opportunity to relive some of my favorite moments of the past 10 years. By limiting myself to 10 moments, there are going to be some obvious omissions, so feel free to use the comments section to share in some of your own favorite memories.

10. The Nets Finally Get Their Center – 6/26/08

Watching the Nets get thumped around for years by dominant big men like Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan, has probably given many faithful followers nightmares. Consider that in their two finals runs in 2002 and 2003, the best the Nets could throw out there in the middle was Todd Macullogh, Jason Collins and a decrepit Dikembe Mutombo.

Then also consider the Nets historic lack of luck and saavy in the NBA draft. Past picks like Ed O’Bannon and Yinka Dare either flamed out or worse. In 2001, the Nets took Brandon Armstrong with the 23rd pick when Gerald Wallace, Tony Parker and Gilbert Arenas were still on the board. A few years later, the Nets took Antoine Wright, when they could have had Danny Granger.

In 2008, the Nets were lottery bound for the first time since 2001, and with that opportunity they were able to correct two things that had plagued the franchise for years: selecting a solid prospect in the draft and acquiring a legitimate center with a post game. Stanford sophomore Brook Lopez, considered one of the better big men in the 2008 draft, shockingly slipped to the Nets with the 10th pick. Lopez rewarded the Nets with a very solid rookie year, scoring 13 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. This season, Lopez is flirting with a 20-10 season and is entering the conversation as one of the best young big men in the game.  Now if the Nets could only get some players to put around Lopez …

9. Meet Coach Lawrence Frank – 1/27/04 – 2/24/04

So after back-to-back Finals appearances, the Nets started the first half of 2003-04 underachieving, floundering around the .500 mark until head coach Byron Scott got canned unceremoniously. The Nets then selected a guy in Lawrence Frank, who looked more like a towel boy than head coach material.

However, the Nets responded to Frank in a major way. A 94-76 victory on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers started the Nets and Frank off to a 13-game winning streak (14 overall, including one game coached by Byron Scott). Frank, then an unknown, became owner of the longest winning streak for a coach to start his career, in any of the four major professional sports.

And the Nets weren’t squeaking by during this streak either. In five of those games, the Nets won by 15 points or more and 12 of those 13 victories were won by double-digits. Lawrence Frank went on to become one of the longest tenured coaches in the NBA before he was let go by the Nets earlier this season, when he started the season on another streak: 0-16.

8. Nets Win and Get In – 4/20/05

2004-05 may have been the most schizophrenic Nets season of the past decade. Before it even started, the Nets appeared to be in sell-off mode, trading away Kerry Kittles and  Kenyon Martin.  When the season began, they were without Jason Kidd, who was recovering from offseason knee surgery. With Richard Jefferson as the focal point, the Nets slumped to a 3-12 start. Then, Kidd returned, and the Nets went out and acquired Vince Carter, to set-up a “Big Three” of Kidd, Jefferson and Carter. Jefferson, of course, got injured soon after and missed the rest of the regular season.

Between the injuries and the roster turmoil, the Nets were on the outside looking in on the playoff race most of the season. But after a fantastic final six weeks, the Nets just needed to win their regular season finale against the Boston Celtics on the road to make the playoffs.

In typical fashion for the 2004-05 Nets, they were down 19 early in the game, and looked like they lost Vince Carter to an ankle injury. However, Carter returned, scoring a game high 37-points, and the Nets stormed back in the second half, using a 32-8 third quarter to propel them to victory and the final playoff berth. The game was simultaneously rewarding and aggravating. Just like the Nets that year.

7. The Nets Survive Miller Time – 5/2/02

For years I had thoroughly enjoyed watching Reggie Miller torture the cross-river rival Knicks in the playoffs. Remember the 8 points he scored in 9 seconds to steal a playoff game from the Knicks at the Garden?

However, after game 5 of the Nets-Pacers first round playoff series in 2002, I never wanted to see Reggie Miller in the playoffs again.

Headed into this first round match-up, I had my worries about Miller and the Pacers. The Nets were a young, inexperienced team that had no track record in playoff primetime, while Reggie Miller may have been one of the best clutch performers of my lifetime. Down deep, I was preparing myself for the inevitable New Jersey Nets letdown that I’ve been treated to so many times before.

Except this time, the Nets prevailed – barely. In game 5, Miller tied the game at the end of regulation when he hit an improbable turnaround three from about 40-feet out, and then he tied the game again at the end of the first overtime with a slam dunk off a dribble drive. In regulation, Richard Jefferson missed free throws that should have iced the game. In the first overtime, Kenyon Martin missed a free throw that would have given the Nets a three-point lead on the Pacers’ final possession.

Still, the Nets won 120-109, and after suffering multiple heart attacks during the game, I vowed never to mock the Knicks and their tormentors again – a promise that lasted about a week.

6. The VC Era Begins – 12/17/04

When I first saw that the Nets had acquired Vince Carter, my first reaction was to ask who they gave up, because I was convinced that either Jason Kidd or Richard Jefferson had been sent packing to Toronto. Given how owner Bruce Ratner seemed to be dismantling the back-to-back Finals teams, trading away Kerry Kittles and Kenyon Martin the previous summer (see #8), I honestly didn’t consider that Vince Carter was being added to the remaining core of Kidd and Jefferson.

So you can imagine how shocked I was when I heard the Nets acquired Carter for Eric Williams, Aaron Williams, some draft picks and the great malcontent, Alonzo Mourning. This was a legitimate superstar, an offensive talent the Nets organization had never seen since Dr. J. and the Nets were getting him for a song?

Now, Carter of course, was coming with baggage of his own. It was pretty clear, even before he openly admitted it, that he had given up on the Raptors that season, and here he was coming to a team that was struggling under .500. It was only going to be a matter of time before Carter bailed on the Nets, right?

Instead, Carter’s game was reborn in New Jersey.  He averaged 27.5 points per game in his 57 games for the Nets that season, including 43 percent on threes. With the Nets playing with their playoff lives on the line in April, he averaged 32.3 points in 10 games. He averaged 23.8 points per game in his five season with the Nets, and in his final season, last year, was the veteran leadership and stabilizing force this franchise clearly needed as evidenced by the Nets terrible start to this season.

5. Nets Get Triple the Fun in Detroit – 5/14/04

As I mentioned on this site before, this is still my favorite Nets game of all-time, and it’s probably the greatest game the Nets have played in the past 10 years.

If the Nets were going to reach the NBA Finals for the third straight year, they were going to need this game. After getting thumbed by the Pistons in games 1 and 2, they returned the favor in games 3 and 4 in New Jersey, setting up game five in the Palace of Auburn Hills.

It took more than four hours to play before the Nets won in three overtimes, 127-120  – and didn’t the Nets essentially have this game won at the end of regulation when Richard Jefferson blocked Chuancey Billups at the rim? But some missed free throws and a three-pointer by Billups to end regulation sent this game into the first overtime.

Richard Jefferson was the high scorer for the Nets with 31 points. Jason Kidd logged an improbable 57 minutes on what turned out to be a bum knee. Yet the real hero was longtime benchwarmer Brian Scalabrine who was inserted into the game after four Nets frontcourt members fouled out. Scalabrine scored 17 points on 4-4 shooting from three point-land, including a key three in the final stages of the third overtime, which iced the victory for the Nets.

The Nets returned to New Jersey with homecourt advantage and a chance to knock off their biggest threat to back-to-back-to-back Eastern Conference Championships. Unfortunately, what  keeps me from ranking this game higher is the fact that the Nets followed it up with a disappointing loss at home, and then got drubbed by the Pistons in game seven, that marked an official end to the Kidd-Martin-Jefferson era. Still, for one night, it was deliriously great to be a Nets fan.

4. Ratner Closes on Brooklyn – 12/23/09

When Bruce Ratner first took over as Nets owner earlier this decade, he talked about moving the team to a new state-of-the-art arena in Brooklyn, as part of a larger development in the Prospect Heights neighborhood.

Over the years, the Brooklyn plan went from promise, to problem, to pipedream. Earlier in 2009, Ratner had just dumped renown architect Frank Gehry, and the onslaught of legal and financial problems facing the project made it look like it was going to die an agonizing death by year’s end.

Then, just a few months ago, Ratner’s luck changed, and with it, the idea of the Brooklyn Nets became possible again. First, he won a key legal victory giving him the right to acquire the land he needed through eminent domain. Then, he was able to sell some of the bonds he needed to finance the project. This all culminated with his master “closing” of the project, which opens up a groundbreaking for the arena in the near future. While fans of the “New Jersey” Nets may object to the move, and opponents in Brooklyn vow to keep fighting until the bitter, bitter end, the Nets move is all but official now, and with Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov looking to become the team owner in the future, things may be turning around for the franchise.

3. Nets Stun Spurs on the Road – 6/6/03

While fans outside of New Jersey and San Antonio probably rolled their eyes and said this game was an example of what was wrong with the NBA – no offense, missed free throws, too many turnovers – it was ultimately a glorious moment for the Nets and their followers. That’s because after getting swept by the Lakers in the Finals the year before, the Nets won their first NBA Finals game by stealing  a 87-85 victory from the Spurs in San Antonio, showing they weren’t going to be Eastern Conference pushovers this time around.

As it was in most cases during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, the Nets were led by Jason Kidd, who scored 30 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. The Nets also got an unexpected shot in the arm from Dikembe Mutombo, who got into the game when Kenyon Martin and Rodney Rogers were in foul trouble, and played vintage Mutombo defense on MVP Tim Duncan.

But the Nets also got help from the Spurs and Duncan. San Antonio was able to whittle down a double-digit third quarter lead for the Nets, but couldn’t hit their free throws, shooting 56 percent from the charity stripe. Duncan missed 7 of 10 free throws for the game. Still, the victory gave the Nets home court advantage, even if it was ultimately short lived after the Spurs took game 3 in New Jersey.

2. The Nets Are Finals Bound – 5/31/02

The New York Times said it best in their recap of what just happened in Boston: “Wait. The Nets in the NBA Finals?”

Believe it.

I know I couldn’t at first. This was the same team that in game three, blew a 21-point lead in a monumental collapse on the road. I remember watching the first half of that game in a bar, taking the subway home at halftime thinking it was in the bag, and getting home to see the Celtics cap a truly marvelous comeback. Yet, the Nets won the next three games, including a game six, 96-88 that featured the Boston crowd at their most venomous towards Jason Kidd.

That always classy Boston crowd may have been screaming “wife beater” to Kidd all series, yet, it was Kenyon Martin who was enthusiastically parading around the Boston parquet shirtless once it was all over. Naturally, Kidd finished off the Celtics with a triple-double, 15 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists.

Sure, the end results in the 2002 Finals that season weren’t pretty, but this will always be a pivotal moment in the history of the New Jersey Nets franchise. The Nets were now headed to the Finals for the first time in their NBA history. Just a laughing stock a year ago, the Nets had officially arrived as an elite team.  And The Nets went on to get swept in the Finals by the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, but that still doesn’t cheapen the importance of this date for Nets fans, who waited decades to get back to this spot.

1. Getting the Point – 7/18/01

Has a non-Center ever single-handedly turned around a franchise the way Jason Kidd did in 2001-02?

Sure, Stephon Marbury played like an all-star while he was with the Nets, but he never seemed to be able to push the organization to the next level, instead blaming his teammates for their failures. The 2000-01 Nets finished with a 26-56 record, with no light at the end of the tunnel, so Rod Thorn took a chance and traded Marbury to the Phoenix Suns for Kidd, a guy with his own set of character issues.

On paper, it looked like the Nets were getting a great passing point guard and floor general, who had trouble shooting and scoring. But what they actually got was the game-changer the roster so desperately needed. He went on to lead the Nets to 52-wins, an organizational best, and tops in the Eastern Conference for the year. His fast-break style perfectly complimented the team’s athletic players like Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and Kerry Kittles. In the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002 against the Boston Celtics, Kidd averaged a triple-double in the six game series, 17.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 10.8 rebounds. That wouldn’t be the only series where Kidd carried the team on his back.

Kidd went on to be the most important Nets player since Julius Erving. He ended up spending six-and-a-half seasons in New Jersey, making the playoffs every season until his last, when he was traded at the deadline for Devin Harris. While Kidd supplied some drama off the court, no one could ever doubt his determination to be the best on his court, and his was the quintessential player who makes his teammates better.

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