Fearing the Lockout: A Nets Fan’s Perspective

I’m sure fans of any NBA team can say without pause that a lockout never comes at an opportune time. If you’re a fan of professional basketball and have a love and adoration for a team like we have for the Nets here at NAS, you want to watch and see as much basketball as possible. Anything that can potentially disrupt the NBA season is a bad thing. And when that disruption is tied to a lockout – essentially an argument between millionaires and billionaires – then the lack of basketball being played is absolutely dispiriting.

Still, this is a Nets-centric site, so with my sympathies extended to all NBA fans as both sides sit and meet today to determine if a lockout can be avoided, I can’t help but bemoan how past labor issues have played a key role in derailing the Nets organization. And if any time in the 2011-12 season is lost to a lockout, these old ghosts from the past could come back and haunt us fans again.

Think about it. For a team that only won 24 games last season, there’s a lot to look forward to in 2011-12. For one, a healthy all-star PG in Deron Williams, who will be eligible to have his contract extended provided the right player pieces are placed around him. The team also has the cap space this summer to make a push for some free agent help and with Williams on the team for at least one more year, that should hopefully be easier to come by than it was a year ago. In terms of youth, the Nets just completed a solid 2011 Draft that has earned mostly praise and hardly, if any, criticism of their three picks. Trust me, if Billy King blatantly botched this, the NBA punditocracy would have no qualms saying so.

And here comes a lockout, potentially cutting short the only full-season we’ll get to watch Deron Williams. A lockout that means we Nets fans have to sit and squirm as no contract negotiations are allowed with free agents (or trade proposals for free-agents-to-be), meaning even if the season picks up a few months in, a Nets team that should hopefully feature at least two new starters at the SG and SF slots (and maybe a new PF depending on Kris Humphries) will have little-to-no-time to gel and play well together. And while our draft picks aren’t going anywhere, an abbreviated or fully locked-out season means less time developing for MarShon Brooks and Jordan Williams. In fact, the only positive I can conceive of coming from a lockout is it would move this organization that much closer to playing in Brooklyn.

Is this a worst-case scenario? Sure. But it wouldn’t be the first time a lockout has crashed and burned a Nets season before it started. In the spring of 1998, it was a good-time to be a Nets fan. Sure, the team had just been swept away in the first round by the NBA champion Chicago Bulls, but the organization had a nice core of young players in Kerry Kittles and Keith Van Horn. They had a guy in Jayson Williams who the fans loved. They had a born leader in Sam Cassell for PG. And they had a head coach on the rise in John Calipari. With Michael Jordan out of the league, the pieces were in place for a potential deep playoff run for the organization in 1999, but an early season injury to Cassell in February, after the season restarted, and an emotional meltdown that’s never really stopped for Calipari, stopped the progress deep in its tracks. The team got off to an awful start, putting them in a hole they could never dig out of. Then they got desperate and made a stupid trade, acquiring Stephon Marbury as a potential fix. Kerry Kittles had a bum knee, Jayson Williams broke his leg and then lost his mind in retirement, Starbury and Van Horn couldn’t get along despite having the potential to be a great 1-2 punch and the team never revived again until Rod Thorn took a chance on Jason Kidd in 2001.

While all of these events could have (and likely would have) occurred over the course of a full, non-interrupted season in 1998-99, the timing of an NBA lockout at a point in the organization’s timeline where things were on the rise for a change, still feels like a stomach punch more than 10 years later. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about the bitter disappointment of that season anytime I think about the potential for a lockout in 2011. The Nets may have a billionaire owner and a new arena on the rise in Brooklyn, but they’re still the same New Jersey Nets organization that has just seemed unable to shake an ungodly amount of bad luck since it came over from the ABA in the 1970s. So any talk of a new era has to be clouded by my connections to this organization’s negative past.