The off-season in any major sport is usually one filled with hope and optimism. We hear about players losing weight and coming to camp “in the best shape of their lives.” Teams acquire players that are going to be missing pieces to the puzzle. Teams that are being doubted by the pundits, talk about their potential and how they’re going to surprise people.
It’s no different right now over in Nets-land as an open practice in early September has brought out many key members of the team who are feeling confident. Brook Lopez thinks playoffs are a real possibility, Jarvis Hayes is taking over the leadership mantle from the departed Vince Carter and Yi Jianlian is exciting coach Lawrence Frank after putting on some bulk and playing well in the FIBA Asia Championship.
However, this is the Nets we’re talking about, and this isn’t the first time fans have been told to get excited by coaches, players, the press, or a combination of all three. In slightly sadistic fashion, I compiled a short list to remind Nets fans of past seasons where the optimism was high and the vibes were good, but the end results ended up bad or worse.
1994 – Derrick Coleman is a “Nice Person”
From the day he was drafted with the #1 pick in 1990, Derrick Coleman was known for having a world of talent, but also a major ego problem. After making his first all-star game (with teammate Kenny Anderson) in the 93-94 season, Coleman was looking for a new contract and was making waves with the front office. But at the start of the preseason in 1994, DC was going for an image makeover, telling the press that his disagreements with past coaches were being taken out of context and any criticisms he levied towards his teammates were being misinterpreted. “I’m a nice person,” he told the New York Times. Later in the season, he caused a stir when he referred to Karl Malone as an “Uncle Tom” and he also became the Sports Illustrated cover boy for “prima donna” NBA ballers when he handed then-coach Butch Beard a blank check for all the fines he expected to incur for not following the team’s new dress code. He was finally traded the next season for the great Shawn Bradley.
1996 – Stinka Yinka Has Potential
Some may say it’s poor form to lampoon the deceased, but when it comes to Nets fans and Yinka Dare, I still believe his atrocious NBA career is worth looking at. After being drafted 14th overall in 1994 as a raw, but talented center out of George Washington University (hello Hasheem Thabeet), he played three minutes his rookie season before tearing his ACL. In the 1995-96 season he started 23 games, but was an NBA punchline for still not getting his first career assist. So in October 1996, new Nets coach Johan Calipari surprised many when he told the press that he still saw potential in Yinka and thought he was going to be a force as the primary back-up to starter Shawn Bradley. Dare reportedly added 15 pounds of bulk and said his troublesome knees were fine. The end result? 1.2 ppg in 41 games though he did get that elusive first assist that January.
1999 – “We Expect to Win”
Though the player lockout delayed the start of the season, the Nets were still an optimistic bunch in January 1999 when the preseason started. They just came off a surprising season where they made the first round of the playoffs, pushed the Bulls for two games despite being swept while being declared the team of the future by Slam magazine (cover found on NAS here). Net coach John Calipari said it was the first time he met with players in the preseason and “could feel they expect to win … They know we have a chance in this shortened season.” Then, on opening night, starting PG Sam Cassell was injured. The Nets started the season 3-17, Calipari was fired, and the Nets went out and acquired Stephon Marbury. They wouldn’t become the team of the future again until they dumped Marbury and acquired Jason Kidd. The rest is history.
2002 – Dikembe Mutombo is a Game Changer
Coming off their first NBA Finals appearance, the Nets made a statement trading Todd MacCulloch and Keith Van Horn to Philadelphia for Dikembe Mutombo. After getting torched by Shaq in the finals, Dikemebe was going to be the big guy the Nets desperately needed and early on in the preseason, he looked ready to play that role, grabbing 25 rebounds in his first three preseason games, with his eyes on grabbing the rebounding title once the season began. When asked the difference between MacCulloch and Mutombo, then-coach Byron Scott said: “In all due respect to Todd, there’s no comparison. Dikembe just affects guys’ shots just by being there; he doesn’t even have to jump some times.”
Mutombo only played in 24 games that season, tearing a ligament in his wrist which limited his play. When he wasn’t injured, he was used sparingly off the bench, and complained about his playing time, publicly angering Scott and team president Rod Thorn. After the season, his contract was bought out and he signed with the Knicks.
2003 – Say it Ain’t ‘Zo
With rumors circulating that Jason Kidd was planning on signing with the Spurs, the team that had just beaten the Nets in the NBA Finals, the team scored what appeared to be a major coup by resigning Kidd and bringing in Alonzo Mourning on a four-year deal. Despite ‘Zo having questionable health (he had missed two of the last three seasons with a kidney disorder), many analysts and players had pegged the Nets as legitimate NBA title contenders with the acquisition. “Alonzo going anywhere would make a team tougher to beat. But going to the Nets just made our job that much more difficult,” Jermaine O’Neal said at the time. But his stint with the Nets was short-lived. He retired that November because he needed a kidney transplant. He then surprisingly returned to the NBA and the Nets the following season though seemed to show very little appreciation to the Nets for signing him to a 4-year deal the year before despite his questionable health. He complained his way off the team because the Nets did not retain Kenyon Martin and after being traded to the Raptors, refused to show up leading to his eventual buy-out. He then resigned with the Miami Heat and won an NBA championship. Sorry, but the whole experience made me have very little pity for ‘Zo and I kinda like to gag whenever I heard people say what a “warrior” he is. Just saying.