If there was ever a Jekyll and Hyde season for the New Jersey Nets, the 2004-05 campaign was it. In all of my years of fandom, I’ve never seen a team go from horrendously awful to fiercely competitive over the span of a few months, but that’s what happens when perhaps the best player in franchise history starts the season injured and another superstar player isn’t acquired until the end of December.
Nets fans, who started following the organization in the past decade, will celebrate the 04-05 season as the arrival of Vince Carter, and perhaps one of the NBA’s earliest instances of a “Big Three” (though classifying Richard Jefferson, always a personal favorite, as a superstar is highly questionable). However, how a team that ushered out an opening day lineup of Jefferson, Ron Mercer, Eric Williams, Jason Collins and Jacques Vaughn, didn’t end up challenging the 1999 Clippers or the 88-89 Heat for worst start to a season boggles my mind. I guess it gives credence to the idea that when the Nets eventually did eclipse the 0-17 mark in 09-10, coach Lawrence Frank was probably not the problem, as to how he got his 04-05 bunch as far as 5-13 before Kidd rejoined the team in December is close to a miracle.
In addition to wins and losses, the season was a roller-coaster for the fan base as well. With owner Bruce Ratner in the early stages of his drive to get the team into a new arena in Brooklyn, fan favorites Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles were dumped in the summer of 2004. The front office seemed to be signaling to its players and fanbase that the success of the past few seasons was not as important as building a financially viable team for the future. And given the injury-riddled careers of Martin and Kittles, the front office wasn’t necessarily wrong in their assessment of those players. But the apparent cost-cutting was enough to rankle veterans like Alonzo Mourning (more on him) and more importantly, Kidd. So it was a bit of a shock when on December 17, I read that the Nets had sent Mourning, Aaron Williams, Eric Williams and draft picks in the Raptors for Carter – who would later admit he “quit” on Toronto to force a trade. Suddenly, the Nets looked like they could make some noise again, if the team could only get over its 9-16 start.
Not helping matters was the fact that the team’s “Big Three” plan disintegrated before it could even get off the ground. During the players’ very first game together on December 27 against the Pistons, Chauncy Billups committed a flagrant foul on Jefferson, undercutting him at the rim. Jefferson tore ligaments in his wrist and after trying to play through the pain, eventually opted for surgery, missing the rest of the season.
Though in retrospect, despite the obvious upgrade Jefferson was over Rodney Buford, I wonder if Carter would have turned it on the way he did in the second half of the season with Jefferson still getting minutes and needing shots. Carter averaged 28.8 points after the all-star break, including an incredible 32.3 points over the final month of the season, when the Nets needed him most. Caught in a footrace with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the final playoff spot in the East, the Nets went on a 15-4 run to end the season, and locked things up on the final day, much to the chagrin of David Stern and the NBA, who were likely rooting for LeBron James and the Cavs to put it together in the future King’s rookie season.
But the fun came to an abrupt end come playoff time. Matched up against the Miami Heat, the Nets were swept away. They made things interesting in game three, forcing double overtime, including a buzzer-beating shot from Carter at the end of the first OT to tie the game at 99. Despite the ultimate sweep, Jefferson was back from his wrist injury, and a rookie center from Europe, Nenad Krstic was evolving into an interesting offensive option. So despite an opening day line-up that looked like a collection of D-League rejects, the Nets ended the season with an interesting bounty of players.
There are a lot of things to take away from the 04-05 season – how incredible a motivated Vince Carter can be, for example. But, the season also was an eye-opening experience for me regarding one specific player, who is seemingly celebrated elsewhere around the league, but will always emblemize the stereotypical ungrateful, arrogant unprofessional athlete from my perspective. Here’s looking at you Alonzo Mourning.
I’ve heard a lot of words used to describe Mourning, who admittedly has had to overcome a lot in terms of a potentially life-threatening kidney problem that short-circuited a potential Hall of Fame career. The word that is used more than most is “warrior” but for me, I think “quitter.” As part of a ploy to get Kidd to resign with the Nets in 2003, the Nets took a chance on Zo, who was already damaged goods at that point in his career. He signed a lucrative long-term contract with the team, and sadly his kidney issues flared up again, causing him to miss the bulk of the 03-04 season.
He returned for the start of the 04-05 season, but used the team’s beat reporters to launch regular attacks on the team’s new ownership, saying they destroyed a “championship team” with their trades of Martin and Kittles. The team asked Zo to stop with the negativity, but he pushed onward out of protest.
Right or wrong about Ratner, I always though Mourning went about making his point all-wrong. He complained about playing with a “losing” team, but rather than pick his teammates out and be a leader, he quit on the organization because he had issues with his boss. The team offered him a buyout, but they couldn’t agree to the terms. And even after the Nets included Mourning in a trade for Carter, he refused to suit up for Toronto, finally getting his buyout and signing with the team he wanted to sign with all along – Miami, backing up Shaq. While I can never get down on a player for wanting to win, Mourning came across as ungrateful and a bully. Considering the money the Nets paid him just to placate Kidd, the organization owned him nothing. Instead, he made a bad situation worse by proudly becoming a distraction. I know for fans around the league, Mourning is the hero who overcame the odds, and the Nets have long been a joke of an organization, but I think Zo is a good case study that even when a person is able to overcome an illness, it doesn’t mean he has integrity.
Key New Faces
Vince Carter – I know I’ve been hard on Vince at times. There’s just something about him acting like he has a gun-shot wound every time he hits the ground in a game. But if I’m being honest, the man was incredible in 2005, and this team would have not made the playoffs without him
Nenad Krstic – “Curly” made his debut and despite the lack of expectations, would go on to start 57 games and average 10 points per game. He really came on strong during the playoffs, when he averaged 18.3 points on 56 percent shooting against Shaq, who was obviously disinterested in guarding Krstic on anything away from the rim.
Jacque Vaughn – The former University of Kansas star had his moments, including a 22 point outburst in a key March victory against the Orlando Magic.
December 27, 2004 – Nets 90, Detroit Pistons 100: The “Big Three” era starts off with a thud, as the Nets fall in overtime in Detroit. Vince Carter plays his first game as a Net off the bench, notching 23 points, 5 assists and 3 steals in 42 minutes. But most importantly, Jefferson is injured on a flagrant foul by Chauncy Billups, injuring his wrist that would later end his season prematurely.
March 13, 2005 – Nets 98, Orlando Magic 82: At 27-36, the Nets were in desperate need of a run in order to compete for a playoff spot. This road victory against the Magic was the start of a five-game win streak that would get the Nets closer to .500 and in position to make a move on the Cavs in April. Carter had 33 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals as the Nets used a 34-14 3rd quarter to put Orlando away.
April 5, 2005 – Nets 111, Cleveland Cavaliers 80: A must-win for the Nets who still trailed the Cavs by 4 games at this point in the season. Six players scored in double digits, including the entire starting line (Jason Collins had 13!).
April 20, 2005 – Nets 102, Boston Celtics 93: Ah controversy. Can the Nets ever escape you? It was pretty simple for the Nets. Win and they’re a playoff team. If they lost and the Cavs won, then LeBron would make his first postseason. So naturally the Net face an old-nemesis in Boston and the entire league cries foul because the C’s, who had already clinched the 3rd seed in the conference, rested their all-stars Paul Pierce an Antoine Walker in the fourth. It’s all good NBA. You’ve managed to make plenty of money from LeBron in the years that followed.
News and Notable
- Coming into the league as a promising prospect (6th pick in 1997) Ron Mercer’s NBA career ended unceremoniously with the Nets. Originally Kerry Kittles replacement at SG, Mercer only appeared in 10 games for the Nets, including three starts.
- Despite the added scoring punch from Vince Carter, the Nets were one of the worst offensive teams in the league this season, finishing 29th in points per game and 26th in offensive rating.
- Elden Campbell, a solid big-man option, played all of 5 minutes with the Nets in what would go on to be his final NBA season. After being released in March, he caught on with Detroit.
- Even after recovering from knee surgery, Jason Kidd’s 19.5 PER (Player Efficiency Rating) was higher than his PER during his first season with the Nets (19.1) when he was in discussion for league MVP.
- As the team’s primary offensive option for the first half of the season, Jefferson finished with a career-low field goal percentage of 42%.