|The shortened 1999 season was a tremendously
disappointing one for the New Jersey Nets. The team entered the season as a popular "sleeper" pick to be
a serious Eastern Conference contender. The team's potent offensive attack impressed
observers, and was often compared favorably to the slower-moving approach of the team's
"big brother" across the river, the Knicks. But shockingly, the Nets got off to
a Clipper-like start, or perhaps I should say a start reminiscent of the unlamented Nets
teams of the past. When the team's record reached 3-17, coach John
Calipari started looking a lot less like a miracle worker and
a lot more like a guy who wasn't getting through to his players anymore because of his
In the meantime, a
major change had taken place at the management level above Calipari. The Nets, one of the
least historically successful NBA franchises, had merged with the New York Yankees,
historically the most successful baseball franchise, to form the unlikely conglomeration
known as "YankeeNets." So what would George Steinbrenner do when his team
started off 3-17? Well, that's what the YankeeNets did. Calipari was fired, and replaced
by former assistant Don Casey.
The ownership continued to show its willingness to make big moves when Stephon Marbury was acquired from Minnesota.
Marbury did not come cheap. The Nets gave up Sam Cassell (outstanding in '97-'98 but was injured for almost all of '99; some
questioned the severity of the injury), Chris Gatling (former 6th man All-Star who was unhappy in N.J.), Brian Evans (bench scrub), the Nets' first round pick this year (i.e.,
someone like Wally Szczerbiak or Richard Hamilton), and a future first-round pick. They
then inked Marbury to the maximum allowable contract.
In this second half of the season under Casey, the Nets
finished 13-17, making their final record 16-34, still well below preseason expectations.
Casey's contract was extended this offseason for three years, and the Nets go into next
year hoping that the new management and Marbury can help this team live up to the
potential that everyone once thought it had.
The Nets' basic problem was that they shot .406, while
their opponents shot .453. This is a pretty astounding stat,
and it should be obvious that you're not going to win like that. The Nets were also outrebounded as a team despite the 10+ rpg averages of
Jayson Williams and his replacement Jamie Feick, and a good rebounding season from Keith
Van Horn (8.5 rpg). The team suffered many injuries, but that
doesn't change the fact that even before any injuries, most individual members of the team
had significantly worse years in '99 than they had had the previous year. I'll discuss
those individuals now.
And the problems start right here. The level of Jayson Williams' game dropped dramatically
last year. He was blocking more shots for some reason (2.0 bpg, as opposed to fewer than 1
a game in '97-'98), but his FG% fell from .498 to .445, his FT% fell from an acceptable
.666 to a plain ugly .565, his scoring fell from 12.9 ppg to 8.1 ppg, and his rebounding,
which is the main reason he's there, fell from 13.6 rpg (6.8 offensive) to 12.0 rpg (4.9
offensive). Then in game 31, he suffered a severe leg fracture that puts him in doubt even
for Opening Day 2000. It's difficult to say why Jayson's game fell off; he is so
media-friendly that reporters don't usually criticize him. He needs to do more than
rebound for the Nets to be a success. As you probably know, Jayson would be much better
suited to play power forward.
New Jersey dipped into the CBA to replace Jayson and came
up with Jamie Feick, who was an
extremely pleasant surprise. No one expected anything from a 6'8" lifetime
benchwarmer forced to play center, but Feick pulled down 10.3 rpg and was not a total
non-factor on offense. He played at least 75% as well as Jayson, which may have made
management wonder why they're paying Jayson $14 million a year (!!!) when they got Feick
for the minimum. Feick is a free agent, and since everyone could use another big body who
can play, he will be in demand.
The backup plan at center was originally Jim McIlvaine, but he missed about half the
season with an injury (in his case, a shoulder problem.) The acquisition of McIlvaine was
much criticized because he is vastly overpaid. While this is no doubt true, few people
considered that the Nets gave up a similarly overpaid player to get him, Don MacLean. And
McIlvaine, like him or not, fills a major need for the Nets, where MacLean would have
filled no need. McIlvaine is a defensive presence who has led the NBA in blocks per
minute. There is a role for him on a team, but not as a starter, because he can't do
Rony Seikaly, seemingly the
best Nets center on paper, was *also* on the DL half the year with a foot problem, and the
Nets showed no inclination to play him the rest of the time. I'm not sure what the story
is there, but one thing that seems likely is that Seikaly won't be returning to the Nets
as a free agent.
Gheorghe Muresan, on the
other hand, may be. At least you gotta figure that's why the Nets signed him in May, since
they knew he was out for the year with a back problem, and he's now a free agent. At least
Gheorghe is not still suffering from the ankle problem that kept him out for '97-'98.
Still, one has to wonder whether the incredibly plodding Muresan is a good fit for a
fast-breaking team like this, and also wonder how effective he'll be after missing two
straight years. He never exactly was a polished player.
Keith Van Horn, the
consensus runner-up Rookie of the Year in '97-'98, didn't develop that much in '99. As I
mentioned, his rebounding was good, now up to a level that could be considered acceptable
for a power forward. But his FG% is still around 43%, which is not good enough for a power
forward. Of course, Van Horn is an outside shooter, so a worse percentage is to be
expected. Surprisingly, though, his range does not quite seem to extend to the NBA
three-point line. After shooting .308 on 224 three-point attempts in '97-'98, he cut it
down to 53 attempts last year...and shot .302. There isn't much evidence that Van Horn
makes his teammates better. He averages fewer than two assists per game, and as his FG%
shows, he's taking some bad shots. I'm not trying to bash Van Horn; he is still the
biggest asset the Nets have: a 20 ppg scorer and a 6'10" guy who can jump and score
from all over the floor, and a great free throw shooter. But there is lots of room for
development in his game. I personally think it would be more likely to happen if he could
play more small forward, but the Nets' personnel hasn't allowed that.
The other power forward options for the Nets were either
one of the centers listed above, or scrubs like William
Cunningham and Mark Hendrickson who are worthy of no further mention.
Kendall Gill, who is
currently a free agent, started here for the Nets last season. Gill became a stealing
fiend in '99, leading the league with 2.7 spg. On April 3 against Miami, he tied the
single-game record with 11 steals. Other than that, he pretty much did what he had done
the previous year, taking into account the league-wide drop in offense. Gill is a good
complementary player, but as I see it, not one who fits in particularly well with the
Nets. If Van Horn were to play SF and Kittles SG, there would be no place for Gill to
start, and he does rightfully expect to start somewhere. Since he has been a good soldier,
I think New Jersey will try to resign Gill, but I'm not sure it's a great idea.
Swingman Scott Burrell looks like he will never live up to the offensive potential he showed a
few years ago as a starter for Charlotte, but he still has a place on a team. He is an
excellent defender, he hits his free throws, and he can hurt you if you leave him open
behind the three-point line. The athletic Burrell is a free agent who should attract
The decline in Kerry Kittles' game may have been the most disturbing event for the Nets in '99.
Kittles had seemed to take a step forward in '97-'98, but last season his offensive game
collapsed. He simply could not find the basket, falling from 17.2 ppg to 12.9, a .440 FG%
to .370, and a .418 three-point percentage to .316. It was difficult to believe that a
young, levelheaded player, playing in basically the same offense that had been used the
previous year, could regress so far. Kittles will still swipe the ball from you if you
look the other way, and potentially is still as good a third option on offense as you
could want. He is unselfish, plays intelligently, and before last year, was a solid
shooter. The Nets need that Kittles to show up again.
Swingman Chris Carr is an end of the bench guy. He's a great dunker, and although he can make
the three, he's not as good a long-range shooter as he thinks he is. He's a free agent who
will probably sign somewhere the day before Opening Day when someone gets hurt.
Lucious Harris was the
downside of the Keith Van Horn trade (a trade I questioned at the time, but unless Jim
Jackson, Tim Thomas, or Anthony Parker step it up, a trade that right now has to be
considered terrific for the Nets.) New Jersey is stuck with his lame overpaid 12th man
butt until 2003.
A big strength for the Nets. Stephon Marbury is happy to be a Net, and the
still-developing star had his best year yet in '99. His 21.3 ppg, 8.9 apg, .428 FG%, and
.799 FT% were all career highs. Marbury is not as multidimensional as some of the other
top point guards: He doesn't rebound, his defense isn't too great either on or off the
ball, and his outside shot needs work. Still, he doesn't have to be Jason Kidd to be good.
You'd still take Marbury if you were building a team, and since the guy would be in his
first NBA season right now if he had played four years in college, the future is only
likely to get better.
Marbury has two good backups. Eric Murdock (stop me if you've heard this
before) missed half the year to a knee problem, and prior to that, he wasn't even playing
that great. Due to Cassell's injury, Murdock was pressed into the starting PG role, and
that's asking a little much. What Murdock is, however, is a good third guard who can fill
in capably at either guard spot and not embarrass you. Murdock is one of the top
ball-stealers in the league.
Elliott Perry, who was
acquired along with Marbury, didn't play too many minutes for the Nets, so he hardly
showed anything. One assumes he's still a good backup, though, as he has been in the past.