NetsDaily Off-Season Report #7

Every Sunday, we’ll be updating the Nets’ off-season with bits and pieces of information, gossip, etc. to help take the edge off missing the playoffs, relying on the Nets’ beat reporters and others who have slipped interesting stuff into larger stories and blogs.

Young’uns

If the Nets select one of the following 17 players: Brook (or Robin) Lopez, Jerry Bayless, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Anthony Randolph, DeAndre Jordan, Russell Westbrook, Kosta Koufos, Donte Green, Nicolas Batum, Chase Budinger, JaVale McGee, Alexis Ajinca, J.J. Hickson or Omri Casspi, that pick would be the youngest Net in 25 years.

Randolph or Koufos would be the youngest Net EVER.

Nenad Krstic was younger than all but Randolph when he was drafted but he didn’t suit up the for the Nets for another 28 months. The youngest Net in the past 25 years was Marcus Williams, who was 20 years old when he stepped on the court for the Nets in 2006-07. The youngest Net ever was Clifford Trent Robinson (not Uncle Cliffy) who was 19 in 1979.

Hard to imagine the Nets taking three or even two young players. So who's the oldest player in the draft? Joey Dorsey of Memphis State at 24.

Best Laid Plans

Since February 1, the Nets have planned for a big off-season. The trades for Stromile Swift and Devin Harris et al left the Nets with great assets: two picks of their own, including a lottery pick; two picks from Dallas, the first of which will be available on draft night, the second a possible trading chip; three expiring contracts worth more than $14 million for trade purposes (including one, Keith Van Horn’s that has a small buyout)…not to mention $20 million in cap space below the luxury tax threshold, a $5.6 million mid-level exception, a $1.9 million low level exception and a $3.3 million trade exception.

It’s been a long time, since the 2005, that the Nets had anything even close to that level of off-season assets and flexibility. And therein lies the lesson: it can all come to naught, zero, nada, nothing, zip, zilch. The 2005 off-season was an utter disaster, one filled with blown draft picks; botched free agent signings, medical mysteries, and a single meaningless trade.

Let us review the ugliness…from the perspective of that time and place:

--The Draft. The Nets have two picks, at #15 and #43. The belief is that the Nets will take a big man to help them recover from the loss of Kenyon Martin or a swingman to back up the (historically) injury-prone Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter. The thinking is that either Sean May or Rashad McCants, both of NCAA champion North Carolina, would be an ideal choice. May, it has been rumored, was the top choice.

The night before the draft, the Nets’ brain trust decides Antoine Wright, a consensus lottery pick, could slide to #15. A minority opinion favors Gerald Green. Danny Granger, who showed up at his NBA workouts with a swollen knee, is in the picture, as well as Francisco Garcia. But Granger's knee scares some people. Ultimately, the brain trust is right: three teams surprise everyone by taking big men way ahead of where they were projected. Charlie Villanueva of UConn, Andrew Bynum of Plainsboro and Fran Vasquez of Spain get picked at #7, #10 and #11. May goes at #13 and McCants at #14. Voila, Antoine Wright is the choice. The rest, including Ed Stefanski's comparison of Wright to Alan Houston and Dick Vitale’s comparison of him to Dwyane Wade (!!), is history…tragedy actually.

As the second round dawns, the Nets see an opportunity. Monta Ellis, the Mississippi high schooler and the first player the team worked out that spring, has fallen out of the first round. Stefanski tries to find a willing trade partner to move up to take him. No luck. They should have tried harder. At #40, Ellis goes to the Warriors and Mile Ilic, the "more athletic" version of Nenad Krstic, goes to the Nets at #43. Can you say bust?

--Free Agency. Four days later, Lawrence Frank, Nets' head coach and close personal friend of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, flies to Atlanta and at the stroke of midnight, knocks on the front door of the the Olympic gold medalist and All-Star, carrying an offer from the Nets. This was the Nets' plan all along: use the remaining $5 million TE from the Kerry Kittles deal with the Clippers to secure a high-scoring big man. Oh what genius.

Frank had been an assistant coach in Vancouver when SAR played there and served as a groomsman in his wedding. Is there a better salesman? Sweet! Frank then departs Atlanta for Orlando where he meets with the family of Keyon Dooling, the Nets’ top choice as a Jason Kidd back-up. Dooling tells the Nets they are his first choice. Such interest. (After saying goodbye to the Doolings, Frank stays in Orlando and watches the Nets’ summer league team play, featuring Wright and 2004 second round pick, Christian Drejer. Wright is mediocre, a sign of future disappointment. Drejer is a disaster, doesn't even get a camp invite.)

The team also began negotiations with agents for two other free agent power forwards: Stromile Swift and Donyell Marshall.

It goes down hill from there.

The first problem is Portland GM John Nash. Thorn needs to work a sign-and-trade for SAR using the TE. The plan is for the Nets to agree to give Abdur-Rahim a six-year $38 million deal. The Nets would then trade a second round pick in 2006 to Portland. Sounds easy. No, says Nash, the Nets former GM. The Blazers decide to hold out for the rights to Ilic or the Nets’ first round draft choice in 2006. The Nets initially refuse the demand.

For nearly two weeks, negotiations continue. SAR wants to play so badly for the Nets he agrees to accept a smaller deal based on the MLE if a sign-and-trade can’t be worked out. The difference: nearly $10 million. In that case, Portland gets nothing. Ultimately, the Nets want SAR so badly they relent to Nash's demand, agreeing on July 21 to give Portland their own first round pick, with multiple protections.

Swift signs a four-year deal with Houston for $20 million and Marshall signs a four year deal with Cleveland for about $16 millions. So there are no options beyond SAR. Still, the Nets feel great. Abdur-Rahim feels great. It’s all coming together. No, it’s not.

The next day, Dooling commits to a four-year, $11 million deal with the Magic, significantly more than what the Nets were offering. Thorn begins looking at other potential Kidd backups: longtime Net-killer Milt Palacio, Abdur-Rahim’s good friend Damon Stoudamire, and Jeff McInnis, a talented player with a reputation for being selfish or worse, a chemistry killer.

A week later, on July 28, McInnis agrees to sign with the Nets. He gets a two-year $7 million deal. It is the single worst free agent signing in the Thorn era. Nothing compares. The 6-foot-4, UNC product had indeed averaged 12.8 points, 5.1 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 76 games for the Cavs in 2004-05, but Paul Silas benched him at the end of the season even as the team struggled and then failed to make the playoffs. The Nets have now committed a big part of their MLE to McInnis, limiting their options further.

Then, things REALLY go south.

On August 1, the first day a deal can be made, the Nets make it official. They have signed Abdur-Rahim and McInnis, as long as the two pass their physicals. Uh-oh.

Abdur-Rahim agrees to buy a house in a gated Saddle River community where Kidd, Carter and their wives live. A press conference is scheduled for Thursday, August 4. The two newest Nets and a recently re-signed Cliff Robinson will appear. YES plans to cover it live.

Chad Ford of ESPN goes so far as to say the Nets could be among the league’s top five in 2005-06 and adds, "I’m not sure anyone’s had a better summer than Rod Thorn".

Suddenly, during the YES broadcast of a Yankee game that Wednesday night, a curious banner crawls across the bottom of the screen. The press conference has been postponed. No reason is given.

Thursday, everything falls apart. Scar tissue discovered in Abdur-Rahim’s right knee is holding up the signing and trade, report the beat writers. The condition has never bothered him before, he says, but the Nets want to get another opinion or two before signing off on a six-year contract. Like Thorn, Abdur-Rahim remains hopeful that everything will work out.

The problem is hardly simple: At age 16, Abdur-Rahim had knee surgery. In the 13 intervening years, scar tissue built up. The Nets’ orthopedist warns the team that SAR’s knee might not last six years.

The Nets get a second and then a third opinion on the right knee. Doctors think SAR may already have arthritis in the knee. Although Thorn won’t discuss specifics of the problem, the new assessments do not made him any more optimistic the deal will get done.

By Saturday night, Abdur-Rahim is angry, telling the New York Post, "I don't want to be a Net". On Monday, August 8, both sides issue statements that tempers have cooled and optimism reigns.

Finally, the next day, with the Nets’ trade exception hours away from expiring, the team decides it's too risky. "We were anticipating adding Shareef to our roster," says Thorn. "However, during the course of his normal physical examination, some questions arose that gave us cause for concern. After consulting with several noted specialists, we feel that rescinding the trade is our best course of action. We will now look in other directions for ways to improve our team for the upcoming season."

The other "ways" turn into a trade with the Sixers. With six hours left before the TE turns into a frog, the Nets acquire Marc Jackson and $3 million in cash for the trade exception and the right to swap second round picks in the 2006 draft. A good deal on short notice, but a major disappointment.

"We are pleased to add Marc to our roster," said Thorn. "He is a solid frontcourt player who will add length, toughness and depth to our frontline rotation." He didn’t.

Both Aaron Goodwin, SAR’s agent and Thorn confirm a second offer had been put on the table. It included four guaranteed seasons, but that the last two years would be guaranteed if Abdur-Rahim showed "no significant problems" through the first three years of the contract.
"And if he played two years without a problem, the fifth year would be guaranteed," Thorn said. "Basically, he only had to show up."

The rest of free agency becomes comical...or tragic, depending on your view point. Robert "Tractor" Traylor was signed, pending his physical. An echocardiogram, used by only a few NBA teams, reveals Traylor has a dangerously enlarged aorta and has a 40% per cent chance of dying on the court if he plays again. The Nets rescind their offer and by November, Traylor undergoes open heart surgery. It could be argued that saving Traylor’s life is the biggest accomplishment of the off-season.

Hamstrung by their decision to give McInnis so much of the MLE, the Nets can’t sign others they pursue, including Lindsey Hunter, DeSagana Diop, Jason Kapono and Aaron McKie. Instead, they wind up with Linton Johnson III, Scott Padgett, Lamond Murray, McInnis and Jackson to go along with holdovers Robinson, Jacque Vaughn and Zoran Planinic and rookie Wright. Only Robinson and Vaughn play significant roles the next season.

"This is the best bench we have had since I have been associated with the Nets," Stefanski crows in a conference call with beat writers in September. Nope...but then again, the standard is low, and remains so.

--Injuries: On June 24, Jason Collins undergoes what is supposed to be minor knee surgery on both knees. Prior to that, Collins while not a great offensive player has career averages of 6 ppg and 7 rpg. He never reaches those numbers again.

In retrospect, some of the moves that looked bad at the time turned out to be very, very smart. Abdur-Rahim’s knee didn’t even last three years. He needed surgery this year and missed the entire season. Traylor, it turns out, was helping his cousin launder drug money that summer and he barely avoided jail after pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate. McKie was a disaster for the Lakers, financially and on the court. Not re-signing Brian Scalabrine did hurt some fans’ feelings, but no one in their right mind, other than Danny Ainge, would have paid him $15 million.

A couple of the moves were also recycled to get the team some value. Jackson and Johnson were traded to New Orleans for Boki Nachbar and McInnis was ultimately sent to Charlotte for Bernard Robinson. Not having to trade Portland the first round pick in the SAR sign-and-trade helped too. The pick turned into Josh Boone. And hey, look, Swift and Diop eventually did make it on to the Nets’ roster.

And the 2005-06 Nets did win 49 games (second most in team history) and beat the Pacers in the First Round before succumbing in the Conference Semis to the eventual champion Miami Heat.

Still, neither Wright nor Ilic lived up to their hype and were essentially wasted picks. Imagine if they had been able to take Ellis in the second round…no, don’t, it’s too painful. And McInnis' contract not only hamstrung them in the 2005-06 season, it hamstrung them in 2006-07. Unable to move him, the Nets found themselves over the luxury tax threshold and unable to sign free agents.

Is it likely the Nets will again experience the perfect storm of bad luck and yes, incompetence, this off-season? One would hope not, but you never know.

The Draft as a Family Affair

Nets brass may have an interesting choice in the second round between relatives of two great former Nets. Richard Roby of Colorado is the half brother of Kenyon Martin—both are sons of former New Mexico star Paul Roby--and Bryce Taylor of Oregon is the son of Brian Taylor who played for the Nets in the ABA and NBA. Bruce played his high school (Perth Amboy) and college (Princeton) ball in New Jersey and now lives in California. Roby and Taylor are both shooting guards, with Roby just a touch taller.

NetsDaily Sleeper Draft Pick of the Week

Why not add Boki's friend Gogi? Goran "Gogi" Dragic is the 6'4" point guard for the Slovenian National Team who is projected as a mid second round pick. If the Nets are looking to take a Euro in the second round and stash him, Dragic has some lure. He has been compared to Tony Parker and that means that like Parker--and Devin Harris--he is quick. NBADraft.net describes him in terms that would remind you of Harris: "Slim but wiry ... Point guard with great size and athleticism ... Great penetrator with a quick first step and excellent footwork ... Great finisher around the basket and from midrange, decent from 3pt line ... Very competitive player, hard to push around ... Long arms." He's 22 and the Nets could keep him overseas for a year. They have only one pick in 2009 so accomodating a rookie then might be easier than it would be this year.

Emergency Room

The severity of Carter's ankle injury becomes more and more evident. While Carter is off crutches and working out on the exercise bike, word came this week that he will not start playing basketball again until August, meaning that the surgery will have required four months off the court. Compare that to Jefferson's ankle surgery in 2007, when he missed 20 games and came back much better than when he left. Both surgeries involved removal of "loose bodies", primarily pieces of ligament in Carter's case, bone chips in Jefferson's. The Nets fully expect Carter to be ready for the beginning of training camp. Normally, that means the beginning of October, but this season, the Nets have asked the league to start earlier because their exhibition games in London and Paris.

Final Note

With workouts due to start this week, the team seems to be arranging some great head-to-head battles--Kevin Love vs. Anthony Randolph on June 12, JaVale McGee vs. Robin Lopez on June 5, Brandon Rush vs. Chase Budinger on June 6, and Donte Green vs. Joe Alexander on June 11. But they seem to be leaving up some slots this week in particular for late arrivals. Teams can work out up to six players, ideal for three-on-three's, but there are only five lined up for Wednesday and Thursday's sessions. Don't be surprised if Danilo Gallinari fills either one of those slots or another on Wednesday, June 11, when Joe Alexander of West Virginia and Donte Green of Syracuse are already slotted.

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