What goes on in a team's War Room on Draft Night is rarely seen. The actual picks get broadcast internationally, but the behind-the-scenes machinations are closely kept secrets. The Raptors opened their War Room up to cameras last year, but otherwise, NBA fans have to devise what went on by piecing together the few shreds of intelligence that leak out, sometimes years later.
There has been a flood of information in recent weeks from the Nets brass on what has happened over the years at the team's headquarters in Secaucus on those last June nights. What follows is hardly comprehensive. Some of it, but not a lot, is nothing more than rumor, but it does give fans an insight into what went right and what went wrong in the Thorn/Stefanski era.
The Nets got lucky (winning the lottery at 25-1 odds) and unlucky (the worst draft in the last 20 years). Then, during workouts, Kenyon Martin collapsed after three or four plays, an indicator that he was either unhappy about the prospect of playing for the woeful Nets or his leg was still not healed after serious surgery that winter. Never mind. The Nets took him anyway. In the second round, they go big as well, taking Soumalia Samake, one of the team's most forgettable players (now toiling in China). The teeth-gritting begins here. John Nash, the Nets outgoing GM, has said Ed Stefanski argued that night for the Nets to take an Ohio State shooting guard named Michael Redd. He was shouted down.
No one knew it at the time, but this was the day the franchise turned around. That afternoon, Rod Thorn and Jerry Colangelo agreed in principle to trading Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury. Then, that evening, Thorn took a risk. He picked Eddie Griffin, the troubled Seton Hall star, at #7, believing that Carroll Dawson of the Rockets coveted him. A phone call to Houston confirmed his belief and Thorn stayed on the phone with Dawson as Houston picked Richard Jefferson (#13), Jason Collins (#18) and Brandon Armstrong (#23) with the first round picks traded for Griffin. Somewhere between #18 and #23, the trade was announced to loud booing at Madison Square Garden, but two of the three proved to be great picks, with Jefferson and Collins going from reliable subs in their rookie year to five-year starters for conference and division champs. But it could have been oh so perfect. Thorn has admitted he considered taking Gilbert Arenas, the 19-year-old point guard from Arizona, instead of Armstrong. Arenas is now an all-Star while Armstrong has been cut by teams in the NBA, Italian League and D-League. Moreover, Dawson reportedly wanted the Nets to agree to a swap of first rounders in 2002's draft, believing the Nets would be in the lottery. Instead, the Nets won 52 games and the Rockets wound up with the overall No. 1 pick, Yao Ming. No need to be greedy. Round two yielded fan favorite Brian Scalabrine.
The year of international intrigue. The Nets had had their eyes on Nenad Krstic, an 18-year-old seven-footer from Serbia, for more than a year. They worked out shooters galore, made it appear that players like Casey Jacobsen or Flip Murray would be taken. They never worked out Krstic. Picking at #24, they knew that they had better not tell anyone. Stefanski in fact has said only he and Thorn knew who they were going to take. Good thing they kept it quiet. Spurs' management had let it slip to the San Antonio Express-News that they were planning to take Krstic at #26. The Spurs were so upset they lost Krstic that they offered the Nets a trade that night, details of which have never been revealed. Oh yeah, the Nets took Tamar Slay at #54.
A top heavy draft no doubt but the Nets knew who they wanted from the beginning: Zoran Planinic. He was to be the next Croatian sensation at CAA and Kidd's backup. But after a solid summer league, his lack of English skills and on-court consistency doomed him to first Byron Scott's then Lawrence Frank's bench. The week before the draft, Chad Ford reported that nothing is ever certain in the draft, but the closest thing to certain was the Nets' love of Planinic at #22. He got a guarantee right after working out with the Nets and then feigned injury, foreclosing any further workouts. But picking Planinic wasn't the biggest blunder of that night. In the second round, the Nets took Kyle Korver with the 51th pick, then sold his right to the Sixers for a pittance...$125,000. Why? Ed Stefanski said the Nets simply didn't have the roster space. Oh well.
It doesn't get much worse than this. The team, in a cost-cutting mode, decided to sell their first round pick for $3 million. While the draft was weak, it did produce several decent players after the #22 pick. Thorn said the next day that he might have had second thoughts about the deal if if J.R. Smith or Jameer Nelson had been available, but both were gone by #20. Then, in the second round at #51, the Nets took someone DraftExpress described the next day as one of three "steals of the draft": Christian Drejer. Drejer was seen as a highly skilled 6'10" point forward who had played for Billy Donovan at Florida then ran off in mid-season to Barcelona...and a $1 million contract. Since then, his skills have taken a back seat to his emotional fragility, winning him the nickname, "El Enigma" in Spain and "il Depresso" in Italy. No translation necessary. Nets still hold his rights, but after a dismal 2005 summer league audition, he is "not in our plans", say Net officials. After he scored 23 points against the Raptors in an NBA exhibition game in Rome, some Nets fans wondered if he wasn't work another look.
The morning of the draft, the New York Post reported the Nets had decided that if Antoine Wright was available, they would grab him at #15. Wright, who the Nets had never worked out, was the consensus #12 pick in mock drafts. When the Raptors took Charlie Villaneuva and the Magic took Fran Vasquez, Wright became available, as did Gerald Green and Danny Granger. Granger had had knee surgery before the season and showed up at his workouts with swelling. So the choice came down to Green or Wright. There were supporters in both camps that night in the War Room, but Wright was chosen. Why not a big? Because the Nets had already booked Lawrence Frank on a flight to Atlanta three days later to recruit Shareef Abdur-Rahim, believing correctly that they could persuade him to play for the mid-level exception. What fans didn't know until recently was that the Nets were frantically trying to buy an early second round pick that night so they could grab Monta Ellis, the Mississippi high school product who had dropped out of the first round. They failed and Golden State took him at #40. So the Nets settled at #43 on Mile Ilic, not a great second prize. The Blazers initially wanted Ilic in the Abdur-Rahim deal, but the Nets said no.
Ever since the KMart trade in July 2004, the Nets knew they would have at least two picks in the 2006 draft, their own and the Clippers'. No picks were offered in as many trades as these two, according to press reports. If the Abdur-Rahim deal had gone through, the Nets' pick would have wound up in Portland. The Nets had also offered their own pick to the Bobcats in a luxury tax relief trade in February 2005 before getting a better offer from the Hornets, which became Boki Nachbar. Around the same time, they had offered to trade the Clipper pick back to its original owners for Chris Wilcox. No deal, said Elgin Baylor. To make matters worse, the Clippers' pick became less and less valuable as the Clippers rose in the standings. No longer would it be a lottery pick. Then, in the weeks before the draft, the team tried to move up, offering both picks to Seattle for the rights to the #10 pick and to the Hornets for the #12 pick, hoping to take Saer Sene or Hilton Armstrong of UConn. No deal. No deal. And even as the draft was ongoing, the Nets had another offer on the table that could have effected those picks: the Bulls were offering Luol Deng and their second pick in the first round (which turned into Thabo Sefolosha) for Richard Jefferson. The Nets wanted the Bulls' first pick (which turned into Tyrus Thomas) but the Bulls said no. Finally, after two years and one night of offering the picks, the Nets settled on Marcus Williams and Josh Boone, both solid bargains, if not steals, that low in the first round. Williams, it's now known, was desperately being sought by the Raptors as the picks were called out. Hassan Adams, once thought of as a lottery pick, fell hard as well that night to #54 and yes, the Raptors thought of taking him too.
What happens this June 28? Who knows? And it's unlikely we will know much that night either.