On February 1, the Nets beat the lowly Heat, 95-86, in Miami and stood at 20-26 for the season. The game had been a matchup of the league’s two lowest scoring teams. Trade talk were just starting to buzz. A minor deal sending Jason Collins to Memphis for Stromile Swift was rumored. Jason Kidd wanted out. Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe were working the phones.
Nenad Krstic was on the bench in street clothes for the last time. Jamaal Magloire sat next to him, Collins not that far away. He had learned of the trade rumors not from the Nets or his agent, but from ESPN. Malik Allen was out with the flu. Kidd was in the game physically, if not mentally. He had gone public with his year-old trade demand three days earlier. Antoine Wright was there too, but wasn’t much of a factor, coming off a couple of nagging injuries.
The discussion over the Nets’ identity was done. Disappointment if not despair was the Nets’ identity. There were rising calls to break up the team before the February 21 deadline, to "blow it up". The Nets’ most likely trade partner, the Mavs, not only didn’t seem interested. Their owner, Mark Cuban, was telling reporters to step away from their crack dealers. The team wasn’t going to trade its young core for Kidd.
Not a happy scene.
Fast forward a month. The Nets have been the subject of Extreme Makeover, NBA Edition. The team has gone through the most turbulent month in its NBA history, adding six players—more than any team in the league--and losing five. They have been involved in two trades and have dropped a player since that night in Miami. Despite all this, particularly the traumatic trade of a Hall of Fame point guard, the team played .500 ball over the last month, going 7-6 In February and are still in the playoff hunt at 26-32.
So what are we left with? The big changes in the team are in added youth and athleticism, with some improvement in defense as well. The Nets are now the league’s 14th oldest team at 27.5 years old…and that includes Keith Van Horn, who’s 32 years old, and Darrell Armstrong, fast approaching 40. On February 1, they were the 7th oldest.
The Nets have also improved their bench. They now have an extraordinary assortment of young, athletic big men. None is going to make anyone forget Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or even Kenyon Martin, but the group may be the deepest the team has had in the Thorn era. And all the new players on the floor have some defensive skills.
Even with the departure of Kidd and Collins, two members of the Nets’ NBA Finals squads, there are still five players on the roster who have played on an NBA Finals team: Jefferson, Harris, Armstrong, Ager and yes, Keith Van Horn.
Most importantly, hope at least for the moment has replaced disappointment.
Here’s a player-by-player comparison of the team’s lost and found.
Point Guard: Jason Kidd => Devin Harris:
Age difference: 10 years
Harris probably said it best. He’s a bit faster, more athletic, shoots better from long range, and plays better on-the-ball defense. But Harris also admits he can’t rebound like Kidd, doesn’t have Kidd’s court vision or his intangibles, aka leadership…not to mention his 99 going on 100 triple-doubles. Nothing hurt worse or helped more in the makeover than the Kidd trade. While it was hard parting with a player who had brought the franchise instant respect, he wanted to go. So the longer he stuck around the worse it became. And with Harris looking like a revelation in his first game, the tradeoff looks good, at least for the long term. And the combination of the Kidd trade and Harris' injury gave the Nets the opportunity to give Marcus Williams a chance and he made the most of it.
Center: Jamaal Magloire => DeSagana Diop
Age difference: 3 years.
Both are big men, really big men. Magloire proved himself immobile in the paint. Worse, on a team with a great point guard, he played with bad hands. Dallas hopes he can still grab some boards and play some defense, but the only reason they need him is that they traded Diop to the Nets. Diop has shown himself to be much more athletic and a better defender than Magloire. He did hit two 15-foot jumpers the other night as well.
Power Forward: Malik Allen => Nenad Krstic
Age difference: 5 years.
For all intents and purposes, Krstic was not part of the team until he started in early February, just after the Kidd trade rumors began. He has yet to hit his stride although each game brings a glimpse of what he was when he was averaging 17 and 7 last season. Allen couldn’t even get a team to give him guaranteed money this summer. He is a good mid-range shooter…period…although he did it well for a while.
Power Forward: Jason Collins => Stromile Swift
Age difference: 1 year.
Despite his reputation as a solid big man defender and smart all-around player, Collins’ trade value seemed nil until Swift was dispatched to Marc Iavaroni’s doghouse in Memphis. Swift may be a draft bust and a disappointment, but he can score and rebound and remains, even at 28, a phenomenal athlete. Collins with his bad knees and hands has seemed incapable of either scoring or rebounding and will be even less of a factor in a system other than New Jersey’s.
Small Forward: Antoine Wright => Maurice Ager
Age difference: 3 days.
Wright and Ager look like a match-up of draft busts. Wright is the better player, mainly because of his often solid defense, but he never became the shooter the Nets hoped for. The Mavs had hoped lightning would strike with Ager as it had with another late first round pick, Josh Howard. Both had been taken at the end of the first round. Ager was billed, like Wright, as a player who combined good shooting with good defense, although Ager is a much better athlete. The Nets owe him $1 million next season. Wright and Ager have played a total of three games and nine minutes since the trade.
Outside the easy comparisons, Trenton Hassell has replaced Wright in the Nets’ rotation as the defensive stopper at the wing. He will turn 29 soon, but his offensive skills are better developed than Wright’s. Hassell is also more mature, less subject to swings of confidence.
That leaves Van Horn who while working out is not in the Nets plans either this season or in the future and the two first round picks, in 2008 and 2010, who are in the Nets’ plans. It's easy to argue that just like the full consequences of the traumatic summer of 2004 wouldn't be known until the Nets picked Marcus Williams with the Clippers' pick two years later, the full consequences of last month's manuevers won't be known til June 2010.
Not likely to see another month this one, however.