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The long road traveled by Kenyon Martin

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One moment can permanently alter the course of a team's history. It can set you up for many years to come or be the first step in a decline that derails the franchise. For the New Jersey Nets, their moment came in April 1999.

Jayson Williams had been a solid big man in the NBA for many years. He was an All-Star in 1998 and was one of the best rebounders in the league. With the acquisition and signing of Stephon Marbury and the presence of former lottery picks Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles, the Nets had a nice young nucleus to build around. There were even rumors that Phil Jackson was considering the Nets after taking a year off from coaching. Marbury felt ecstatic about the team's chances going forward, saying:

"I came here to win. I’m not chasing a championship. People who chase a championship, they’re going to chase forever. I want it to come to me. I want to wait my turn and when it comes, I know that it will be sweet."

Unfortunately for the Nets, disaster struck. Williams broke his leg and never played again. Jackson joined the Lakers. And while Marbury continued to improve, the Nets continued to struggle. The team went 31-51 and finished in last place in the Atlantic Division in the 1999-2000 season.

After the season, head coach Don Casey was fired. After a coaching search that didn't include Marbury's input, Sacramento Kings assistant Byron Scott was chosen to be the next coach.

Welcome to the Future

While the Nets were looking to get back on track, Kenyon Martin was beginning his ascension in the college ranks. Born in Dallas, Martin joined the University of Cincinnati in 1996 and didn't see much action as a freshman due to low scores on his college entrance examination. He appeared in 22 games and showed flashes of potential, but only averaged 10 minutes a contest.

He improved each season on campus and took a giant leap forward in the 1999-2000 campaign. The Bearcats offense went through him and he rewarded them by averaging close to 20 points and ten rebounds a night. Most impressively, he worked on his free throw shooting from freshman year where he shot 31 percent and was a respectable 68 percent by his senior year. With performances like these on national TV against DePaul, he proved himself worthy of winning the Wooden Award as the nation's best player.

Martin's stellar senior season came to an end when he broke his right leg prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats were a sure lock for the number one seed with Martin, but fell to a number two seed and were eventually knocked out in the second round. The injury ruined Cincinnati's national title chances and had long lasting effects.

I had a chance to speak with Matt Opper of Down the Drive. I asked him what were his memories of Martin at Cincinnati and he told me:

He was just this freakish athlete who didn't seem to know exactly what he was doing but was always good for a wow play a game. Whether that wow was one of genuine amazement or a wow in the what the hell were you thinking sense. Regardless it was hard to keep your eyes off of him when he was on the floor because you never knew what he was going to do.

I also asked Matt if there was anything about Martin's play at UC that may not have been represented in his stats. He sent me this picture from Sports Illustrated that explains it perfectly:


Welcome to the NBA

Going into the 2000 Draft, Martin was the headliner of a weak draft class. There were some concerns about his health after the leg injury, but all signs pointed to him being the number one pick.

Going into the lottery, the Nets didn't have a good shot at securing the number one pick. There were teams with worse records than New Jersey and thus had better odds of getting the top pick. Luck was on their side and they came away with the top pick. This was the second time the Nets had won the Draft Lottery. The first was in 1990 and they picked Syracuse big man Derrick Coleman. Coleman played five seasons and earned an All Star berth (1994) before getting traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for former lottery pick Shawn Bradley. There was a little discussion about whether the Nets would trade the pick, but they decided against it.

Coming into his rookie season, the leg injury that cost Martin a shot at the National Championship in Cincinnati had healed. Byron Scott had critiques about Martin's effort, but that didn't last long. Martin won fans over with his hard charging play His year came to an unfortunate end when he broke his leg (again) in a March game against the Celtics. Even with the injury ending his year, Martin did enough to have fans excited to see what he could do next.

Martin finished second to Mike Miller in the Rookie of the Year vote, and everything around him changed. The Nets had the seventh pick in the 2001 Draft and selected Seton Hall's Eddie Griffin. Griffin was quickly traded to the Houston Rockets for fellow draftees Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong. Two days later, the Nets moved Marbury to the Phoenix Suns for Jason Kidd.

With Kidd, a healthy K-Mart and a healthy, improved roster around him, Martin began to flourish. However, he began to get in trouble with the league. Starting with this:

Martin was assessed six flagrant fouls and suspended seven games for his trouble.When asked about Martin's style of play and particularly his flagrant fouls on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," David Stern said "[Martin] is going to change or he's not going to be playing on a regular basis." Martin later said he wasn't going to change his style and didn't commit another flagrant foul the rest of the year.

The flagrant foul issue took away from what was a solid sophomore campaign for Martin. Kenyon averaged around 15 points and five rebounds in 34 minutes a game while improving on his shooting from the field and free throw line. Players tend to build on their rookie seasons, and for Martin, improved health and a vastly improved roster helped his game develop. With Kidd at point, Martin got more shot attempts at the rim and the increase in transition opportunities made him deadly in the open court. Kidd and Martin combined to form the most exciting point guard-power forward pairing since the glory days of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in Seattle.

Martin didn't have to worry about any suspensions once the playoffs began. He appeared in all twenty of New Jersey's playoff games and played reasonably well. In 37.5 minutes a night, Martin averaged 16.8 points and 5.6 rebounds while defending the opponent's best big man. The Nets made it all the way to the NBA Finals, but ran into the back-to-back NBA Champions and were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite the sweep, Martin had two great games at home and defended Kobe Bryant for periods at a time.

While the East improved following Kidd's first year in Jersey, the Nets was able to stay near the top thanks to Martin's continued development. The flagrant fouls weren't a problem this time and he played a career high 77 games. When he got to the playoffs, he played the best basketball of his career. The Nets rolled through the East, going 12-2 and sweeping the Celtics and Pistons. Martin averaged 20.7 points and nine rebounds on 50.6 percent from the field in 39 minutes a night. When the Nets made it to the Finals, they had to match up with the back-to-back MVP, Tim Duncan. Through the first five games, Duncan was the best player on the court, but Martin had his fair share of good moments.

Then, Game six happened. Duncan had one of the best games in Finals history:

While Martin had one of its worst. He shot a career worst 3-23 from the field and didn't attempt a free throw in 39 minutes. It was an especially bitter end to what had been another good season for Kenyon. From there, things would get testy.

The beginning of the end

While the Nets were battling for Eastern Conference supremacy, there was a problem bubbling underneath the surface. Martin's contract  was up soon and he was looking to sign a max extension. The Nets felt otherwise and didn't offer the contract Martin was looking for. Naturally, that incensed Kenyon and he demanded a trade. There were a few rumors that Portland wanted to do a Martin-Dikembe Mutumbo for Rasheed Wallace-Arvydas Sabonis swap, but nothing came of it.

The team got off to a slow start in 2003, and one incident made things worse. During a practice in November, Martin and free agent Alonzo Mourning got into an argument that included Martin making fun of Mourning's damaged kidney. If you'll recall, Mourning had to step away from the game in 2000 after he was diagnosed with kidney disease. He ended up missing the rest of the season after undergoing another transplant surgery a few days before Christmas.

Despite all the drama, Martin's game continued to grow. He made the All Star team and saw his field goal percentage rise for the third straight season. When you watch Martin's game in 2004, you can see the improvements. His post moves are more fluid, his jumpers from the high post went in more often, and he was still excellent on defense.

After sweeping "Whiny Tim," Marbury, and the New York Knicks, Martin had to take on Rasheed, Ben Wallace and the Detroit Pistons. Martin wasn't able to make up for a severely injured Kidd and the Nets' dreams of making a third straight Finals appearance ended in a Game Seven loss in the Conference Semifinals.

That summer, contract negotiations came back up and with money being newly tight in Jersey --the team had just changed hands --and the Nuggets offered Martin $92.5 million over seven.  The Nets had the right to match, but to make certain they didn't, Denver frontloaded the deal, requiring the Nets to write him a $23 million check immediately.  The Nets passed and traded him to Denver for three first round draft picks -- two of which were the key pieces used to get Vince Carter five months later..

New Beginnings

I had a chance to talk with Denver Stiffs' Nate Timmons and he walked me through some Nuggets history and his feelings before and after the big trade:

It seemed destined that Martin would become a Nugget. Denver had cleared a ton of cap space the season before drafting Carmelo Anthony in 2003 by sending Van Exel, Raef LaFrentz, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, and Avery Johnson to the Dallas Mavericks for, essentially, Juwan Howard. In 2002, the Nuggets made a draft day deal with the Knicks sending power forward Antonio McDyess to New York in exchange for Marcus Camby and the rights to the 7th pick (Nene Hilario), other players were involved, as well. If Camby could stay healthy, the team would have its center, newly signed Andre Miller would run the point, Melo at small forward, and the team would look to target a high-profile shooting guard or power forward with their salary cap room.

That whole season, I was in college at Colorado State University, I spent talking with my buddy Rory about the possibility of landing Martin. We were ecstatic about his potential on a young Nuggets team. I viewed him just behind Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett as the third best power forward in the West, potentially. The team brought Manu Ginobili in for a free agent visit, but it became clear that he would be staying in San Antonio. All sights were set on Martin and to ensure they would get him, GM Kiki Vandeweghe completed that sign-and-trade deal - tossing in three first-round picks.

I didn't care about the money or the draft picks going back to the Nets. We got the prize of the free agent class and soon the Nuggets would be neck-and-neck with the best teams in the West.

For the Nets, Martin's exit had wide ranging effects. Back in 2003, Kidd mentioned he wouldn't be happy if Martin wasn't on the team. After the trade, Kidd tried forcing his way out of town and there were some rumors he'd be traded for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, but nothing came of it. The Martin and Kerry Kittles trades enraged fans and sports talk radio hosts throughout the tri-state area. The team won fans back with the Vince Carter trade, but they only made it out of the first round once before Kidd forced his way out of town.

Even with the talent on the roster, Denver didn't live up to their potential. The team only made it out of the first round once in six seasons with Martin, including a sweep in 2008 at the hands of the Lakers. Martin didn't help matters by getting himself suspended during their series vs. the Clippers in 2006. Injuries played a big role in Denver's lack of success. K-Mart underwent two microfracture surgeries while with the Nuggets. I asked Nate how the injuries affected his perception among the fans:

His injuries really hurt his perception among the fans. He was seen as an injury prone player that never lived up to his mega-contract. While some of that is true, it also wasn't the whole story. He tried to come back quickly from injury and even played through a meniscus tear during a very promising 2010-11 campaign. When he was on the floor, he was the heart and soul of the defense and he stepped up big time after Melo was traded to the Knicks. Those of us who follow the team closely appreciate what Martin did, but overall I'd say he was never fully appreciated in Denver.

All told, Martin was a solid player for Denver. In his seven seasons, Martin averaged 12 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes a game. He never reached the heights of what you would want from a max player, but he always played hard and provided good defense. Even though the mid 2000 Nuggets didn't go as far as fans hoped, they were always competitive in a very difficult Western Conference.

Off the court, Martin managed to stay in the news. There was the Trina tattoo on his neck, having Mark Cuban tell his mom that her son was a punk, and almost catching a case after the inside of his car was filled with popcorn. More on that...

All Around the World

Following his run with Denver, Martin went to play in China during the lockout. When he got back to the States, he spent the rest of the season. There wasn't much love for LA after his short stay with the Clips and Kenyon came back East to join the Knicks. He played well in his two years there and was a major upgrade defensively over Amar'e Stoudemire. He joined old friend Kidd in Milwaukee in January, but didn't play much. While he only appeared in 11 games, he was in a position to help a very young roster through the slog that is the NBA season. He got waived prior to the trade deadline, but before he went, he performed an incredibly nice gesture for a local Marine named Travis Weber.

Earlier this month, Martin announced his retirement. In a statement to Yahoo Sports, Kenyon said:

"It's been a great 15 years. Thanks to all the fans that supported me over the years. But a time does come when you have to walk away, and the time is now for me. I'm ready for the next chapter of my life. I would like to thank the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks for the opportunity to play the game that I love.

"It's been real. Thanks for the love."

Looking Back

He was only with the Nets for four seasons, but he was one of the most important players the team has had during their NBA tenure. Although he wasn't able to dominate the NBA like did his final year at Cincinnati, he was the perfect partner for Jason Kidd as they played the best basketball in Jersey since Drazen Petrovic was with the club. If he stayed with the team, it's likely he would have made some more All Star teams and New Jersey might have gotten back to the Conference Finals. He was getting better each year and being with a pass first point guard like Kidd would have made him even better.

It's tempting to look at Martin's numbers and write him off. However, I think that's the wrong way to look at it. He was a transcendent player in college and played 15 good years in the NBA despite four severe leg injuries. It says a lot about a player's character to continually come back and play well even with obstacles like that in his way. Martin always played hard and was willing to do the dirty work in order to help his team win. It's always great to have guys like that.