Losing Nets are NBA’s Lost Cause
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - With the games dwindling as the New Jersey Nets steer toward NBA-record futility, the tension mounts for players, fans and management alike.
In the locker room, there doesn't appear to be denial or anger. Only acceptance of what could be the inevitable.
"It's very realistic we might go down as the worst team in history," 10th-year guard Keyon Dooling says.
At Monday's home game against the Miami Heat, one fan resorted to the old New Orleans Saints tactic of observing the latest loss with a bag over his head.
That drew the ire of Nets CEO Brett Yormark, who exchanged words with the fan, pointing his finger at him, before walking away.
"Our fans have been great, and they've stuck with us through a tough season," Yormark said in a statement Tuesday. "I did not agree with the way this person expressed his opinion of our team last night, and I let him know."
What the Nets know is they have 12 games remaining in this nightmare season to eke out three wins and avoid matching the all-time lowest 9-73 record of the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers.
It's a hard reality for a franchise that was among the Eastern Conference's elite a few years ago - and is now last among 30 NBA teams in attendance at 13,007 a game.
In a typical night at Izod Center, the loudest cheers come for the free T-shirts. The oohs and ahhs for the opponents' spectacular plays, and the awws out of pity for the Nets' misadventures.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it. We're in a dark tunnel right now," says Kiki Vandeweghe, the Nets general manager who reluctantly took over coaching duties after the team started 0-18.
The Nets are in position to rebound, with a billionaire majority owner awaiting league approval, $23.3 million in salary-cap space and the lure of Brooklyn, which could be home as early as 2012.
But fans tend to judge in the now. Jay Brustman, who watched courtside with a friend last week as the Nets lost to the Atlanta Hawks, is one.
"You want me to tell you how stupid I am?" asks Brustman, 53, an attorney from New Rochelle, N.Y., and season ticketholder for 25 years. "I had a flat tire on the way to tonight's game in front of my mother's house. I borrowed her car. She said, 'You sure you want to go? It's the Nets.' I should've listened."
Elite of the East
It's easy to forget that not too long ago the Nets were competing for the championship. They advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history in 2002 and again in 2003 with Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Kerry Kittles and Richard Jefferson.
After real estate developer Bruce Ratner arrived as majority owner in 2004, the core of that team - which accounted for 68(PERCENT) of the scoring - was gutted. Aging veterans with hefty contacts were traded, including Vince Carter, Jefferson and Kidd.
"You're looking at a team full of role players," Dooling says. "We don't have a great player to make everybody else better."
Since the 2007-08 season when the Nets won 34 games and missed the playoffs after six consecutive trips, losing became contagious. They also won 34 games in 2008-09. New Jersey didn't make any moves by the Feb. 18 trade deadline this year, though they were on pace to post the worst record of all time.
"It's hard, because with an inferior record like we have, other teams don't want to lose," says Tony Battie, a forward in his 12th season. "They come out and bring their 'A' game. For us to beat these teams, we're going to have to play not only good but a great basketball game."
Fred Carter, the leading scorer on that 76ers team, says, "We would've handled them easily. We were much better."
The Nets' two best players are under contract. Second-year center Brook Lopez, who averages team highs of 18.8 points and 8.8 rebounds, needs a power forward to help him in the low post or shooters to stretch out defenses so he can work inside. Sixth-year guard Devin Harris (17.4 points, 6.7 assists) needs help in the backcourt.
"I try to put my best foot forward," says Lopez, whose twin brother, Robin, is with the Phoenix Suns, who are in fifth place in the Western Conference. "At the very least I need to compete and try my hardest."
Vandeweghe relinquished his day-to-day GM duties to focus on coaching after Lawrence Frank was fired Nov. 30. Although Vandeweghe expects to return to that role, his contract expires at season's end, as does club President Rod Thorn's. Thorn declined to comment.
"You do the right thing by the team. Contracts end. But you don't shortcut your plan," Vandeweghe says.
'It's All New'
The plan includes a name change - they will be called the Brooklyn Nets. "It's All New" is the marketing campaign that began this season and is at full throttle, with a two-state community outreach plan to build a loyal base. For example, guard Courtney Lee will deliver pizzas in Hoboken, N.J.
For games, the Nets promote the opponent's stars, such as reversible jerseys with Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James featured on one side and Nets guard Jarvis Hayes on the other.
"The star power that once was on this team didn't exist. . . . We catered to a casual fan base. They like the players who come in and play us," says Yormark, 43. "It's been the most successful platform we had all year. It became more important as the season progressed."
Long-term progress could start with Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire Russian industrialist who is expected to be approved as the majority owner by the NBA's board of governors next month.
The Nets are looking to free agency and the draft to rebuild a team that has six player contracts expiring at the end of the season - those of Trenton Hassell, Josh Boone, Hayes, Chris Quinn, Bobby Simmons and Battie. With the salary-cap space, the Nets have two first-round draft picks and the first pick in the second round.
And after 29 years at Izod Center in the Meadowlands Sports Complex, the NBA's second-oldest arena, the team will move to Newark's Prudential Center for at least the next two seasons before permanently relocating to the $800 million Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the complex at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn was March 11. Newark - a "much-needed . . . sampling environment," Yormark says - is reachable by mass transit, unlike Izod Center. Ten subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road will be at the base of Barclays, 13 miles east of Izod.
Bruce Hershfield, 58, a converted New York Knicks fan, has been a Nets season ticketholder with his wife, Vicki, for 13 years. He saw how the Nets struggled to draw even in their championship years - with nearby college teams such as Rutgers and Seton Hall vying for fans - but is optimistic about the relocation.
"Even when we went to the playoffs and the Finals, Izod had trouble selling out. Jersey is not a professional town. It's more of a college place," the Brewster, N.Y., resident says. "They'll sell out in Brooklyn every night."
Brustman and Hershfield will be there. They will follow the Nets to Newark and Brooklyn.
Ticket pricing hasn't been established for Barclays, but the venue will have 104 luxury boxes, compared with 28 at Izod. It's also expected to compete with Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, home of the Knicks, to host college basketball, boxing and tennis matches.
"We have a chance to redefine basketball in this marketplace. The goal is to create an incredible rivalry in order for basketball to be top of mind," Yormark says. "If we can create one with the Knicks, that would be terrific."
If approved, Prokhorov will become the first NBA owner who isn't from North America.
"I think he'll come in here and be a breath of fresh air from the players' perspective, like (owner Mark) Cuban was when he revitalized Dallas," Dooling says.
"We can go from one end of the spectrum to the other in one season. I'm around for the losing part. I hope I'm around for the winning."