It would have been simple, convenient, and expected for me to have become a New Jersey Nets fan. First and foremost, I grew up in the great state of New Jersey. In fact, the first NBA game I ever attended was at the swampy Brendan Byrne Arena, and only recently can I say that I’ve seen more games at Madison Square Garden than wherever the Nets called home. Second, I could have spared myself some early childhood ribbing from “real” Knicks fans who thought that being born and raised in NYC was a pre-req. And last, but certainly not least, former Net Kendall Gill gave an inspiring, fan-attracting performance in Nickelodeon’s “My Brother and Me” — so in other words, it’s a miracle that I’m NOT a Nets fan.
That miracle took the form of the Sportschannel New York, later known to us as Fox Sports Net New York and now known to us as MSG+. The problem was that Nets games were broadcast on a paid cable channel, one that my parents chose not to buy. Lo and behold, that led me to watch another enterprise on the Madison Square Garden network, the New York Knickerbockers. The Knicks were good in the 1990s, making two Finals appearances under the tutelage of Pat Riley and the play of Patrick Ewing. As I latched onto the orange and blue, however, I was still a Nets sympathizer…until 102-76.
You know that feeling you get when you hate something associated with sports? And even better, when you’re aware that such hatred makes no sense, either because the object of your anger doesn’t deserve it, or because you realize that sports means too much to your life? Well, the late Drazen Petrovic was my first hate moment. When the first-place Bockers crossed the Hudson into Jersey in the 1992-93 season, Petrovic diced the Knicks to the tune of 28 points and 6 assists. I will never forget that Croatian smile after he drained a 3 in the face of fan favorite John Starks (granted, Starks probably deserved it since his choice of trash talk to Petrovic implied that Croatians were responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing). That smile bred hate in my 7-year-old face. I would never forgive the Nets for that.
So when the news came out that Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov would be moving the franchise to Brooklyn, I was ecstatic. I’ve already said my goodbyes. Go fail elsewhere, guys. Not in my state. So how will the team say goodbye to New Jersey?
Due to the lockout, the preseason consisted of a home-and-home series for all NBA teams. Each squad was scheduled to play one home game and one road game with another franchise in geographic proximity. I caught the Prudential Center game on TV, and attended the MSG game, thanks to an absurd connect from Mambino friend El Miz. I noticed that the best part of this home-and-home series was to see the adjustments made from either team in the second game. For instance, after Nets rookie MarShon Brooks had himself quite the debut in the first contest, Knicks guards defended him more aggressively in the second, forcing him out of his comfort zones. Tyson Chandler figured out that Brook Lopez is scared of…well, everything, so a little nudge here and maybe an “inadvertent” elbow there, got The Punisher off of his game.
The Nets, on the other hand, did not make any discernible adjustments from the first game to the second. What made matters worse was the obvious lack of professional talent on New Jersey’s roster, which was apparent from the opening tip, as journeymen Sundiata Gaines and Shelden “The Landlord” Williams logged heavy minutes. All of which led the collective crowd to say this in their heads:
“Deron, I feel bad for you.”
You see, when LeBron was doing absolutely everything for the Cleveland Cavaliers, it wasn’t because he was required to do so; it was because the margin of efficiency for things done by King James, when compared to that of his teammates, was so incredibly wide, that it made more sense for LeBron to do everything. LeBron did everything for those Cavs teams despite having many teammates worthy of a professional uniform. Mo Williams, Shaquille O’Neal, and Antawn Jamison have 18 All-Star appearances between them. J.J. Hickson and Delonte West (off-court activities with Gloria James aside) are above-average rotation players.
Deron Williams, on the other hand, throws passes that land in the second row because Johan Petro has hands of stone. He shoots jumpers with multiple hands in his face because Lopez and Damion James are stationary offensive players that allow their defenders to roam when opportunity knocks. If it weren’t for the talent-starved Charlotte Bobcats, then the Nets would employ the least amount of professional basketball players in the league. So Deron is required to do everything. Not just because it makes sense for him to do everything, but because he is forced to do so. If anybody else does anything, the Nets could very well be confused for a D-League team.
How will this play out?
I held off on writing this post for one reason: the possibility that New Jersey would land Dwight Howard. Now that the season has started, and additionally because Lopez hurt his foot
walking playing in the 2nd preseason game, the Nets are further from the prize. They face the likelihood of never being favored in any game away from Newark. They face the likelihood of seeing the crosstown rivals become the division champs. And they face the likelihood of moving to Brooklyn next year without the services of Deron Williams.
To give hope to Nets fans, just know that Deron is not LeBron James. It’s easy to see that he won’t televise his free agent decision on ESPN, but if there was anything that the Besiktas experiment taught us (besides the fact you can get your jersey retired after a handful of games), it’s that Deron cares about playing basketball more than he cares about marketing his individual brand. But then again, that still may not be a good thing. If you care about playing basketball over anything else, caring about winning a NBA title is probably a close second. And if the Nets don’t get Dwight Howard, then all the glam that comes with being an employee of Sean Carter is meaningless.
Ceiling: 4th in the Atlantic Division, 11th in the Eastern Conference
Floor: 5th in the Atlantic, 15th in the East
Prediction: 5th in the Atlantic, 14th in the East
Prokhorov has to do something — anything — to get Dwight Howard to New Jersey. If he fails to do so, well, we’ll just keep laughing.