ESPN's Peter May sez: Two years ago, the New Jersey Nets thoroughly stunned the basketball world. Last year, they simply did what everyone expected them to do.
Kenyon Martin should finally make the East's All-Star team at power forward.
This year? Well, everyone loves the Nets -- again -- to do what they've done the previous two years: win the East and watch the Western conference champions celebrate at the end.
Toward that end, coach Byron Scott could be only the second in NBA history to take a team to the Finals and lose three straight years. The only other guy to turn the trick was the venerable Joe Lapchick, whose New York Knicks lost in the Finals in 1951, 1952 and 1953. (Each of those had higher ratings than last year's NBA Finals -- and that was before television.)
Could someone possibly prevent the Nets from making it a three-fer? Sure. That someone might be Jason Kidd, an injury to whom would immediately drop the Nets back into the rest of the mediocre conference. That someone might be former assistant Eddie Jordan, now in Washington, who had a lot of input. That someone might be Kenyon Martin, who is nursing a bruised thumb and a bruised ego because he can't get a maximum contract extension. Or that someone might even be Scott, who is in the final year of his contract, never a good situation for a coach. Scott might even commiserate with Grady Little; remember how Scott kept Kerry Kittles on the bench too long in Game 6 last year against the Spurs as San Antonio went on a 19-0 run? Even Kidd criticized the move. (Unlike Little, Scott has since said that he made a booboo.)
But as a team, it's hard not to like the Nets' chances to play the conference role of Lamb For Slaughter in the Finals for the third straight year. Jersey is probably better this year. The Nets went out and got Alonzo Mourning in free agency and then dumped Dikembe Mutombo, the acquisition of whom never made much sense. It became further moot when Mutombo missed most of the season and the Nets continued to roll along with Jason Collins and Aaron Williams at center.
New Jersey has the identical starting five back -- although Mourning may supplant Collins -- and the Nets' key reserves are all back. It seems like only something from within -- dissension, injuries, overconfidence, people coming to their games -- could stop them from again winning the conference.
Sure there are people in Indiana, Detroit, New Orleans and maybe even Philadelphia who may harbor hopes of getting past the Nets and into the Finals. Indiana looked like a possibility last year until bottoming out. The Pacers have a new coach. The Pistons brought in Larry Brown to try and take the proverbial next step.
But, remember, the Nets broomed the Celtics and the Pistons in their last two Eastern Conference playoff series. Kidd dominates his position as no other point guard does. Martin might be mourning the trade of Antoine Walker to Dallas, but he should also now be recognized as arguably the top power forward in a conference without any decent ones. That translates into an All-Star berth.
You have to like their chances to again get out of the East. And, we can safely say once again, it won't matter.
Richard Jefferson also is coming along -- and he doesn't know what it's like not to go to the Finals. All the guy does is win. Kittles has been healthy and occasionally good the last couple of years. Lucious Harris is an excellent third guard, although his back is bothering him. Rodney Rogers physically looks a lot more like the player who helped the Celtics in 2002 than the portly soul who toiled unspectacularly for New Jersey last year. Rookie Zoran Planinic appears to be a find and he's in the incredibly fortuitous position of learning from Kidd in a relatively pressure-free situation. Williams and Collins are excellent role players for their size. What's not to like?
The Nets won 52 games in 2001-02 and 49 last year. They should hit the mid-50s and maybe more this year. You have to like their chances to again get out of the East. And, we can safely say once again, it won't matter.
We think the East can't possibly get worse year after year but, once again, it sure looks like it has happened this year. Gary Payton went west. Brad Miller and Ron Mercer went west. Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell went west, Even Clifford Robinson went west. Walker just went west. The only free agent of note that went west to east was Lamar Odom. Kidd and Jermaine O'Neal stayed put.
Need we remind you that the West has won the last five titles since Michael Jordan left Chicago? Or that the cumulative score in those five series is 20-6? Or that in those five series, only once, in 2001, has a Western Conference finalist ever trailed in the NBA Finals? (The Sixers won the opener that year in overtime and then lost the next four.) The defending champion Spurs were probably not even the best team in the West last season, but they still won comfortably in six against the indisputable beast of the East.
New Jersey looked like it might inflict some damage last year in the Finals, considering it carried a 10-game winning streak into the series. But look what happened: They averaged 95.4 points during the season -- and never hit 90 against San Antonio. In their first three Eastern Conference playoff series, the Nets averaged 102.2, 101.3 and 90.8 points a game. They averaged 82 against the Spurs. The four San Antonio wins were by an average of 9.5 points a game. The two New Jersey wins were by an average of 1.5 points.
It's two different leagues. And with the likes of Walker, Sprewell, Cassell, Payton and Miller all going west, the divide is going to be even deeper. The Nets still appear to be the class of the East, although they'll have to go through the formality of eliminating three teams to get to the Finals. Once there, it will be familiar territory. They'll get the middle three games at home and a consolation door prize on the way out.