The NBA Finals kicked off last Thursday night and for the elder statesman of the defending champions, a return trip was nothing new for Cavaliers’ forward, Richard Jefferson. After all, it was his rookie season back in 2002 when the soon-to-be 37 year old, who played a significant role in last year’s finals, got his first taste of the sport’s grandest stage as a key member of the New Jersey Nets.
Everyone loves a Cinderella story and 15 years ago we were in the midst of one of the more improbable turnarounds in sports history. For over two decades, the New Jersey Nets were the epitome of ineptitude, compiling a winning percentage of 39.7% (812-1,216) while averaging 32 wins per season. To give some perspective of how bad they were, think of the Cleveland Browns since 1999 or the first ten years of the Tampa Bay Rays/Devil Rays existence. The success, or lack thereof, is quite comparable as Cleveland and Tampa Bay have/had respectively won 30.6% and 39.9% of their games.
Surely there were small pockets of success, but no real achievement to hang their hat on. This two and a half decade period featured only seven winning seasons while never placing higher than third place in the Atlantic Division and ten postseason appearances, albeit only one series win during the 1984 playoffs. Some like to memorialize those teams during the early 1990s featuring the likes of Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson, and the late Drazen Petrovic, but those teams peaked at 45 wins and were never higher than the six seed.
It’s one thing to be bad, but it’s another to be insignificant as the Nets were irrelevant not just around the league but locally as well. With the exception of a few years during the early 1980s, the Nets routinely finished in the lower half of the league — in many cases among the bottom five worst — in terms of attendance. It was never shocking to see and hear more of the opposing fans than true New Jersey fans. Playing in the shadows of the Knicks didn’t help, as New Jersey was the red-headed stepchild in the New York Metropolitan hoops scene. To make matters worse, donning tie-dyed uniforms and seriously considering changing their name to the Swamp Dragons didn’t help their cause or credibility as a professional basketball entity.
With the organization now in Brooklyn and seemingly cutting all ties to their franchise’s history, how many people recognize that 2017 marks the 15-year anniversary of that 2002 New Jersey Nets team that amazingly ascended to the upper echelon of the NBA. Just the previous season, (with many of the same players), New Jersey won 26 games under rookie head coach, Byron Scott, and statistically ranked amongst the worst teams in the league in both offensive and defensive metrics. Fortunately for them, no one was making the trek to East Rutherford as they finished 28 out of 29 terms in attendance.
That all changed when Jason Kidd was acquired in a summer blockbuster deal with Phoenix for Stephon Marbury. Kidd’s arrival proved to be the NBA’s version of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, taking roster of nobodies and not just leading them to the top seed in the East, but doubling their win total from the previous season in the process and advancing all the way to NBA Finals. Although their showing against the Lakers there was hardly memorable, this team is one that shouldn’t be forgotten, because what they accomplished was so unique and something we rarely see in sports.
The NBA has always been a star-driven league and championship caliber teams tend to have past or current All-Stars on the roster. Aside from Kidd, Kenyon Martin was the only other Nets player from that roster to ever earn All-Star distinction, although it happened once and it occurred two seasons after that magical run for New Jersey.
The elite teams historically have always had either a prolific or at least a reliable scorer on the roster to carry the load whether it was Jordan, Olajuwon, Shaq, Wade, Kobe, Malone, Bird, etc. What’s amazing is that not one player on that 2002 Finals team averaged 15 points per game. The top three offensive producers during that regular season for New Jersey were Martin, Keith Van Horn and Kidd who averaged 14.9, 14.8, and 14.7 points respectively. Was their success all smoke and mirrors then?
In a sport where players are sometimes criticized for being too egocentric, the Nets played the ultimate brand of “team basketball” — averaging over 24 assists per game as a team which was tied for the the second best mark in the entire league. Kidd was the requisite superstar all really good teams need to have, and his approach on the court led to the rest of the team to value ball movement, unselfishness, and hard work. If a player was willing to run the floor when the point guard pushed the pace, there was a good chance that player would be the recipient of either an alley-oop pass or an easy layup opportunity.
The team first mentality wasn’t just on the offensive side of the court. Despite the lack of a ferocious rebounder — unless you consider Van Horn’s team leading 7.5 per game average to be one — the Nets ranked 8th best in the league, which is even more impressive when you realize Van Horn’s other two starting front court mates, Todd MacCulloch and Martin, averaged 6.1 and 5.3 rebounds respectively.
The Nets were an athletic group whose greatest strength was their ability to defend and create turnovers, since transition defense was so vital to their success. Statistically, they were middle of the pack in terms of offensive metrics, however, they were the league’s best in defensive rating and held opponents to the fifth lowest point per game total. Overall, the Nets forced the third highest turnovers and only five teams were better them in terms of opposing field goal percentage.
A resilient bunch, the Nets responded each time their doubters had reason, and there were plenty of opportunities. First, they dropped Game 1 on their homecourt during the opening round to the more experienced — and arguably more talented — Pacers team, who were two years removed from the NBA Finals themselves. Then there was Reggie Miller’s buzzer-beating, game-tying heave during the decisive Game 5, the type of moment that swings momentum that dramatically that teams usually don’t recover from. Who could forget them blowing a 20 point, fourth quarter cushion in spectacular fashion against the Celtics during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals? In each instance, the Nets responded to prove the cynics wrong.
The clock struck midnight on the Nets’ magical run during the 2002 Finals, but even though they were swept out of the Finals, three of the four games were actually decided by six points or fewer. The matchup was the NBA’s version of David versus Goliath, but the Nets had no way of stopping Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers’ quest to capture their third consecutive title.
What New Jersey experienced that season was no fluke and just the beginning of the franchise’s only successful run since emigrating from the ABA, earning six consecutive playoff appearances including four Atlantic Division titles and a 56.9 winning percentage. The following year saw them steamroll their way through the Eastern Conference field — highlighted by a ten-game winning streak — and come up just short of forcing a Game 7 in The Finals to a San Antonio team that had the league’s best record. In 2004, they may have failed to advance beyond the conference semifinals against the Pistons, however they did take the eventual NBA champions the distance and proved to be their biggest road block that postseason.
Timing is everything in life and perhaps that 2002 squad simply existed in the wrong era as a dominant post presence was practically needed and the Nets didn’t have a solution when facing Shaq or the duos of Tim Duncan/David Robinson and Rasheed Wallace/Ben Wallace. With athletes along the wings (Martin, Jefferson, and Kerry Kittles), a stretch-four in Van Horn, and a point guard pushing the pace, perhaps New Jersey arrived 15 years too early.
Luckily for Jefferson, this year’s appearance won’t result in the same ending as it did when he first experienced The Finals…being on the wrong side of a four-game sweep.