Last summer, after John Calipari arrived in New Jersey from UMass, one of his first acts as coach, executive vice president and would-be savior of the Nets was to telephone his players and share his master plan with them. More than half never returned his call. Then, in November, when guard Vincent Askew publicly attacked the new regime, Calipari quickly shipped him to the Pacers in exchange for forward Reggie Williams, who at week's end had played in only 13 games because of leg injuries. A number of Calipari's NBA peers, undoubtedly envious of his fat five-year, $15 million contract, spread the word that the college guy had been snookered by his supposed pal (and former boss at Kansas), Pacers coach Larry Brown.
Nobody's laughing at the college guy anymore. After his savvy general manager, John Nash, worked the phones and placed before him a staggering trade opportunity with the Mavericks, Calipari immediately rubber-stamped it, and in a matter of hours on Feb. 17 they had revamped one of the league's sorriest franchises.
New Jersey secured both talent and depth by dealing two underachievers—center Shawn Bradley and forward Ed O'Bannon—and guards Robert Pack and Khalid Reeves to Dallas for scrappy point guard Sam Cassell, sometimes explosive shooting guard Jimmy Jackson, All-Star center Chris Gatling, physical center Eric Montross and streak-shooting swingman George McCloud (who later was shipped to the Lakers for center Joe Kleine and two draft picks). Moreover, the Nets freed up nearly $14 million in cap money for the summer of 1998, when members of the first rookie-salary-cap class will become free agents.
Yet Calipari's work has only begun. Sources close to Cassell, Gatling and Jackson say none wants to stay in New Jersey. Calipari is unfazed. "Some won't have any choice but to stay," says the coach. "And, once they do, they'll see we've upgraded our locker room, we're building a new training facility and we're working on getting our own plane."
Cassell, for one, will listen to Calipari's entreaties. Reached late Friday, Cassell said, "I like what John is trying to do. He was one of the best college recruiters in the country, so I've told him, 'C'mon, sell it to me.' " The sticking point may be Cassell's price. He will be a free agent this summer and has already talked about wanting between $5 million and $7 million a season—a hefty raise from the $1,235 million he is earning now. Team sources say the Nets will not pay him anywhere near his asking price. If Cassell walks, New Jersey will use his money to lure a less expensive replacement.
The new Nets will play out the season ( New Jersey lost two of its first three games after the trade, and at week's end its record stood at 16-38) and perhaps establish value for future deals. Nash said 21 teams contacted the Nets before last Thursday's trade deadline, and New Jersey received "reasonable" offers for each new member of its roster. According to team and league sources, one serious suitor was Cleveland, which tried to pry away Jackson by offering guard Bobby Phills. But the Nets also wanted Phoenix's 1997 first-round pick, which Cleveland owns, and/or either of two rookie big men, Vitaly Potapenko or Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The Trail Blazers were willing to work out a package for high-scoring forward Clifford Robinson, and the 76ers dangled forward Clarence Weatherspoon and/or swingman Jerry Stackhouse for Jackson. The Hawks and the Suns wanted McCloud, but the Nets opted for the Lakers' first-round choice this June and for Kleine, a big body and solid locker room presence who provides yet more cap room. (His $1.2 million contract is up this summer.)
Meanwhile, around the league there was collective head-scratching at the purge by new Dallas general manager Don Nelson, hired on Feb. 7. Not one Mavericks player, coach or executive remains from last season. While most observers wondered if Nellie had been basking too long in the sun on Maui (he has a home there), Rockets forward Charles Barkley leaped to his defense. "Everyone is saying he's screwing up that team," said Sir Charles. "But let's get one thing straight: They were already screwed up. So let's don't act like he's trading away a playoff contender." (At week's end the Mavs, who had lost three of four games since the trade, were 18-34.)
Nelson said his mission was twofold: to acquire the 7'6" Bradley, through Sunday the league's leading shot blocker (3.91 average), and to eliminate disruptive elements from the locker room. Nelson has long been enamored of big men with shot-blocking capabilities. (Remember, he had 7'7" Manute Bol for two seasons at Golden State.) Despite Bradley's inconsistency and rail-thin body, he's only 24 years old and Nelson believes he will grow as a player, particularly since he played only one season of college basketball, at BYU. As for the Mavs' team morale, friends of Nelson's say his disputes in Golden State with Chris Webber and in New York with Patrick Ewing have made him extra sensitive to backbiting and locker room criticism. Nelson called the players he traded a bunch of "f———babies," which annoyed the players, who claim Nelson entered the Dallas locker room only once before drawing his conclusions. "I'd like to have a little conversation with Nellie," says Cassell. "He's saying things to justify the trade. And maybe he has a problem with some of those other guys, but don't label me like that. What did I ever do to him?"
Dallas fans are wondering the same thing.
Point of Return