Injuries, bad chemistry and misfiring stars have sent the Nets reeling
Nets coach Don Casey recalls feeling a sense of calm as the exhibition season ended and the games started to count. "We had a decent preseason," Casey says. "There were no big warning signs. Losing nine of the first 10? None of us would have believed it. I swear, it's almost like a virus. Once [the losing] starts spreading, it's hard to stop it."
The Centers for Disease Control would be baffled by this group, which fell to 2-12 last Saturday after a 129-90 pounding at Phoenix. True, New Jersey has been stricken by injuries that have temporarily shelved swingmen Kendall Gill, Scott Burrell and Lucious Harris and kept starting center Jayson Williams and starting guard Kerry Kittles sidelined virtually all year. After doctors said he could return to action on his surgically repaired right knee, Kitties did play seven minutes on Nov. 15, but he hasn't suited up since. It makes you wonder if former coach John Calipari was right: Maybe Kittles's psyche is too fragile for him to be a reliable go-to guy.
The deeper mysteries surround New Jersey's two top guns, 22-year-old point guard Stephon Marbury and 24-year-old forward Keith Van Horn, each of whom has a six-year, $73 million contract. Last year Marbury forced a trade from the Timberwolves to be closer to his family in Brooklyn. While his mother has publicly ripped the other Nets players as losers, Marbury had hoisted 21.4 shots per game at week's end and hit just 38.7% of them. Marbury's supporters say he's tired of dishing to guys who can't knock down a jumper. His critics say he has one eye on the scoreboard and the other on the scoring title.
Before the team headed West for a four-game trip, Casey reminded Marbury that he has a responsibility to keep his teammates involved, regardless of how he views their games. In turn, Marbury outlined some of his frustrations with the Nets. The discussion didn't help much. New jersey won just once and was outscored by an average of 25 points in the three losses. "I think they have a guard who is so offensive-minded that he's taking the rest of the players out of the game," Nuggets assistant coach Kim Hughes says. "Marbury is clearly a talent, but when Van Horn never gets involved, you're wasting him."
It's hard to know which aspect of Van Horn's game has been a Digger disappointment: this horrid shooting (35.9% at week's end) Dr his porous defense, which has forced the Nets to double-team to over for him. Last season he shot just 42.8% and committed 3.2 turnovers a game, but he averaged 21.8 points and acted like a star on the rise. He has exhibited little of that swagger this season, looking shaky on his release, repeatedly dribbling into traffic and scoring 17.6 points per game through Sunday. "If you saw him right now, you'd say he's the most overrated player in the league," says one Eastern Conference coach. "But to say that, you'd have to throw out the past two seasons, when he showed promise. It's puzzling."
Published reports have suggested that Marbury and Van Horn cannot coexist on the court, yet Van Horn said last Saturday, "I have no problem with Steph." New Jersey coaches have talked about moving Van Horn from power forward to small forward, but that might only weaken a D ranked 28th in the league. "It looks to me like everyone is committed to trying to get theirs and not to stopping anybody," says Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse.
Van Horn is clearly pining for the return of Williams, who's recovering from a broken right tibia and a torn right meniscus and could be back by mid-January. On the court Williams's rebounding and post-up game take pressure off Van Horn; off it, Williams deflects media attention and pumps Van Horn up. When he returns, Williams should at least be able to grab some boards, crack some jokes and loosen up what has become a doomsday locker room.
Principal owner Lewis Katz has told Casey his job is safe for the season, but with only a one-year contract, it will be hard for Casey to bring the hammer down on someone like Marbury, who could have him fired in a nanosecond. Casey claims the last thing on his mind is job security. "The issue is to get this thing going," he says. "I'm trying my best not to let this get to me."
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