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A Net Loss
HERE'S WHY the Nets fired coach Byron Scott on Monday: The team had become uncharacteristically sluggish, plummeting to 10th in field-goal-percentage defense and 27th in rebounding after ranking among the league leaders in both categories the last two years. New Jersey was 37-38 in the regular season going back to last February, and team president Rod Thorn doubted that Scott could reverse the trend.
Here's why the move stinks: After winning only one playoff series in 26 seasons, the Nets had won six series and made two trips to die Finals under Scott. As die franchise's most successful coach, hadn't he earned the opportunity to lead his team back into contention? "If you're playing the right way, wins and losses take care of themselves," Thorn says. "We haven't been, so now we're making a change, and we'll see."
If New Jersey hadn't gotten hot and stormed through the Eastern Conference playoffs, team sources say, Scott would have been replaced last summer—probably by Jeff Van Gundy, who took over the Rockets, or by assistant coach Eddie Jordan, who became the Wizards' head coach. The sources denied reports that Jason Kidd played a major role in Scott's firing, noting that the two played golf together last Thursday in Miami, on the eve of an 85-64 shellacking that convinced Thorn that Scott had to go. The problem, according to the insiders, is that few of the players believed in Scott as a strategist, especially when Jordan wasn't there to support him.
By turning control over to fourth-year assistant Lawrence Frank, 33, the Nets are hoping to kick-start the team while maintaining continuity. Frank has strong relationships with the players and a solid understanding of how to run the Nets' complicated read-and-react Princeton offense. "I don't think there are too many people who know more about basketball than Lawrence," Thorn says.
A former team manager under Bob Knight at Indiana University, the 5'8" Frank was cut repeatedly by his high school team in Teaneck, N.J., and has never been a head coach at any level. "We have to have the work ethic, and it has to be there on an every-day basis," he says. "You can't fool your players: They know when you don't know what you are talking about."
This is a dangerous crossroads for a team that appeared headed for years of prosperity after re-signing Kidd to a six-year, S103.6 million contract in the off-season. Last week the Nets were sold for $300 million to developer Bruce Ratner, who (pending NBA approval) will move the franchise to a new arena in Brooklyn, perhaps as soon as 2006-07. The sale may force the team to move to an interim site on Long Island after next season, a prospect that doesn't thrill the players. Then there is the question of whether restricted free agent Kenyon Martin will remain with New Jersey; his contract negotiations broke down last summer.
One reason the West is so much stronger than the East is coaching continuity. As of Monday the Celtics'Jim O'Brien and the Hawks' Terry Stotts are the only coaches from last season still with their teams. The West, by contrast, has made long-term investments in coaches like Jerry Sloan (16 years), Flip Saunders (nine) and Gregg Popovich(eight). Unless Frank steadies the Nets by living up to his billing as the next Van Gundy, what seemed to be the conference's most stable franchise may be in flux for years to come.