Friday, December 19, 2003
Updated: December 21, 10:53 AM ET
New Jersey's Thorn-y situation
By Marc Stein
He is The Man Who Drafted Michael Jordan.
He is The Man Who Brought Jason Kidd To Jersey.
He is the general manager who managed to keep Kidd in New Jersey, which should have been even better than drafting Jordan, because Rod Thorn didn't get to keep his job in Chicago too long after MJ arrived.
Only now it can safely be suggested that Thorn's new gig doesn't look any better.
When he was dumped by the Bulls in 1985, ousted after Jerry Reinsdorf bought the franchise and installed Jerry Krause as GM, Thorn landed in the NBA office in New York, to spend 14 years as one of David Stern's closest cabinet members.
At this precise moment, no one knows where Thorn or the Nets are going. The team is for sale, and might or might not be moved away from an arena that never fills up. A coaching change is clearly needed, because the Nets' out-of-line players flagrantly quit on Byron Scott before this season even started, but there are no clear-cut replacements for Thorn to hire and no money to spend on one.
Then there is the Kidd riddle. The one about the franchise savior committing to spend the next seven years as a Net, and then making sure there would be no honeymoon.
Convincing Kidd to stay in the swamps, as opposed to bolting for Texas, was supposed to stabilize a club that has never had stability in its NBA existence. Losing Kidd, Thorn has said many times, would have been as devastating to the Nets as losing Dr. J was.
New Jersey, though, is unraveling anew even with Kidd locked up long-term, and largely because of Kidd's refusal to support Scott, at least for the rest of the season. As a bonus, all this unraveling is happening just in time for the Meadowlands return of Eddie Jordan, who wouldn't be coaching Washington on Friday night had Thorn heeded every Kidd request.
This should be a triumphant time for Thorn. Even after trading Stephon Marbury for Kidd in the summer of 2001, which promptly propelled New Jersey to back-to-back NBA Finals trips, Thorn was reminded constantly that his acquisition would only be a for-the-ages trade if the Nets could re-sign Kidd. Yet surely you've noticed that there hasn't been much celebration since the re-signing, in the wake of contentious contract negotiations with Kenyon Martin ... and the release of Dikembe Mutombo ... and the failed comeback of Alonzo Mourning ... and the Nets' obvious reluctance to give Scott their best in the last year of the lame-duck coach's contract ... and the sale uncertainty that has replaced Kidd's formerly uncertain future as the cloud that hovers over the swamps.
Friday, furthermore, should be a triumphant day for Thorn, with Houston on the verge of releasing Eddie Griffin. Sad as the Griffin story is, it's another reminder that Thorn fleeced the Rockets on draft night in 2001, acquiring Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong in exchange for the rights to Griffin. That followed the 2000 drafting of Martin with the No. 1 overall pick, followed by the hiring of Scott as coach the next day.
Thorn must instead choke back regrets on this night, but not because he let Eddie Jordan go to the Wizards. Thorn's mistakes/regrets in this case are tied to two bigger names.
And Jeff Van Gundy.
Forget the swung-and-missed acquisitions of Mutombo and Mourning. Don't bust on Thorn for those gambles, because they made plenty of sense for the centerless Nets. It bothers Thorn much more, as he acknowledged recently, that he didn't draft Arenas along with Jefferson and Collins in '01. Thorn admitted that the Nets were torn between Armstrong and Arenas, and chose Armstrong.
That's the smaller mistake.
The bigger one is not firing Scott right after the season, unfair as that would have been. Scott gets less credit for taking a team to the Finals than any coach in league history, but if Kidd and his teammates were never going to play hard for Scott again, Scott had to go. Thorn needed to be as decisive as Joe Dumars and Larry Bird, who acted as soon as they saw the coaches they wanted, making stunning changes in the face of team success and loud protest.
Van Gundy agreed to coach the Rockets before the end of the Finals, but we're guessing he would have held off had the Nets secretly made it clear they would be bringing him in as soon as the season ended. In a worst-case scenario, had the Nets somehow lost out to Houston -- doubtful given Van Gundy's fondness for the greater New York area -- Thorn would have had a clean shot at Carlisle before the Pacers got him.
From here, though, that's the sum of Thorn's culpability, in spite of his claims to the press Thursday that "good or bad, the credit or the debit should go to me." That all the blame, as Thorn insisted, should be dumped "at my doorstep."
Don't spare Kidd any blame, even if you love watching him play as much as we do, because his non-support for Scott has been shameful. The world knows Scott won't last beyond this season, since he didn't get a contract extension after two straight trips to the championship round. So if Kidd can't suck it up and throw his support behind Scott for the next six months, after all the success they've enjoyed together, he deserves a deep stain on an image he had cleaned up considerably since being arrested for striking his wife in the spring of 2001.
"As great a player as he is, there has always been something missing with this guy," said Frank Zaccanelli, the former Dallas Mavericks part-owner who traded Kidd to Phoenix on the day after Christmas in 1996.
"As unselfish as he is on the court," Zaccanelli continued, "he's the complete opposite off the court. I've seen it from up close. He has never liked a coach he has played for. Never."
Initially blasted in Dallas for making Kidd the first of the Three Js to be banished, Zaccanelli now enjoys a happy place in Mavericks history. The deal turned out better than anyone envisioned, with Michael Finley blossoming into a franchise cornerstone. It also helped that Don and Donnie Nelson, hired to run the Mavericks' basketball operations after Zaccanelli made a run at an NBA executive named Rod Thorn, wound up flanking Finley with Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.
|Nets GM Rod Thorn, left, must now ponder what seemed the unthinkable: trade Jason Kidd, right.|
Thorn and the Nets have enjoyed two fairy-tale seasons since acquiring Kidd from the Suns, but the Nets are staring at a mess now that has many more layers than the old Dallas triangle of conflict: Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson.
"We traded Jason under duress," Zaccanelli said. "But when someone like Jerry Colangelo trades you -- one of the most respected owners in the league -- that should tell you something."
Thorn, of course, is not about to ding Kidd or Scott. He's trying to negotiate a truce that's sufficiently workable so that the Nets can get back into Finals contention.
That's Step 1 for the man whose big moves are never exactly slam dunks. Thorn will eventually have to either re-sign or trade Martin and find a big-name replacement for Scott -- Doc Rivers? Pat Riley? -- assuming the new owners will finance those moves.
We're assuming the Nets' new owners, unlike Reinsdorf, will want to keep Thorn, because he's a proven basketball man. We're assuming Thorn will want to stay in his current capacity, because he left a great job in the league office to take another swipe at team-building before he retires.
Together, Thorn and his new bosses will eventually have to contemplate the big step -- trading Kidd and starting over. Until now, I believed that only one team could be lucky enough to trade Kidd away and live to tell about it. But the Suns' long-term prospects don't look so shabby sans Kidd, in spite of this season's struggles, while the Nets' future seems so dreary.
That would be the ultimate shakeup -- for, say, a package featuring Tony Parker -- and it would make Thorn known as The Man Who Also Traded Jason Kidd Away. Yet if that ever did happen -- if Kidd is amazingly dealt for the third time -- Kidd won't have the grounds to complain. In hindsight, now you wonder whether little, small-market San Antonio is actually the only place where Kidd can find contentment.
Where he'd be second in authority behind Tim Duncan on the list of playing GMs. And where Duncan is smart enough to back Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford fully and let them operate as The Men In Charge.
||Together, Thorn and his new bosses will eventually have to contemplate the big step: Trading Kidd and starting over. Until now, I believed that only one team could be lucky enough to trade Kidd away and live to tell about it. But the Suns' long-term prospects don't look so shabby sans Kidd.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.