Commentary

Pierce, Garnett experiment a letdown

Former Celtics came to the Nets with a bang, and may leave with barely a whisper

Updated: May 16, 2014, 3:28 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce rode into Brooklyn last summer inspiring a tsunami of hope.

The thinking was that importing their title-winning experience and toughness could help make the Nets instant title contenders. And if the two future Hall of Famers did that, then the windfall of draft picks and players Brooklyn traded to Boston for them would seem worth it.

But what the Nets got instead was only five playoff wins, and several strong hints over the past two days that the Garnett and Pierce experiment is destined to be a one-and-done disappointment.

[+] EnlargeKevin Garnett and Paul Pierce
AP Photo/Kathy WillensKevin Garnett and Paul Pierce gave little indication that they plan to return to the Nets next season.

Thursday, even Nets general manager Billy King admitted, "I think we could've gone farther."

Though Pierce, a free agent to be, walked through the Nets' practice gym on the team's breakup day without speaking to reporters, it was impossible to miss the 16-year veteran was wearing a Boston Red Sox hat that seemed to send a loud-and-clear message: His intended audience was Boston. He wants to go back. And he didn't care if the bad optics offended anyone on his last day as a Net.

Pierce wouldn't commit to returning to the Nets after they lost their second-round series to the Miami Heat on Wednesday night, even though he said he wants to play one or two more years. Yet he had no problem earlier this season speaking at length about how he'd love to finish his playing days with the Celts.

And Garnett? He still has one year and $12 million left on his guaranteed deal. But he didn't bother to speak to reporters Thursday, either, nor after the Nets were eliminated Wednesday. While the 38-year-old Garnett may very well  -- and probably should -- retire, there are also persistent rumors that he didn't always agree with how first-year Nets coach Jason Kidd used him this season, and that he might return next year for the chance to be reunited with Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, his former Celtics coach and good friend, and reprise the mentor role he had with the Nets.

Little Pierce and Garnett said or did in the last few days suggested they have any intention of returning to Brooklyn to finish what they started.

And if that happens, the Nets are right back to where they were before they shipped Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans and three first-round draft picks (2014, 2016 and 2018), as well as the right to swap first-round picks in 2017, to Boston.

So was the trade a bust?

"I'll leave that for you to decide," King said.

Here's the verdict: The move wasn't a total bust for the 44-win Nets. But a more distant vantage point may show it'll come damn close to being one for the franchise's future.

Brooklyn took a short-term gamble that has the potential to hurt them grievously in the long term, because not one of those first-rounders they sent to Boston between now and 2018 are lottery protected.

They are still a team built around their confidence-challenged point guard, Deron Williams, and oft-injured center, Brook Lopez, who was still wearing an air cast around his surgically repaired left foot when he spoke with reporters Thursday.

Garnett, Pierce and Kidd were all frank from the start that they were brought to New York to help Williams re-discover his best form. But just like winning their division (instead of Toronto) and not carrying over their regular-season success against the Heat into the postseason to make a run at the NBA title, rehabilitating Williams' career was another Nets goal left unfulfilled.

Until further notice, Williams is a franchise player in name only. The Nets aren't paying him $98 million to be a nifty little ball distributor, or to go scoreless in a playoff game the way he did against Miami. And he knows it. Thursday, Williams admitted that he felt like he "let down" people around the Nets, and he confessed that old feeling he used to have in Utah -- "When I stepped on the court, I used to feel I was the best player on the court" -- is still missing.

He also said he may finally need ankle surgery.

And so, while King and Kidd made a good call to bring this year's surprise, Shaun Livingston, to the team, the Nets' brain trust clearly didn't realize how little Garnett had left in the tank, even when he wasn't hurt (which was often). And they weren't able to cure Pierce of his longing for his old Celtics club.

At times Pierce acts like the most homesick New York athlete since the Mets' Tom Glavine.

King said Thursday he hopes to keep the Nets' "core" together. He said he wants KG and Pierce back. He strained logic -- a lot -- when he suggested the difference between the Nets and great teams like Miami, Oklahoma City and the Spurs is "continuity" (rather than, you know, having some guys named LeBron, Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan. Or KG and Pierce in their prime).

While King's wish for continuity is admirable -- even advisable -- there was little sign Thursday he's going to get that wish. Lopez's durability remains a question mark. Williams remains an enigma. And KG and Pierce look to be one-and-done. Two pals who came in with a bang and left with barely a whisper.

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