|It's a swamp thing|
By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2
Just like the sign says, I've been a player, a coach and a writer -- also a scout and a color commentator on radio and TV. But as far as I'm concerned, the most important feature in my dossier is that I have been, still am, and always will be a passionate fan. Among other qualities, being a fan means liking a certain team (or, in my case, teams) more than others.
I won't be eyeballing Indiana until later in the season, and even though Isaiah Thomas is notoriously two-faced, I am prepared to like the Pacers. Meanwhile, I like the Lakers, because the triangle offense is nothing less than a systematization of the way basketball should be played. I like the Pistons for their relentless bone-to-bone defense ... The Mavericks for their iconoclastic game plan ... The Jazz because of their toughness and precision. And I unabashedly adore the New Jersey Nets.
Let me count the ways ...
With Jason Kidd's finger on the trigger, the Nets' running game is a superb example of controlled abandon. Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles and Aaron Williams are all high-fliers who can fill the lanes and finish in style. Neither Lucious Harris nor Rodney Rogers are hot-footed speedsters, but watch them race to their favorite spots, set their feet, and prepare to catch and shoot should the fast break be blunted. But it's Kidd who makes it all work.
When the up-tempo thrusts are unavailable, the Nets' half-court offense is just as slick, high-powered and entertaining. It's an old-timey routine, featuring back-picks and back-cuts; single-, double-, staggered-, and slipped-picks; screen-and-rolls; plenty of weak-side movement; and even an occasional give-and-go.
Credit for its design goes to assistant coach Eddie Jordan, who imbibed this decidedly "Princetonian" offense from Pete Carril when both were assistants at Sacramento. Carril, in turn, learned his X's and O's at Lafayette from the incomparable Butch Van Breda Kolf.
Like the triangle, this is a "read" offense, a counterpunching system that requires the players to take what the defense gives and to become adept at nonverbal communication. If Jefferson, for example, is being overplayed, he'll trade a meaningful glance with Kidd, take a step toward the ball to sucker his defender into making even more of a top-side commitment, then quickly zip behind the defender toward the basket. And nobody throws a better alley-ooper than Kidd. (Most NBA teams run "execution" offenses that oblige players to move from one preordained spot to another in a tightly choreographed pattern.)
When it's time to grind it out (like it will be, come the playoffs), the Nets also feature three players who can post up with varying degrees of efficiency: Rogers' wheels may be somewhat wobbly from carrying 265 pounds of bone and muscle through 10 NBA seasons, yet he's still left-handed and can be overpowering if allowed to turn his right shoulder into the middle. Young Martin mostly looks for his high-percentage jump-hook going right and will spin left for a merely adequate TAJ. By far the Nets' best pivot-person is Kidd, whose bountiful bag of tricks enables him to shoot left, right, backward and sideways.
Whether they're riding the express or the local, the Nets can score points in bunches and are always a threat to blow open a ball game.
How, then, do their rivals attempt to defend the Nets' various offenses?
According to one NBA scout, "Actually, their half-court sets are fairly easy to counter. You just have to pressure the ball really hard, and to prevent getting burned by their backdoor cuts, you have to play everybody else soft. Make the Nets beat you from the outside."
Scuttling the Nets' running game, however, is a much more difficult undertaking. "The crucial thing here," says the scout, "is the pace of your own offense. You need to get them off the starting blocks and get them back on their heels by making them play defense for 20 seconds or so. And you need to take good shots and shoot a high percentage. Having to wait for the ball to fall out of the net will slow down any running team. Minimizing your turnovers on the offensive end is another must."
All of this means that opponents try to pound the offensive glass -- and conversely, that the Nets often have difficulty rebounding their own misses.
Speaking of XXXL-sized bodies, what about Dikembe Mutombo, who's currently resting his 7-2, 261-pound frame on the injured list?
According to the record book, Mutombo is officially listed as being 36 years old -- yet the buzz around the swamp is that he claims his birth certificate was lost in Zaire. The consensus around the league, then, is that Mutombo is at least 40 (with some coaches guessing as high as 46!). And that's the reason why Mutombo was seldom healthy enough to practice last season in Philadelphia, and why his physical breakdowns will increase year by year. That's also the one overriding reason why Larry Brown was so anxious to get Mutombo out of town.
As for the Nets, they had two reasons for exchanging Keith Van Horn (Todd MacCulloch was essentially a throw-in) for Mutombo. "Van Horn has good hands and good legs," says an Eastern Conference coach, "but he doesn't play much defense. He's also soft, arrogant and useless in the clutch. The release point on his shot is so low, and his trigger is so slow that he can hardly get his shot off in any kind of traffic. What else? His game is strictly white bread. Hell, Theo Ratliff used to block four or five of Van Horn's shots every time Philly played New Jersey. You want more? Van Horn is weak in the middle of his body, leaves the ball too high and dry when he spins, and can't pass when he's moving."
But the biggest strike against Van Horn was that his teammates didn't like playing with him. The rumor out of New Jersey was that there was no way Jason Kidd would ever re-up if Van Horn was still around. For the Nets, getting rid of Van Horn was addition by subtraction.
The truth is that Mutombo's increasingly immobile carcass significantly jams up every aspect of the Nets' offense, and provides only minimal protection at the heart of their defense.
As it stands, the Nets' defense is predicated upon quick hands. "They're always digging at the ball, and helping out," says an assistant coach, "and they do make plenty of picks. This really gets them a lot of cheap baskets on the run."
Individually, Martin can play mean-eyed rough-and-tumble defense all by himself. Jefferson is rated "good," but played slightly better defense when his minutes were shorter. Harris and Collins are rated "decent." Rogers can push and shove but has no lateral movement. Kittles's long arms make him a threat to ambush the passing lanes. Kidd (and to some extent, Martin) is a drifter who's always looking to plug any gaping holes that may suddenly appear in the team's defense.
"To beat their defense," says an experienced assistant coach, "you need some big bodies who can attack them inside. Also, good ball reversal can catch Kidd and Martin out of position."
On both ends of the court, the Nets' only indispensable player is Kidd. He's their best scorer, playmaker, post-up threat and, pound-for-pound, their best rebounder. Even though his shot release is too wristy and his career field-goal percentage is a meagre .403, Kidd is uncannily accurate whenever a game is on the line. Because he's in the middle of every play, the Nets will go as far as Kidd takes them.
That said, they'll be an even better squad once Kittles gets over his sprained knee. With Kittles out, the Nets' starters are playing too many minutes. And the Nets also miss the boost of Harris' offense off the bench.
Clearly, the Nets are one of the legitimate powers in the East. But there's a big fly in their ointment:
With nearly 38 percent of their season gone, the Nets are a scrumptious 18-1 at home-and an unsavory 5-8 on the road. Mark this profound discrepancy down to the fact that young players, e.g., Martin and especially Jefferson, are notoriously subpar performers when not feasting on home cooking.
A Western Conference scout notes another variable: "In the Meadowlands, Martin always gets away with taking an extra step, and also with using his hands on defense. On the road, he doesn't."
If the Nets have a running start at returning to the finals, wouldn't a championship track meet pitting New Jersey against Sacramento be intriguing? Throw out Sacramento's longer bench, because starters routinely play more minutes in the playoffs. Give the Kings points for their superior perimeter shooters and their clever-passing big men. Credit the Nets for being tougher and for Jason Kidd's incomparable heart and talent.
I wouldn't presume to predict a winner. But as a rabid fan, I'd be satisfied with triple-overtime in Game 7.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."