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49 Wins and No Chance at a Title

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The New Jersey Nets finished the regular season as the Atlantic Division champions for the fourth time in five years, with a record of 49-32. While the Nets failed to reach the illustrious 50-win level, the customary dividing line between the NBA's middle and upper classes, their season stands as a surprising succeses. They boast three all-star level stars in Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson, a promising young big man in Nenad Krstic, a hard-working and diligent young coach in Lawrence Frank, playoff experience, and a proven ability to win games any way they need to, either through blowout or nail biter, grinding it out defensively or running and gunning. In fact, they've put together two of the season's longest winning streaks, reeling off 10 wins in a row late last year and 14 in a row just last month.

Why is it that I'm worried this time won't even get out of the first round?

The Nets have a chance of being one of the strangest successful teams in a long time. I see the record, I'm familiar with the stars, the streaks have been great, but I just don't get that championship vibe from this club. If the playoffs started today, the Nets would match up with the sixth-seed Indiana Pacers. Even though the Nets locked up the third seed in the East a long time ago, even threatening to usurp Miami for the second seed, and the Pacers weren't even sure if they'd be in the postseason until this week, I think the Indiana has a very good shot at beating New Jersey.

So, what's the matter with the Nets?

The big knock on them is that they have no interior presence. Krstic is a good offensive player who can pull an opponent's big out toward the three point line, but he is thin (240 pounds, which is skimpy for a seven footer) and not really a banger down on the block. Their other primary post player is Jason Collins, a player whose only virtue is that he's big. The second knock on the Nets is their bench. While it's filled with serviceable players, Zoran Plananic, Cliff Robinson, and Scott Pladgett certainly don't strike fear into anyone, save maybe the Knicks. But again, this team almost won 50 games -- there's got to be something else that is making me and most other avid NBA watchers a worried about this club.

So what's New Jersey's biggest problem?

The Big Three.

You'd think the Big Three of Kidd, Carter, and Jefferson would be New Jersey's strongest assets, but I think they are the biggest factor in why most people aren't envisioning a Detroit/NJ Eastern Conference Finals match up. Jason Kidd is surely a playoff-tested vet who has pretty much single-handedly turned the Nets from a laughing stock to a respected franchise, but he is definitely on the downside of his career. While he still puts up good numbers (especially in the triple-double department) and his defense is adequate, given the fragility of his surgically repaired knee, he is not the game-changing dominant force that he used to be (that torch has been passed to Steve Nash, and will soon be passed on again to Chris Paul). Richard Jefferson is a versatile talent who, like Kidd, has fought many playoff battles for the Nets, but something about him just doesn't say superstar. Richard Jefferson is a very very good player, but that's about all I can say about him. And then there is Vince Carter, one of the most talented players of his generation, but unfortunately suffers from some sort of chronic attitude problem. While playing alongside Kidd has revitalized his career (join the club, Vince), I don't think anyone in their right mind would hand their team over to such a moody and inconsistent star, hoping he will lead you to the promised land. I'm sure Carter will have a few big playoff games where he scores at least 40, but I'm also sure that there will be games where he throw up too many ill-advised three pointers and doesn't lay it all on the line defensively. Vince Carter is Kobe Bryant without the nearly psychotic competitive streak. For all the problems the world has with Bryant, put him on this New Jersey team and we're all picking them as the sleeper team to come out of the east (in fact, Bryant's Lakers are being picked as the sleeper team in the west, despite a supporting cast far inferior to New Jersey's).

If Kidd had the stamina, athleticism, and versatility to take this team on his back, as he did in 2002 and 2003, the New Jersey would have reason for guarded championship aspirations. But with Kidd in his twilight and Carter in the limelight, the New Jersey Nets, after winning 14 games in a row just a few weeks ago, might not be able to scratch out 4 out of 7 against Indiana in the coming week.


Thu 04/20/06, 8:24 pm EST

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