The Jason Kidd Nets
During the early part of the 2000s, the Eastern Conference was in flux. The breakup of the Jordan-era Bulls had opened the door for a number of squads, but none of them truly seized upon that opportunity, and without a dominant team the conference was universally regarded as inferior to its counterpart out West.
Sure, there were the New York Knicks, Chicago’s 90s rivals who could never quite get past them when it mattered, but after a fluke 1999 run to the Finals, they made a series of horrendous personnel decisions that crippled them throughout the 2000s. Likewise, New York’s bitter enemies, the Tim Hardaway/Alonzo Mourning Miami Heat, had only a few more years left in the tank before collapsing to 36-46 in 2002. And the Indiana Pacers, who were almost as old as the Bulls by the end of the 90s, followed up their 2000 Finals berth by falling to .500 in 2001 & ’02.
As the East’s old guard was disintegrating, Orlando attempted to declare themselves the conference’s new power, boldly signing Tracy McGrady & Grant Hill in the summer of 2000 (and drafting Mike Miller), but Hill was never healthy and the Magic never seriously contended for a title. Meanwhile, led by quintessential post-Jordan superstars Allen Iverson and Vince Carter, the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors emerged as well, but after a memorable semifinal series in 2001 (the year Philly made it all the way the Finals before losing to L.A.), neither team would mount another deep postseason run. And the Milwaukee Bucks, who seemed so promising behind a core of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, Glenn Robinson, & Tim Thomas, withered after Thomas underachieved and Allen was dealt to Seattle for a disappointing half-season of Gary Payton.
Amidst all of this, the New Jersey Nets spent the 2001 season languishing in the basement of the Atlantic Division. The team had made surprising strides in 1998, John Calipari’s second season as head coach, returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 1994 dissolution of their Derrick Coleman–Kenny Anderson core, but in 1999 they swapped Cassell for Stephon Marbury and declined to 16-34 in the lockout-shortened campaign. It was part of Marbury’s classic pattern of joining teams as they collapsed, but in truth the Nets were 3-16 before Marbury ever put on their uniform. Cassell sprained his ankle in the season opener and was shelved for 15 of the team’s first 19 games, destroying the team’s offense (Kerry Kittles, Kendall Gill, & Jayson Williams were notably less efficient without their point guard). By the time Marbury arrived on the scene, the damage had already been done — in fact, Calipari was fired just days later.
In 2000, the Nets’ offense would at least partially recover from 1999’s debacle, as Marbury enjoyed a good offensive year with Kittles & Gill somewhat bouncing back to their previous forms. New Jersey’s defense was rotten to the core, though, and the team went 31-51 despite the offensive improvement. (As an aside, defense is one of the biggest reasons for the perceived disconnect between Marbury’s numbers/star status and his teams’ performances on the court, because he was a notably horrendous defender throughout his career.) Then came the 2001 season, a total disaster that saw injuries to Keith Van Horn, Kittles, and Gill, in addition to the fact that #1 overall pick Kenyon Martin was not ready to contribute at the NBA level. Marbury infamously scrawled “All Alone 33″ on his sneakers that season, and you might have too if forced to suit up alongside Lucious Harris, Aaron Williams, an aging Johnny Newman, and Evan Eschmeyer.
At any rate, that summer, Nets GM Rod Thorn pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Marbury to the Phoenix Suns for Jason Kidd. As hard as it is to believe now, there were doubts at the time about the trade from New Jersey’s perspective: Kidd was 4 years older than Marbury, and had been involved in a high-profile domestic violence charge just 6 months earlier. From a basketball perspective, he also represented a complete contrast to Marbury’s style of play — where Marbury was a scorer who played no defense whatsoever, Kidd was a pass-first PG who ranked among the league’s best defenders. (Kidd was also an inferior midrange shooter to Marbury, and surprisingly the two players had roughly the same assist % in 2001.)
In retrospect, the most important — yet vastly underrated — dynamic of the Kidd-Marbury trade came on defense. The Suns were actually better on offense with Marbury in 2002 (-1.3) than they had been in ’01 with Kidd (-3.0), and the Nets’ offensive improvement (from -2.9 to -0.7) can almost completely be attributed to the return of Kittles & Van Horn from injuries, natural second-year improvement by Martin, and the acquisitions of Todd MacCulloch & rookie Richard Jefferson. The real reason why the trade was successful for the Nets was the massive disparity between Kidd and Marbury’s defensive skills; while Kidd was racking up 1st-team All-Defense nods, Marbury was, as previously mentioned, a plainly abysmal defender. With Kidd (and underrated draftee Jason Collins, not to mention an improving Martin), New Jersey’s defense zoomed from 2.9 efficiency points below average to 4.7 points better than average, an improvement of 7.6 points per 100 possessions.
Thorn even hinted at this in statements to the press at the time:
”Jason is the best rebounding point guard in the league. He’s All-NBA in defense and we need help on defense. On the whole, I think we helped our team dramatically.”
Of course, the media also ran with the sentiment that Marbury didn’t make his teammates better on offense, while Kidd was the consummate playmaker and unselfish pure point guard — a theory used by many in the press to nearly propel Kidd to the 2002 MVP award. However true that contrast may have seemed at the time, though, there’s precious little statistical evidence to suggest Kidd represented a major offensive upgrade for the Nets.
Whatever the cause for their improvement, though, suddenly New Jersey was unexpectedly stepping into the breach and assuming the mantle of the East’s best team. They finished the season with 52 wins and the conference’s best record, leading the league in defensive efficiency. In the playoffs, they outlasted the Pacers in a defensive-minded series that went the distance (5 games in those days) and dispatched the Baron Davis-led Hornets by a 4-1 margin, setting up a battle with Boston, the East’s second-best team by SRS.
The Nets-Celtics series turned out to be a closely-contested, grind-it-out affair that would never, ever be confused with beautiful basketball. Game 2 saw the two teams combine to go 60-for-177 (that’s 117 total misses and a 33.9 FG%), and the composite numbers for the entire series weren’t much better — New Jersey outshot Boston 43.3% to 38.6% (the league shot 44.5% during the regular season). Kidd averaged a triple-double, but the real key was squeezing a pair of incredibly inefficient performances out of Celtic stars Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. The pair got their points, combining to score 46.2 PPG, but they needed a ton of attempts to do it, underscoring the dangers in building a team with only 2 legitimate shot-creators (one of whom — Walker — was noted for his epically inefficient game).
Defeating Boston in 6 games, New Jersey advanced to face the juggernaut 2-time defending champion L.A. Lakers. The Lakers represented matchup problems the Nets had not needed to confront thus far in the weak East, in the form of the Lakers’ two best players — Shaquille O’Neal & Kobe Bryant. New Jersey’s 3-headed center rotation of Aaron Williams, Todd MacCullough, & Jason Collins proved wholly incapable of guarding O’Neal, who averaged 36.3 PPG on 59.5% shooting (with 12.3 RPG) in the Finals. While the Nets could slow down the likes of Jermaine O’Neal, Brad Miller, Tony Battie, & Elden Campbell, Shaq was in another league altogether; meanwhile, Bryant also torched Kittles and Kidd for 26.8 PPG on 51.4% shooting.
The combination of O’Neal and Bryant proved devastating to the Nets, who were cast aside in 4 games. The series wasn’t quite as one-sided as the sweep would indicate — 2 of the games were decided by 5 points or fewer — but it nonetheless taught New Jersey the same hard lesson that Indiana and Philadelphia had learned the previous 2 summers: there was no slowing down a motivated Shaq, much less stopping him, without an elite defensive big man. MacCullough was efficient on offense and provided good size, but he was no lockdown post defender. Collins was not yet the elite plus/minus D specialist he would eventually become, and Williams was hopelessly undersized.
Rod Thorn believed the answer lay in the 76ers’ 36-year-old center Dikembe Mutombo, 2001’s Defensive Player of the Year and a 2nd-team All-D selection (3rd-team All-NBA) in 2002. While Mutombo struggled defensively against O’Neal in the 2001 Finals (Shaq scored 33.0 PPG on 57.3% shooting, with 15.8 RPG), to Thorn he represented the best available defensive big man going into the 2003 season — an important year because Kidd would become a free agent the following summer. On August 6, 2002, he sent Keith Van Horn, once considered the future of the franchise when NJ took him 2nd overall in the ’97 Draft, and underrated big man Todd MacCullough to Philly for Mutombo.
That gamble would fail, as Dikembe would only play 34 combined regular-season + playoff games for the Nets in 2003, but the team still finished 1st in the Atlantic, nearly matching their previous season’s win total. Kidd was much better offensively in ’03, boosting his PER from 19.1 to 22.2 (his best mark since 1999), and New Jersey once again posted the best defensive rating in the league. The loss of Van Horn was easily offset by improvements from Jefferson and Martin, and MacCullough’s minutes gave way to Jason Collins, who emerged as one of the best young defensive bigs in the NBA.
In the playoffs, the Nets were immediately taken to six games by a Bucks team that was banking on trade-deadline pickup Gary Payton to take them to the promised land, but after putting away Milwaukee they dominated Boston and Detroit with consecutive series sweeps to secure their second straight Finals berth. Waiting for them would be the Spurs, the first team to beat the Lakers 4 times in a playoff series since their 1999 incarnation swept L.A. out of the postseason. New Jersey had spent all year girding themselves for Shaq, but instead found themselves facing Tim Duncan, who had just finished torching Dallas for 26.7 PPG (on a 60.3 TS%) and 15.9 RPG.
Because the 2002 Finals were so lopsided (and the East so weak at the time), the Nets’ 2003 matchup with the Spurs is often forgotten, or at least written off as another landslide West victory. In reality, it was actually a highly competitive Finals, featuring big back-and-forth swings in series win probability. Unfortunately for the Nets, though, Mutombo was only able to play 13.7 MPG against San Antonio, and neither Martin nor Collins had any answers for Duncan, who won MVP honors with 24.3 PPG (54.6 TS%), 17.1 RPG (!), 5.4 APG, and 6.4 SPG+BPG. (David Robinson also torched NJ with 1.387 pts/possession in the series.) While the Nets tied the series at two games apiece with a 77-76 win in Game 4, the Spurs would capture each of the next two to prevail in six games.
Though they didn’t know it at the time, the Nets had just blown their best shot at winning a championship with Kidd. (Leading by 6 points after the first quarter of Game 3, with the series tied 1-1 and home-court advantage on their side, New Jersey had a 59% probability of beating the Spurs for the NBA title. Alas, it was not to be.) Following the ’03 season, they re-signed Kidd to a 6-year, $103.6M max contract and loaded up for another run with the same cast of characters (plus free agent pickup Alonzo Mourning, who missed all but 12 games with kidney disease), but Kidd’s shooting regressed to its pre-2003 form and the Nets’ offense slid to 25th in the league in 2004. Kidd also slipped slightly on D (he was only a 2nd-team All-Defense pick by this point), which dropped Jersey to 4th in defensive rating as well. With the Nets sitting at 22-20 on January 26, the Nets fired coach Byron Scott and slapped the “interim” title on assistant Lawrence Frank — who promptly won his first 13 games as head coach. Because of that streak, NJ still won 47 games, but they fell out of the top 5 in SRS for the first time since 2001 and lost a contentious conference semifinal series to the eventual-champion Pistons in 7 games.
In a cycle that started with O’Neal abusing them during the 2002 Finals, New Jersey had spent several years gambling on aging, defensive-minded big men to give them a fighting chance against the West’s best. The 2005 Nets were hoping Mourning could come back from a kidney transplant and contribute to their frontcourt (now devoid of Martin, who was traded to the Nuggets for 3 draft picks), but even after returning to the team his effectiveness and availability were spotty due to knee tendinitis. At the same time, Vince Carter‘s star was rapidly falling in Toronto. The one-time “Next Jordan” missed 30.5 games per season in 2002 & 2003, was saddled with using 31.9% of Raptor possessions when on the floor in ’04 (dragging his efficiency below 1.00 point produced per possession), then sleepwalked through the early part of the ’05 season with an inexcusably low 17.0 PER. On December 17, 2004, Toronto traded Carter to the Nets for Mourning — who never reported and was bought out of his contract — plus Eric Williams, Aaron Williams, and a pair of mid-to-late 1st round picks (both of which had been acquired in the Martin trade).
Once in New Jersey, Carter caught fire, posting a 24.5 PER as a Net (he was also a plus/minus beast — NJ was 12.1 points of net efficiency better with VC in the game for them). The Nets were 9-16 at the time of the trade; they would go 33-24 the rest of the way, grabbing the East’s final playoff slot over the Cavaliers via tiebreaker. In the playoffs, though, New Jersey’s weak offense was exposed (Kidd and Carter shot poorly, with VC forced into assuming a huge amount of the team’s offensive responsibility) and their normally-solid defense was torched by Dwyane Wade and the Heat.
Even after acquiring Carter, the Nets were a flawed team. Frank had slowed New Jersey’s pace considerably from its halcyon days under Scott, funneling as many possessions as possible through Carter, Kidd, and Richard Jefferson (who missed most of ’05 with injury and struggled at both ends against Miami in the playoffs), but they still were not a very good offensive team, and they sacrificed some of their trademark defensive efficiency when they picked up Carter.
Heading into 2006, the Nets made few offseason waves in terms of player acquisition, and their draft selection of Antoine Wright underscored the team’s ongoing issues in that area. Since picking Martin 1st overall in 2000 and snagging Jefferson & Collins in a draft-day trade for Eddie Griffin in 2001, the Nets’ drafts produced just two players of any significance: Nenad Krstic, who was the team’s starting PF but a below-average player at best, and Kyle Korver, whom the Nets immediately shipped to Philly for cash after drafting him 51st overall in 2003. After 2002, the Nets used their 1st-rounders on Zoran Planinic (a replacement-level combo guard), Viktor Khryapa (dealt to Portland for replacement-level PG Eddie Gill, whom they waived two weeks later), and Antoine Wright (a replacement-level swingman).
In fairness, the Nets’ success had them drafting late in the 1st round every year, but they still batted exactly .000 on their picks during this stage of the Kidd era, failing to even land a functional role player. As a result, the 2006 Nets’ roster consisted of the Kidd/Carter/Jefferson/Krstic core but little else — the team gave at least 400 minutes to the likes of Jason Collins (whose offensive limitations were stretching the value of his defensive impact to its breaking point), a washed-up Clifford Robinson, a washed-up Jacque Vaughn, a washed-up Lamond Murray, a washed-up Jeff McInnis, and the “never-was” Planinic (to go with journeymen Scott Padgett and Marc Jackson). New Jersey still won 49 games and the Atlantic Division crown on the strength of their defense, but it was a mark propped up by the NBA’s 5th-easiest schedule. After needing six games to topple an exceedingly mediocre Pacers squad (their leading minutes-getter was journeyman backup PG Anthony Johnson) in Round 1, Miami once again dismantled New Jersey in the playoffs, this time bouncing the Nets in 5 en route to the NBA title.
By this point, the Nets had stalled out. Their offense was poor, their defense was no longer the league’s very best, and the East was no longer a complete walk-over (four of the five best players taken in the ’03 & ’04 drafts — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, & Chris Bosh — landed on Eastern Conference teams). They were good enough to make the playoffs, but had long since passed the point of contending for a title, and should have been painfully familiar with their core’s ceiling. Even their pair of first-round picks held little potential for any more than role players, with both coming near the end of the round (they’d eventually use the picks on replacement-level PG Marcus D. Williams and big man Josh Boone, who couldn’t get an NBA gig after his rookie contract and had to play in China).
Despite all this, the Nets stuck with their core in 2007; their only meaningful summer move was picking up Mikki Moore for a 2009 2nd-rounder (which proved useful when Krstic went down with a torn ACL and Moore enjoyed an assist-driven career year playing with Kidd and Carter). Meanwhile, Kidd, Carter, and Jefferson’s eroding defense saw New Jersey fall to 15th in defensive efficiency, and while the offense improved to 16th, it was still below average. The team finished 41-41 with a negative scoring margin, and were cast aside 4-2 by James’ Cavaliers in the 2nd round after flashing some of their old defensive magic against Toronto in Round 1. Then, that summer, the Nets quickened their demise by taking (you guessed it) replacement-level PF/C Sean Williams with the 17th overall pick in the draft. In case you’re counting, the Nets’ 1st-round picks from 2003 to 2007 yielded six replacement-level players; even for the mid-to-late 1st round, that’s a painful track record.
Thus, the 2008 Nets proved to be the end of the road for the Jason Kidd era in New Jersey. The team started the year 17-16, but proceeded to lose 11 of their next 14 games. On February 4, the fire sale began, as Collins was shipped to Memphis for Stromile Swift. Then, two weeks later, the final hammer fell: the Nets traded Malik Allen, Jason Kidd and Antoine Wright to the Dallas Mavericks for Maurice Ager, DeSagana Diop, Devin Harris, Trenton Hassell, Keith Van Horn contract, and two 1st-round picks. With that, an era was over.
As far as fallout goes, the Nets would miss the playoffs every year since, fire Frank after an 0-16 start to the 2009 season, go through 2 more coaches before settling on Avery Johnson (ironically the Mavs’ coach at the time of the Kidd trade), make a failed pitch to sign James in 2010, trade Harris to Utah for Deron Williams in 2011, and set themselves up for an interesting 2012 offseason — all in time to move to Brooklyn for the 2013 season.
Kidd would quickly begin to show his age in his second stint as a Maverick, but he did log 37.4 minutes and 6.5 assists per game (with a 58.2 TS%) for Dallas in their 2011 Finals victory over the Miami Heat, earning the future Hall of Famer his first, and probably only, NBA championship ring.
Carter bounced to Orlando, Phoenix, and Dallas (naturally, a year after their title); Jefferson’s various ill-advised contracts made him a pawn in several cap-related trades that eventually landed him with Golden State; Martin left Denver to play in China during the lockout and couldn’t return for the start of the 2012 season (he ultimately signed with the Clippers); Marbury melted down with the Knicks before finding his own redemption in China. And two of the league’s three best regular-season teams over the past two seasons are in the Eastern Conference.
The decade of the 2000s was an interesting transition period for the NBA, ushering out the Jordan era and introducing to the league a new set of contenders. While O’Neal, Bryant, and Duncan dominated the West, the East lacked a signature superstar to fill the gap between the reigns of Jordan and LeBron James. But it’s tough to argue that Jason Kidd didn’t do as much as anyone to try to fill that vacuum.