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Nets seem a bit tangled

Moves and injuries raise lots of questions

In keeping with the New York-Boston theme du jour, we meander south to take a look at the Celtics' former daddies, the New Jersey Nets.

In this case, however, paternity has its limits.

In the Jason Kidd era, which we believe is still ongoing, the Nets have indeed been the Celtics' daddy. In Year 1 of the Kidd regime, the Nets took the final three games of the Eastern Conference finals to eliminate Jim O'Brien's overachieving band of 3-point shooters.

The following year, the Nets won three of the four regular-season games and then broomed the Celtics out of the playoffs in the second round. That series was best remembered for the announced hiring of Danny Ainge hours before the start of the critical Game 3.

Last year, the Nets won the first two meetings between the teams (making it 12 of 13, if you're still counting). The second loss, a 110-91 drubbing in the Meadowlands, proved to be O'Brien's last game as coach of the Celtics. Boston then took the last two meetings, but they were games in which the Nets were without Kidd and Kenyon Martin.

As the 2004-05 season awaits, the Nets are still without Kidd and KMart, not to mention Kerry Kittles, Lucious Harris, and Rodney Rogers. All but Kidd were either traded or not re-signed. Kidd is out for another six weeks or so as he recuperates from offseason knee surgery. Only two of their top seven scorers from last season -- newly minted millionaire Richard Jefferson and the returned millionaire, Alonzo Mourning -- have any chance of being in the starting lineup on Opening Night.

The Nets have added ex-Celtics Eric Williams and Ron Mercer to the mix. But this year's team bears little resemblance to the team that made it to two straight NBA Finals and won three straight Atlantic Division titles. The Nets dropped a 92-84 exhibition opener to the Knicks Thursday night in that noted hoop hotbed, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (They led after three quarters, but then missed their first 16 shots of the fourth.) They played the Celtics last night in Albany, N.Y.

Against the Knicks, second-year player Zoran Planinic started in Kidd's spot. Planinic played 15 minutes in six playoff games for the Nets last season and wasn't on either Byron Scott's or Lawrence Frank's radar screen during the regular season. Backing him up was Jacque Vaughn, playing for his 397th NBA team. Travis Best is being given a look-see. Brian Scalabrine started at power forward. Mourning did not play.

Celtics fans could be chanting "Who's Your Daddy?" when the Nets make their first FleetCenter visit Feb. 2. (Then again, Kidd will be back by then, which means all chants are off.)

The architect of the Nets restructuring, team president Rod Thorn, has had the unfortunate task of publicly defending and accepting new owner Bruce Ratner's decisions to trim payroll and personnel. Ratner makes Paul Gaston look like Mark Cuban. He allowed Martin to go to the Nuggets and Kittles to the Clippers without getting so much as a single body in return. Harris and Rogers also left without anything or anyone coming back.

"Without Martin and with Kidd still rehabbing, we're not going to be as strong as we were last year," Thorn conceded.

The Nets did sign Jefferson to a six-year deal worth $76 million. That's essentially what Denver is paying Martin, although KMart's deal has an extra year (and an extra $16.5 million) along with a $1.5 million signing bonus. Kidd will earn nearly $14.8 million this season in the second year of a six-year deal worth more than $103.5 million. The Nets also are on the hook for three more years and $17.7m to Mourning, who gave them 12 games last year.

But the real question is Kidd. Having an unhappy Jason Kidd around is not a good thing, and Thorn understands Kidd's frustration at the dismantling of one of the top teams in the East.

"I don't think I'm talking out of school to say he was upset about the moves," Thorn said. "His feeling was that we had gone from one of the best teams in the conference to a team that will be fighting to make the playoffs. He wasn't happy about that.

"But Jason is a very competitive person and, I think, with the passage of time and with his return to health, hopefully, he'll get out and play like we know he can."

Thorn said Kidd could be back on the court in 2-3 weeks, and then it will be a matter of time until he gets his conditioning down.

"If I had to make a guess, I'd say he'd be ready to play a month into the season," Thorn said. "That's if everything goes well. And if he is healthy, I think we'll still be pretty good."

Get over it
While the Nets are rebuilding, retooling, or reconfiguring -- take your choice -- their neighbors across the Hudson are thinking big things. Say this for the Knicks: They have plenty of room to move. Since the start of the 2001-02 season, New York has spent a total of 12 days above .500. The last time the Knicks had more wins than losses was on Dec. 12, 2002, when they stood at 11-10. They then proceeded to lose their next three and 15 of 18 (this was with Don Chaney having succeeded the resigned Jeff Van Gundy), and they have not been above water since. Despite all the losing, the Knicks remain one of only two teams in the Eastern Conference to have increased their win totals in each of the last two seasons (the other is Indiana). "I think they're more talented," said Thorn. "I think they're more athletic. I think they have more depth." Left unsaid by the Nets president was the consensus that the Knicks are small, could well have trouble stopping anyone, and have a potentially volatile mix, especially in the backcourt . . . It was noted here last week that Bill Walton had to be smiling upon hearing that the Spurs intend to list Tim Duncan at 6 feet 11 inches after listing him at 7 feet since his career began in 1998. Walton always insisted on being listed at 6-11, even though he sure looks a lot taller than 7-foot Robert Parish in the Celtics' 1986 team picture. "I'm 6-11," Walton reiterated via e-mail. "Just ask Kareem." . . . Walton spent the weekend in China, broadcasting a couple of exhibition games between the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings. The teams played Thursday night in Shanghai, which was Yao Ming's hoop home before he joined the Rockets, and will play again today in Beijing. This is Yao's third year, his second with Van Gundy, and the Rockets coach is expecting big things from his big man. "There is no greater teammate in the NBA," Van Gundy said. "He is all about team. He also happens to be a very good basketball player, but the big unknown is this: Where does he take his career from here? To the Hall of Fame? To just short of the Hall of Fame? To being one of the all-time greats? To a large part, that's up to Yao." Van Gundy wants Yao to be on the floor more this season. Last year, Yao averaged a shade less than 33 minutes a game while not missing a single contest for the second straight season. "Can he get his conditioning to a higher level to be able to play 35-38 minutes a game? And, if necessary, 40 minutes? The great ones all do," Van Gundy said. "His size is an inherent obstacle to overcome. But he's worked unbelievably hard to increase his conditioning and he's light-years ahead of where he was at this time last year." Of course, conditioning isn't the only reason Yao doesn't play more minutes. He tends to get in foul trouble. He committed a foul every 9.8 minutes he was on the floor last season and fouled out of four games. "We've got to reduce the unnecessary fouls," Van Gundy said. "If he can stay on the floor, we think he can make a jump." . . . You really have to wonder how badly Phil Jackson needed whatever money he got for the upcoming publication of his diary from last season. Yes, it reaffirms what most of us already knew and what Los Angeles reporters had been writing for years: That Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal hated each other to point of being infantile about it and that Jackson almost always sided with Shaq. But did the Lakers organization know Jackson was doing a book? Yes, it did. It also had a general idea of what the book was going to be about -- in other words, not a collection of Phil's favorite restaurants -- but was not aware of what specifically Jackson was going to write. The organization also said it had no authority to approve or disapprove what Jackson wrote. Jackson will go down as one of the NBA's greatest coaches; he's earned that. But he's forfeited the opportunity to coach again based upon the few snippets that I've read. Maybe if he had spent less time writing his diary and more time trying to find ways to beat the Pistons, he might have won that 10th championship . . . Here's ex-Laker Mark Madsen's take on some of the pettiness that led to the LA diaspora: "I feel really badly about the whole situation out there. I have friendships with those guys. Kobe is a good person. Shaq is a good person. It's unfortunate that all these things are being said." He said this before the stuff in Jackson's book was made public . . . Mourning is not participating in contact drills for the Nets as he awaits a special pad (made by the good folks at Nike) to protect his kidneys. "It should be here any day now," Thorn said. It's pretty clear that the Nets are taking the approach that anything they get from Zo is gravy. "He certainly wants to play," Thorn said. "As to whether he can, or how well he can, who knows? We'll have to wait and see."

A long shot, but . . .
It looked for a brief, shining moment this past week like someone in the NBA had had an epiphany, and that the league would do away with the game's most hideous sideshow, the 3-point shot, until the last five minutes of a game. Not true, said league operations chief Stu Jackson, although he did say that the NDBL, the NBA's developmental league, was experimenting with a no-three game. Jackson also offered that there are those out there who think eliminating the 3-point shot might actually increase ball movement and playmaking, and lead to better shots and more scoring. What a concept! It must have come down to WWWD: What Would Waltah Do without the 3-pointer? But it's something worth pursuing. It's sickening to see teams come down on a three-on-one break and someone jacks up a 3-pointer . . . Speaking of which, Antoine Walker launched 10 treys in the first two Atlanta exhibition games, making five . . . Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay just came back from spending time with his son-in-law, O'Brien, who also happens to coach the 76ers. Writing on, Dr. Jack offered the following on the Sixers and the re-conversion of Allen Iverson into a point guard: "In the first days of training camp, I felt Allen was trying so hard to be a good point guard that he neglected opportunities to score himself. He was overpassing and turning the ball over unnecessarily. As camp progressed, he settled into an acceptable balance of creating and scoring. The Sixers need both qualities from AI." Ramsay thinks the Sixers are a deep team and added, "From my observation, the Sixers will be among the top defenders in the league and will play an exciting, up-tempo offense. If the offense can average 90 points a game, Philly will win a lot of games." (90 points? 90 POINTS?) ESPN had the Sixers ranked 23d in its preseason power poll. Said Ramsay, "This team is much better than that."

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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