Monday, July 5, 2004

Will the Nets be torn apart?

By Chad Ford
ESPN Insider

It didn't take long for new Nets owner Bruce Ratner to get a rep in the league and the New York media. The GMs around the league refer to him as a business owner -- a guy who cares more about the bottom line than the win column. The media? Well, the New York Daily News dubbed him the "rat" after word began spreading like wildfire that Ratner was ready to gut the Nets to save a buck or two.

Over the past week, Ratner has been making his case, individually, to anyone who will listen that he plans to keep the Nets intact. He's not trading Jason Kidd despite numerous reports from league GMs that Kidd is on the block. He's not letting Kenyon Martin slip away in free agency amidst assertions from his own team president, Rod Thorn, that Martin is asking for more money than the team believes he's worth.

While many in the league and a few inside the Nets believe that Ratner is more interested in his development project -- the one that will relocate the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn -- than the team itself, Ratner firmly denies that the team is in any jeopardy of breaking up.

"I'm not somebody that's in a cost-cutting nature," Ratner told the Daily News under a headline that said 'Bruce: I'm no rat.' "I believe you have to spend money. In the case of real estate, people look and say, 'Look how beautiful this place is.' That's the same thing in the case of basketball."

"The cost-cutting is totally exaggerated," he told the New York Times. "Look, every team makes decisions as to what are the best players for this particular group to work together, play together, and how do you do that in a cost-effective way? Sometimes that means trading someone much more needed by another team, you know, and saving some money so we can keep other players."

After two Finals appearances in three years, are the Nets as we know them through? Or will the new ownership bring them back for one more encore? Here's a look at what to expect as Insider continues its summer blueprint series.

Nets Summer Blueprint

DRAFT: Ratner got the cost-cutting rap, in part, because of his decision to sell the No. 22 pick in the draft to the Blazers. After the fact, Nets president Rod Thorn claimed they believed there was no one on the board at No. 22 worth drafting. But internally, sources told Insider that Thorn's statements were after-the-fact spin. The Nets did have someone they loved on the board at 22 -- Sergei Monia -- but had already agreed to trade the pick to Portland.

FREE AGENCY: This summer everything hinges on Kenyon Martin. Martin is one of the top two or three best free agents on the market and is getting rabid interest from teams like the Nuggets and Hawks, in part, because they believe that the Nets might not match a max deal.

Will they? The team balked at signing him to a max extension last fall and Thorn has been less than enthusiastic about the prospect of shelling out that kind of cash to keep K-Mart in town.

"Kenyon has made it very clear through his agent he wants a max deal," Thorn said last week. "It's going to be up to him to see if he can get one. We're just going to see what the market is for him."

He'll probably get multiple offers. The Nets know it. And unless they are able to trade away another expensive asset, they might not be able to match it. That's why the team offered to swap Martin to Denver for Nene just before the draft. The Nuggets balked, believing they might be able to land Martin and keep Nene. Why give up an asset when you don't have to?

Since that time, however, the Nets caught a huge break. Rodney Rogers failed to opt in to the last year of his deal, immediately clearing around $3.3 million in cap space this summer to re-sign Martin.

Combine that with the savings from dumping the first-round pick, and maybe the Nets will be willing to swallow Martin's deal. Then again, Richard Jefferson will be looking for a big extension of his own this summer and former first-round pick Nenad Kristic is ready to come to the U.S. to play this summer. Any short-term savings is about to get buried in more cap stuff.

Obviously, given the nature of the Nets' financial woes, using their mid-level exception on a free agent is out of the question. That's going to be a major problem for a team that was just way too thin to compete with deeper teams like Detroit and Indiana. At this point, it looks like the team is tightening its belt, not loosening it.

TRADES: If someone does have to go, it could turn out that Jason Kidd, not K-Mart, is the one in the most danger of changing addresses this summer.

The Nets love Kidd, but they know, at the age of 32, that his best days are behind him. Kidd just had microfracture surgery on his knee and will likely miss training camp recovering from the surgery. The surgery is a difficult one to recover from and there's a chance that Kidd might never be the same.

That's a double-edged sword for the Nets. Without Kidd, spending the money on Martin and company is a waste. The Nets just aren't good enough without him to contend. Unless, that is, they can work out a trade for Kidd and get a marquee player in return. The problem is, with Kidd's future in serious doubt, who would trade for him at this point?

The speculation all year has pointed to San Antonio. The Spurs made a big bid for Kidd last summer and Kidd was very close to accepting it. A year later, the Nets would love to work out a sign-and-trade for Tony Parker. The Spurs don't appear as excited anymore.

Kerry Kittles is the other guy on the block. The Nets and Blazers had serious discussions about a Kittles-and-Aaron Williams-for-Shareef Abdur-Rahim swap, but little else.

COACHING: Byron Scott was the fall guy for the Nets' problems last season and his young assistant, Lawrence Frank, seemed to justify the firing of Scott. Frank, during his brief tenure there, energized the team and led it on an frantic run toward the end of the season. The Nets were one game away from knocking the eventual world champion Pistons out of the playoffs.

Kidd is a big Frank supporter, meaning he'll be in great shape as long as Kidd sticks around. Even if Kidd leaves, Frank seems to have fallen in favor with Thorn and is the type of overachieving head coach GMs love.

FRONT OFFICE: Rod Thorn has done a great job in New Jersey, but some believe he too may be part of Ratner's cost-cutting schemes. At $2 million per year, Thorn is among the highest-paid GMs in the league.

More likely, it would be Thorn who would consider leaving if Ratner really is cutting bait. Thorn has spent enormous hours rebuilding the team. He won't stand by forever and watch a land developer rip it to shreds.

For now at least, the focus is off the team, the coach and the GM. It's squarely on Ratner, who must decide whether he can afford to pay for a good team with no fan support in a lame-duck city. He claims that he'll keep it together. But his accountants, who know, win or lose, that no one will come and watch the Nets, may get the best of him.

Until they get to Brooklyn, what's the point?