Injuries, bad chemistry and misfiring stars have sent the Nets
Nets coach Don Casey recalls feeling a sense of calm as the
exhibition season ended and the games started to count. "We had
a decent preseason," Casey says. "There were no big warning
signs. Losing nine of the first 10? None of us would have
believed it. I swear, it's almost like a virus. Once [the
losing] starts spreading, it's hard to stop it."
The Centers for Disease Control would be baffled by this group,
which fell to 2-12 last Saturday after a 129-90 pounding at
Phoenix. True, New Jersey has been stricken by injuries that
have temporarily shelved swingmen Kendall Gill, Scott Burrell
and Lucious Harris and kept starting center Jayson Williams and
starting guard Kerry Kittles sidelined virtually all year. After
doctors said he could return to action on his surgically
repaired right knee, Kittles did play seven minutes on Nov. 15,
but he hasn't suited up since. It makes you wonder if former
coach John Calipari was right: Maybe Kittles's psyche is too
fragile for him to be a reliable go-to guy.
The deeper mysteries surround New Jersey's two top guns,
22-year-old point guard Stephon Marbury and 24-year-old forward
Keith Van Horn, each of whom has a six-year, $73 million
contract. Last year Marbury forced a trade from the Timberwolves
to be closer to his family in Brooklyn. While his mother has
publicly ripped the other Nets players as losers, Marbury had
hoisted 21.4 shots per game at week's end and hit just 38.7% of
them. Marbury's supporters say he's tired of dishing to guys who
can't knock down a jumper. His critics say he has one eye on the
scoreboard and the other on the scoring title.
Before the team headed West for a four-game trip, Casey reminded
Marbury that he has a responsibility to keep his teammates
involved, regardless of how he views their games. In turn,
Marbury outlined some of his frustrations with the Nets. The
discussion didn't help much. New Jersey won just once and was
outscored by an average of 25 points in the three losses. "I
think they have a guard who is so offensive-minded that he's
taking the rest of the players out of the game," Nuggets
assistant coach Kim Hughes says. "Marbury is clearly a talent,
but when Van Horn never gets involved, you're wasting him."
It's hard to know which aspect of Van Horn's game has been a
bigger disappointment: his horrid shooting (35.9% at week's end)
or his porous defense, which has forced the Nets to double-team
to cover for him. Last season he shot just 42.8% and committed
3.2 turnovers a game, but he averaged 21.8 points and acted like
a star on the rise. He has exhibited little of that swagger this
season, looking shaky on his release, repeatedly dribbling into
traffic and scoring 17.6 points per game through Sunday. "If you
saw him right now, you'd say he's the most overrated player in
the league," says one Eastern Conference coach. "But to say
that, you'd have to throw out the past two seasons, when he
showed promise. It's puzzling."
Published reports have suggested that Marbury and Van Horn
cannot coexist on the court, yet Van Horn said last Saturday, "I
have no problem with Steph." New Jersey coaches have talked
about moving Van Horn from power forward to small forward, but
that might only weaken a D ranked 28th in the league. "It looks
to me like everyone is committed to trying to get theirs and not
to stopping anybody," says Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse.
Van Horn is clearly pining for the return of Williams, who's
recovering from a broken right tibia and a torn right meniscus
and could be back by mid-January. On the court Williams's
rebounding and post-up game take pressure off Van Horn; off it,
Williams deflects media attention and pumps Van Horn up. When he
returns, Williams should at least be able to grab some boards,
crack some jokes and loosen up what has become a doomsday locker
Principal owner Lewis Katz has told Casey his job is safe for
the season, but with only a one-year contract, it will be hard
for Casey to bring the hammer down on someone like Marbury, who
could have him fired in a nanosecond. Casey claims the last
thing on his mind is job security. "The issue is to get this
thing going," he says. "I'm trying my best not to let this get
Tim Duncan's Future
THE KEY VOTE IS NOT YET IN
On Nov. 2, the night the Spurs embarked on defending their
title, San Antonio voters were busy passing a referendum that
guaranteed the construction of a new arena, ensuring that the
Spurs would stay in town, that franchise forward Tim Duncan
would re-sign and that San Antonio fans would live happily ever
Not exactly. While a new arena will be built by 2002, it's no
slam dunk that Duncan will re-up when he becomes a free agent at
the end of this season. "I'm just keeping my options open," says
Duncan, 23. "I can't just go out and verbally agree to something
that can't happen until next summer anyway. What I want is to be
in a winning situation from year to year. I don't want to be
stuck where that's not happening."
It must be a little unnerving to know that even though San
Antonio can give Duncan a seven-year extension with annual
raises of 12%--versus the 10% other teams can offer--he's not
pledging to stay. While the Spurs are quietly confident they'll
re-sign Duncan, who likes the city, the staff and the players,
team sources believe he will go for a three- or four-year deal
that will allow him a way out if San Antonio is unable to
rebuild. His concern about the team's future is reasonable.
David Robinson and point guard Avery Johnson are 34. Forward
Sean Elliott, 31, underwent a kidney transplant last August, and
his return is not a certainty. The other key veteran, Mario
Elie, turned 36 last Friday.
Those signs of age had the Magic holding a fire sale last summer
to clear salary-cap room for a run at Duncan. While some players
put a premium on staying with the same team for their entire
career--Pistons star Grant Hill, for instance, will weigh that
factor heavily when he becomes a free agent next summer--Duncan
does not. "It's not a real big deal to me," he says. "When I
step on the floor, I'm all team, but I'm not going to stay
anywhere out of loyalty."
Line of the Week
SAC IT TO 'EM
Kings forward Chris Webber, Nov. 26 versus the Warriors: 31
minutes, 8-of-12 FG, 4-of-5 FT, 20 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists,
2 steals. In the game after he had the first triple double of the
season, Webber led Sacramento to its 15th straight home win.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Van Horn's poor play has contributed to his team's falling fortunes.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Duncan is unlikely to commit to seven more years with the Spurs.
Around The Rim
After playing just 9.2 minutes a game in his first two seasons,
6'9" Austin Croshere has become vital to the Pacers' youth
movement. Not only was he averaging 8.0 points and 5.6 rebounds
in 18.5 minutes through Sunday, but he was also blocking 1.4
shots a game, having surprised the likes of Alonzo Mourning,
Charles Barkley and Tim Duncan. "Austin's a white guy, but he
can jump," teammate Jalen Rose told The Indianapolis Star....
After being a model citizen last season in Golden State, veteran
guard John Starks was shooting only 32.3% from the floor at
week's end and was looking for a one-way ticket out of town....
As if rookie point guard Steve Francis doesn't already have his
hands full running the Rockets' offense, he has Barkley on his
case. "When he says something, it goes in one ear, and if it's
constructive, I leave it in there and think about it," says
Francis. "But if he's just getting on me, it goes in one ear and
right on out the other."...
The Timberwolves won't be a title contender until they get to
the line more. Their average of 23.2 foul shots is 27th in the
league, and through 11 games the starting backcourt of Terrell
Brandon and Anthony Peeler had combined for only 37 free throws.
Too bad. Brandon was hitting 91.3% from the line and Peeler
First-year Magic forward Corey Maggette went on the injured list
on Nov. 24 with an infected left toe. The cause: a pedicure gone
bad. "They don't make rookies like they used to," says Orlando
coach Doc Rivers.