After routinely outracing defenders on his way to 50-win seasons in Phoenix and New Jersey, Nets point guard Jason Kidd has spent his 11th NBA season running uphill. Following the off-season trades of starters Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles, New Jersey got off to a 4--12 start before Kidd returned from left knee surgery; one month later, emerging swingman Richard Jefferson suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Yet last week Kidd had succeeded in driving the Nets to a season-high five-game winning streak, drawing them within one game of the East's final playoff spot. "On the outside it may look like it's been a down year," Kidd said as he watched his six-year-old son, T.J., shoot baskets at the team's practice facility last Friday. "But with the stuff that we've gone through, I think it's been a pretty good year."
Week-ending home losses to the Grizzlies and the Timberwolves, however, left New Jersey (32--38) 31/2 games behind the 76ers with only 12 to play. Whether or not Kidd misses the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, expect him to apply further pressure to owner Bruce Ratner and team president Rod Thorn to make the necessary moves to boost New Jersey back into contention. "The window of opportunity is now," says Kidd, 32. "Last summer was big, but this one will be twice--I mean three times--as big because this will affect where this franchise will be going for the next five years."
If the Nets don't improve, will Kidd demand a trade--a step he has yet to take despite rampant rumors of his desire to play elsewhere? "I think there'll be a time and place for all that, but you wait and see, and you hope that they can do something," he says. "But that's always an alternative."
Such talk doesn't sit well with fans and smacks of ingratitude--after all, New Jersey signed Kidd to a six-year, $103.6 million contract in 2003. But give Kidd credit: He's willing to take the heat if his threats prod management to act. "I understand his thing is to go to Brooklyn," Kidd says of Ratner's plan to relocate the franchise in 2008 as part of a larger development project. "But you have a good chance to win here right now, so why blow that opportunity? It doesn't come around all the time."
Thorn believes that he and Kidd are on the same page. "We're going to try to do everything we can to get better as quickly as we can," says Thorn, who proved it by using two of the No. 1 picks from the Martin trade to steal Vince Carter from the Raptors. (New Jersey also gave up Alonzo Mourning, Aaron Williams and Eric Williams.) Though 7-foot rookie center Nenad Krstic has made rapid improvement--13.0 points and 5.2 rebounds in 28.2 minutes since the All-Star break--the Nets still need a frontcourt stopper to replace Martin. Ratner has already committed to paying Kidd, Carter and Jefferson $40.4 million next season, and bringing in a veteran power forward could push him over the luxury tax threshold.
Win or lose, Kidd will have to adapt. By essentially exchanging Martin and Kittles for Carter, the new Nets became more potent offensively, especially in the half- court, but they're slower in transition and far less intimidating defensively. Though Kidd appears fully recovered from his July surgery--he was shooting threes at a career-high 37.9% through Sunday because he has two strong legs under him--no team is likely to trade equal talent for a frightening contract that guarantees Kidd $21.4 million in 2008--09, when he'll be 36.
The contrast between Kidd and Carter on the court last week was striking. Carter appeared carefree, inspired by his escape from Toronto and the happiness of being in a playoff race again. But Kidd, though spry as ever, seemed joyless, enduring the competition instead of reveling in it. "The joy is still there," he says. "Our margin of error is a lot smaller, so you don't have time to enjoy it."
MANNY MILLAN (KIDD)
Few playmakers are the equal of Kidd--and he's trying to be a dealmaker as well.