- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

The New Jersey Nets have escaped the bottom of the Atlantic Division and risen to the top of the Eastern Conference in grand fashion, but just like comedian Rodney Dangerfield, they still can't get any respect.

They doubled last season's win total, and they are enjoying their best playoff run since the team joined the NBA in 1976. Still, that was only good enough to earn coach Byron Scott third place in the balloting for Coach of the Year. Point guard Jason Kidd, their star player and darling of the New York metropolitan area, became only the fourth player in history to lead the league in assists in three consecutive seasons but failed to capture the MVP trophy.

And when they have complained about those perceived slights, they got hammered. Scott said Kidd's not winning the award was "ridiculous." And of his finishing behind Detroit's Rick Carlisle and Sacramento's Rick Adelman, Scott said, "I know I deserved it."

"I don't agree that Scott and Kidd were snubbed or overlooked regarding the Coach of the Year and MVP awards because the Nets aren't getting enough respect," said NBC analyst Bill Walton, himself a one-time league MVP. "In fact, I'm sick and tired of hearing New Jersey complain about how the voting turned out. I just wish they'd keep quiet and let their game do the talking in the postseason."

And that is exactly what the Nets have done. After eliminating Indiana and Charlotte in the first and second rounds of the playoffs, the Nets can advance to the finals for the first time since joining the league in 1976 if they can get by the Celtics in their best-of-seven playoff series, beginning Sunday in New Jersey.

"That's the goal," Scott said. "You can't look back on what somebody did on a ballot. We've got to do it on the court. We do that, and everything else means nothing."

That the Nets have somewhat of an image problem is not the fault of the present players. In fact, the damage started years ago.

When the Nets joined the NBA following the merger of the two leagues, the Nets traded Julius "Dr. J" Erving, at the time the ABA's marquee player and an eventual Hall of Fame player, before playing their first NBA game.

Since that time they have been dogged by a series of questionable personnel moves and outright bad luck.

Some of their more notorious draft choices include Derrick Coleman and one-time George Washington University center Yinka Dare. And when it appeared as though the Nets had made a good move such as acquiring Croatian guard Drazen Petrovic the end result was often misfortune. Petrovic was killed in an automobile accident following the 1992-93 season.

"I've heard about the curse of Dr. J," Scott said. "Hopefully this season will go a long way toward lifting it."

Most of the heavy lifting this season, of course, has been done by Kidd, whom the Nets acquired in exchange for Stephon Marbury in a blockbuster deal before the start of this season.

However, adding Kidd to the Nets' mix didn't automatically guarantee success. The Nets are Kidd's third team since he was drafted No. 2 overall by Dallas in 1994. Kidd also carried some of his own baggage, mainly having been arrested for punching his wife, Joumana, in the face.

And presenting a potentially bigger problem for the Nets is the fact that Kidd's contract is up after next season. During All-Star Weekend both Kidd and San Antonio center Tim Duncan who finished ahead of Kidd in the voting for MVP joked about the two perhaps joining forces in San Antonio following next season.

But Kidd has gone about his business in New Jersey in a professional manner. He has not talked publicly about leaving, and the results thus far have been stunning.

"It would have been easy to say, 'This is going to be one stop for 82 games, and you're going to be out of here as fast as you got here,'" said Kidd, who could force a trade this summer because of his free-agent status after next season. "But I came here with the attitude that, on paper, we had some talented guys."

That Kidd is a dominant player is a given. But the Nets needed others to step up their games and this is precisely what happened. Forward Kenyon Martin led the team in scoring (14.9 points) and became a force at the defensive end. Guard Kerry Kittles, who missed last season following knee surgery, played 82 regular-season games this year. And free-agent center Todd MacCulloch, although limited athletically, was solid in the middle all season.

And as a result, the Nets at some point in the season went from a team that thought it could be good to the team that is now on the cusp of the finals.

"We all talked about making the playoffs," Scott said. "As the season went on and we were playing pretty well, we had to change our expectations. We all said our goal should be a lot higher."

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