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When the clock ran out on the pre-All-Star Break portion of the New Jersey Nets season, point guard Stephon Marbury shot into the air like a rocket and pumped his fist. For once, anger was not Marbury's (basketball) court-ordered emotion. Joy was.
As all but the most haplessly hopeful fans in the building knew, however, an early-February, three-game winning streak that concluded with a 99-97 squeaker over the Spurs would not amount to much.
Predictably, after an emotional Marbury captured the country's imagination and further lubed up the hopes of Net fans with his fourth-quarter performance in the All-Star Game, it was quickly back to earth for the team that seems forever mired in the muck their arena sits in. A near loss to the Lakers (despite 50 points and 12 assists from Steph) was followed by a blowout defeat at Detroit last Wednesday. That loss left the Nets with a pitiful 17-36 record at press timefirmly out of the playoff picture well before March Madness . . . again.
To hear the players and head coach talk, there is little fault to be laid on anyone for the Nets' continuing struggles. All that's spoken is a simple we-need-to-work-harder-and-mature mantra coupled with New Jersey's old standby: "too many injuries." Ask any Net, you'll get some version of the same old same old.
"We haven't been able to put the same guys on the floor too many nights," says veteran gunner Johnny Newman. "And a lot of the ones we have put out are young."
"Stephen [Jackson] and I, we're rookies, and we're playing a lot of minutes," says No. 1 pick Kenyon Martin, an athletic forward who has shown little scoring ability. "We need time to develop, and everyone on the team needs to get used to the new coach."
"I think the injuries have hurt," says power forward Aaron Williams. "Now that we have Jamie Feick back, I think things will be better."
"Injuries," states Evan Eschmeyer, the second-year big man. "With that and the young guys, we're a team that's just starting to find ourselves."
"When a team has new pieces, it takes a while to get going," veteran two-guard Lucious Harris says. "There's ups and downs in this league, and we've just had to endure more downs."
While it's good to hear the team sharing similar viewsa pleasant change from the me-first attitude that typified the Derrick Coleman eraa grasp of reality might be nice to listen to as well. Of the Nets, only Marbury will even hintin a polite, avoid-the-tabloids kind of waythat this year's problem might have very little to do with injuries and very much to do with the fact that these guys just aren't that good.
As of Valentine's Day, the Nets ranked dead last in the league in shooting and second to last in rebounding. The wretched Bulls, who flip-flop with the Nets in these two stats, are the only team that comes close to that type of trouble with shooting and rebounding.
In a group that shoots a Hudson River-in-January-like 42 percent from the floor, only Marburythe point guard, remember?is shooting over 45 percent. And people wonder why he averages only 6.9 assists per game.
A closer look at the culprits and the numbers aren't as shocking. Harris? A nice guy, but probably the worst starting two-guard in the NBA. Newman and Sherman Douglas? Old. Martin, Jackson, and Eschmeyer? Raw. Williams? On his seventh team in seven seasons. Jamie Feick, Kendall Gill, and Jim McIlvaine? Injured, overpaid, and overrated.
With Marbury playing like the best point man east of the Mississippi and the other aforementioned Nets playing down to their insufficient abilities, the only true mystery is Keith Van Horn, the fourth-year forward whose already unassertive game has regressed to a new low recently (his shooting percentage is in the low 30s in his last 10 games). Van Horn was nursing a virus in the course of this story and was therefore even less forthcoming than usual with his quotes, but figuring out his story would require a psychologist anyway.
As for the team's suits, new club president Rod Thorn has uttered little more than that he's "always willing to improve the team," which has obviously been tough since no team wants his players. Coach Byron Scott, trying his best to get the most of what he does have, sticks to the things he thinks he can control and is doing his best Doc Rivers-of-last-year impersonation."We want to outwork our opponents," he says. "Of course our rebounding numbers were down because guys were injured, but if we want the ball more than the other team, a lot of times we'll get it. I haven't seen enough of that this season."
Marbury summed up his opinion after the Spurs win, in which he had 38 points and his teammates played well off the bench. "We won because guys did what they're supposed to," he said firmly. "Johnny, Stephen, and Jamie came off the bench and did exactly what they're supposed to do. People filled their roles and we refused to lose."
Unfortunately for Marbury and his team's disconsolate fans, getting the effort needed to overcome a talent shortage has been a rare occurrence.