Hoop Dreams

Imagine It: Tim Duncan as a Net, and LeBron James as a Knick

Consider it a crucible. The Nets got swept in the NBA Finals. And so did Shaq's Orlando Magic. So did Magic Johnson's Lakers—twice. And for that matter, does going out in four really hurt more in the championship round than in the conference? Remember that the Kings and the Spurs got broomed by the Lakers last year.

No, going down in four doesn't tarnish a season in which the Nets played tough and inspired basketball. Any more than stealing a game would have changed the big picture. Actually their date with Shaq and Kobe in the Finals should help the team in the long run. If they were under any illusions about their place in the pecking order, their finals run should put that into perspective. Good team. Pathetic conference. Lots of work to be done.

The Nets have some of the pieces in place: A GM who seems to have a vision and the guts to pull the trigger. A coach who has a system and the ability to implement it. And one truly great player in the person of Jason Kidd. This being the Nets, of course, there are storm clouds. Much has been made of Kidd's impending free agency and of the fact that Byron Scott seems like a natural heir to Phil Jackson in Los Angeles, but these situations may actually be a blessing. The message to Rod Thorn is simple: Want to keep those guys around? Just win, baby.

You don't have to look too far into the past to realize that in the post-Mike era, the slot as the East rep in the Finals has largely been a booby prize. The Pacers and Knicks both slipped into Lotteryland almost immediately, and the Sixers seem on the verge of imploding. To avoid that fate, the Nets can't worry about keeping what they've got, but instead focus on making the next great leap forward.

Let's inventory their assets. In Kenyon Martin, the Nets have a No. 1 draft pick who should learn to keep his mouth shut (even if he is right) and could become a fine third banana—think Horace Grant. In Richard Jefferson, they've got a guy who might blossom into, say, Shawn Marion. The rest of the team is made up of role players, some pretty good (Jason Collins, Aaron Williams, and Lucious Harris) and some pretty shaky (Kerry Kittles). The stepping-stone to the next level must be the concave chest of Keith Van Horn. He is their one semi-leverageable asset—a maxed-out white guy, good citizen, with a little bit of game. Getting, say, free-agent-to-be Antonio McDyess from Denver might appease Jason Kidd, but remember that Dice and Kidd were together in Phoenix and never got past the second round. Let's think bigger. Master-plan big, rule-the-world big. Trade Van Horn and Kittles and whatever else it takes to Utah for Karl Malone. Sure, we know that Malone and Byron Scott get along like Piazza and Clemens, but remind the coach that it's only temporary. For a year, Malone and Kidd could run the pick and roll, and maybe Kenyon Martin could learn to deliver elbows without getting whistled for a flagrant.

And the real kicker would come in 2003, when Malone's $14 million comes off the salary cap. The Nets could take that max money and go after the big tamale: Tim Duncan. Yes, Tim Duncan. He's already made a few recruiting calls to Kidd, suggesting that he might like it in Texas. Is New Jersey really that much worse than San Antonio? Jimmy Hoffa vs. the Alamo. The Nets have a new arena, a few good young players, a guy who can get Duncan the ball, access to the New York media market. Also, a slot in the least-competitive division in basketball, where an aging Dikembe Mutumbo and an Alonzo Mourning with one kidney are the most dangerous big men. Armed with Kidd and Duncan, or perhaps Kevin Garnett, the Nets could really take their revenge on Shaq and Co.

While we're gazing at the crystal ball, let's talk Knicks. This is a team that's capped out, crapped out, lacking even one big piece of the jigsaw. Latrell Sprewell will be 32 by the time the season starts, and Allan Houston is nothing more than a Byron Scott-type player with a $100 million contract. Overall, this is the grimmest prognosis for the 'Bocks since Mondale was running for president.

The first move has to come at the top. GM Scott Layden, the guy who helped dig a salary-cap hole deeper than the East River by giddily taking on overpriced role players like Mark Jackson, Howard Eisley, and Shandon Anderson, isn't the solution; he's the problem. The Knicks need a new boss, and that's one place where they can spend with impunity. They let Jerry West get away, but how about John Gabriel of the Magic, Donnie Walsh of the Pacers, Geoff Petrie of the Kings, or even, as Dave D'Allesandro of the Star-Ledger suggested, Larry Bird?

As the Knicks approach their first significant draft pick since Kenny "Sky" Walker, let's hope that Layden can at least keep the seat warm for his successor. When the Knicks are on the clock in the No. 7 spot, there'll be some big gambles on the board: Maybyner "Nene" Hilario, the Brazilian power forward who has a wingspan larger than Yao Ming's. Nickoloz Tskitishvili, the Georgian four who's been compared to Dirk Nowitski. Qyntel Woods, the juco star who's been compared to Tracy McGrady. Maybe Caron Butler will still be available. Will Layden have the courage to roll the dice on potential? Or will he draft Stanford center Curtis "Great White Stiff" Borchardt or even worse, swing a trade for Ming, the Far East's answer to Shawn Bradley?

And before you ask, drafting a project wouldn't slow down the rebuilding process. Given their salary cap woes, the Knicks have to think about rebuilding through the draft. So in an irony that Kurt Vonnegut would eat whole, the more the Knicks suck next year, the rosier their future looks. The big prize in next year's lottery is Ohio schoolboy LeBron James, a Kobe Bryant clone who would have been the No. 1 pick in this draft—as a junior—if he had been eligible this year. James combines Jordan-esque hops with a pass-first Magic Johnson mentality. (Last week he broke his wrist in an AAU game on a play in which he jumped so high he hit his defender in the head with his knee.) Would James look good in white and orange? Does David Stern wear a Knick jersey under that suit? Will next year's NBA draft lottery be run like a Florida presidential election?

Repeat after me, hoops fans: "Victory through defeat." Imagine Duncan in the Swamps and LeBron in the Garden. The future's so bright we've got to wear shades.

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