Posted Jan 12 2010 11:15AM
Asked if Eduardo Najera had been rescued by the Mavericks, Devin Harris laughed the kind of laugh that hinted at something more. Harris, ever the polished pro, didn't bite.
"He's, uh, he's going to a good team," Harris said earlier this week before stepping on the Nets' team bus inside San Antonio's AT&T Center. "He got out of a bad situation at the moment, but we have to use this as motivation to make us stronger."
Sure, the Nets' plight is difficult, and the prospect of being the worst NBA team ever doesn't exactly lend itself to witty barbs. Harris isn't happy. He pointed to the scruffy beginnings of a beard and the wrap around his right wrist as an early warning sign of basketball depression.
Losing, especially in historic bunches, has a way of bringing everyone down.
"It's tough," admitted Harris, the only former All-Star on New Jersey's roster. "At this point you just try to come to work every day and play hard. We've been in a lot of games and a lot of times it hasn't gone our way."
A whole lot. This season, the Nets set the dubious mark for the worst start in league history to open a season (0-18) and haven't been much better since. Statistically, they're actually worse during the 3-16 stretch under interim coach/former general manager Kiki Vandeweghe.
At its current pace, New Jersey would finish the season 7-75. The Philadelphia 76ers sit at the all-time bottom of the standings thanks to their 9-73 stumble during 1972-73. Several franchises have made a run at Philly, with the Mavericks in 1992-93 and Nuggets five years later avoiding infamy with just 11 victories.
Turning it around, relatively speaking, isn't impossible. The same miserable speculation engulfed Oklahoma City last season when the Thunder started 3-29. Kevin Durant and Co. began to coalesce in January and OKC finished 23-59.
"You take it one game at a time," Harris said. "I know how that sounds, but you can't look at what's happened before. You have to come out with a fresh mind every day and try to play hard."
The Nets of the early 2000s and those NBA Finals trips are long gone. Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson return to the Izod Center in different uniforms now. Harris leads the current nucleus of Brook Lopez, Yi Jianlian and Courtney Lee. Of those four, only Lopez hasn't missed significant time this season.
"What we keep telling the guys is this is building towards something and you're part of the foundation that can be very good," Vandeweghe said. "We're in a dark tunnel right now, no question, but the future is very bright. We have a lot cap space, the young players are very talented, they're getting a lot of experience now and next year they'll be ready to win."
Winning next season might be an order the size of the Atlantic Yards arena project, but in addition to the money the Nets will throw at the loaded 2010 free-agent class, they've got 10 Draft picks, five in the first round, over the next three years. New Jersey could end up being a major player before the Feb. 18 trade deadline depending on the status of prospective owner Mikhail Prokhorov.
If the Russian billionaire is approved before the deadline next month, expect Nets president Rod Thorn to make a run at some of those 2010 free agents, such as Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Prokhorov isn't allowed to influence how the Nets do business until he officially owns the team.
The new arena in Brooklyn is also on the horizon, possibly by 2012. Vandeweghe hopes to be back in the front office long before then.
"That's the idea," he said. "My experience in the past has been player development and making sure that the young guys are put in a position where they can succeed. This year we knew it was going to be a development year going in and though it's tough, this is the most difficult part of a rebuilding situation.
"We shed all the big contracts. We made a conscious decision to go with young players, not accounting for all the injuries we've had."
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich stepped into the lead role from the general manager's chair back in 1996 under less-than-ideal circumstances. The Spurs had started the season 3-15 when Pop fired coach Bob Hill. Injuries to David Robinson, Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson gutted that team, which finished 20-62.
Of course, the Spurs won the lottery that offseason and had Tim Duncan waiting. There's no way Popovich knew what was to come after his first season on the bench. His focus then mirrors Vandeweghe's now.
"It's all a mental exercise, obviously," Popovich said. "Everybody has to understand the situation. You can't hide from it. You know it's going to be a difficult year, but you concentrate on other goals. You have to have other goals. Individual development of the players that you have and then as a group to still have the character to still execute and compete as well as you can given the bar is not going to be as high as far as success is concerned.
"The real value is you can improve individually and as a group, and you're not going to win a championship, but you're still tasked with a certain job, players and coaches alike, and to feel worth your salt, you hope that you have people around you and players that want to come out every day and still do that. That's what you focus on."
Traded from New Jersey last season and in his first year with the Spurs, Jefferson was part of the Nets turnaround nearly a decade ago. He believes it can happen again.
"When we first got there, they won 26 games the year before, never won a playoff series, so as bad as things were, they were completely turned around," said Jefferson, a Nets rookie in 2001-02. "We did everything but win a championship. Now things are bad again. The only thing you can really say is, as bad as things are today, tomorrow can be just as good."
Things are pretty bad now. Harris has taken counsel outside the organization, picking the brain of fellow players, such as fellow Wisconsin product Michael Finley, on how to deal with all the losing. Finley was part of a several hopeless teams early in his Dallas career.
Harris confessed that it's hard for him and his teammates to stay positive in the face of such routine failure.
"It goes in and out," he said. "Some losses are harder than others, but for the most part we have a good bunch of guys. We come to work every day and work hard no matter what the record is.
"We have a promising future. It is unfortunate the season that we're having, but hopefully it will get better real soon."
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