Posted Mar 12 2010 12:10PM
Two coaches with teams at the opposite end of the success spectrum caught up for a meaty chat outside the Mavericks' offices earlier this week. From any angle, you'd never guess who was chasing history or who was running from it.
Kiki Vandeweghe and Rick Carlisle were just two guys talking it up after their teams slugged it out for 48 minutes. It's unlikely they acknowledged the large mammal in the hall, but his steps are heard in every arena New Jersey invades.
|Teams Gone Bad|
|A look at this year's Nets vs. the '73 Sixers|
|* Running score wasn't kept|
Courtesy Elias Sports Bureau
The Nets could be the worst team ... ever.
"They'll smash that. That ain't gonna happen," said Carlisle, whose Mavericks are the league's hottest team. "They're going to get at least 12 wins. That's my prediction."
Reasonable bet or support for a colleague? A little of both, probably. New Jersey is up to seven wins against 57 losses before Friday night's visit to surging Oklahoma City. The Nets are up to seven wins because they've had three wins over the last 12 games, a blistering streak considering the first three months of the season.
Still, the specter of 1973 comes up in almost every conversation in each new town. The Philadelphia 76ers of 37 years ago live on much as the 1972 Miami Dolphins do in the NFL. Instead of perfection, though, the City of Brotherly Love has suffered the ultimate NBA ignominy. The Sixers of coaches Roy Rubin and Kevin Loughery limped into the record books at 9-73.
No team in league history has fashioned a worse record before or since. Sure, several have made things interesting, including Dallas and Denver during the 1990s. But each unwelcome suitor to the Throne of Shame has managed to squeeze out at least 10 wins.
New Jersey's lone All-Star, for what it's worth, doesn't feel as if his team is single-digit material.
"Not really. You remember the wins," said Devin Harris, an Eastern Conference All-Star last season who's battled injuries much of this one. "You really don't remember the losses. Since the All-Star break, we've been playing a lot better, so it really doesn't feel like it. Obviously when you look at the [game] notes every day and you see the number, you're reminded. But it really doesn't feel like it."
The Nets remain on pace to match those Sixers, but aren't without chances to win at least three more in their last 18 games. New Jersey faces five teams -- Philadelphia, Sacramento, Detroit, Washington and Indiana -- who have won less than 40 percent of the time. The Nets, though, are 0-12 against those squads.
On the plus side, Chicago (twice) and Charlotte also remain; New Jersey is 3-1 against those two.
"We're trying to win as many as possible," said center Brook Lopez, one of the team's building blocks. "Obviously, you don't want to win nine and call it a season. We want to come out every night with a chance to win."
The Nets choose to focus on the future, no matter how the present plays out. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is expected to come onboard as owner, perhaps as early as next month. The franchise is moving out of the decaying Izod Center for a temporary home in Newark next season before taking up residence in a brand-spanking new Brooklyn showplace. More than $26 million in cap space waits this summer, along with possibly five first-round picks over the next three years.
"Part of my job when I was hired here was to get us a seat at the free-agency table. We weren't there," said Vandeweghe, the interim coach and former general manager who's not guaranteed a job next season. "We were an expensive team and wanted to get to that point.
"We got to that point, didn't expect all the injuries, but I do believe we will be judged come July 1. We'll be judged on the cap space you have, the assets you have in place, how many first-round picks you have, what players [you have], what free agents are coming to join, and all that will sort of come together and decide how desirable you are."
The reasons for optimism are plentiful and legit, but what about the now? Would the franchise suffer a permanent scar, or at a least a deep thigh bruise, if it fails to win three more games and is labeled the league's all-time biggest loser?
"Yes and no," Harris tried to explain. "Yes, just because it's something that sticks with you. No, because the way we've been playing and how hard we play, I think guys can live with it. We're coming out and competing every night. It's not like guys are lying down and giving up at this point."
Luring quality free agents to help with a turnaround project is one thing. Signing on with the Nets, with so much still up in the air, is another.
"It's still an unknown," Harris added. "You're relying on someone else who isn't here."
The Sixers managed to recover from their record-setting low. Philly won 16 more games the following season (25-57 in 1973-74) and nine more (34-48) the next. By the bicentennial, Doug Collins and George McGinnis had the 76ers back in the playoffs at 46-36. By 1977, they had made their first NBA Finals appearance in 10 seasons.
The core of the Nets, as of today, includes Harris, Lopez, Yi Jianlian, Courtney Lee, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Terrence Williams. But much can change from the front office to the coaching staff once Prokhorov is handed the keys.
"Everything is on the table," said Harris, the frequent subject of trade rumors. "When you go through a season like this, nobody is really safe."
Neither are records.
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