Posted Oct 17 2010 10:19AM - Updated Oct 25 2010 2:06PM
Selecting my favorite team of all time is an easy call for three reasons. Two are easy to explain. One is not.
First, it's about what the team did on the court. I wasn't writing about the NBA yet, but the 2001-02 New Jersey Nets helped define and reinforce my basketball values. My hoops mantra is simple: play hard, play together and play defense. That team did all of those things.
Second, it's about expectations. Imagine the Warriors, winners of 26 games last season and one playoff series in the last 19 years, winning the Western Conference and playing in the 2011 Finals. That's basically what happened in New Jersey nine years ago.
Third, it's about family.
I'm a Jersey guy through and through, but I didn't always care about the Nets. From 1984 through 1998, I was a Bulls fan for reasons I probably don't need to explain. But right before Michael Jordan began his second stint in Chicago, my loyalties began to shift.
In December of 1994, my oldest brother Phil was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of intestinal cancer. The prognosis was not good, my family was devastated, and between the illness and the chemotherapy, the next two years were rough to say the least.
I was in college at the time, but with long Thanksgiving and winter breaks, I was able to spend five weeks of the basketball season at home each year. And a lot of those nights were spent in my parents' living room, watching the Nets with Phil.
Phil was a huge Nets fan (and for some reason, a Rex Walters fan). I had attached myself to the Bulls the year Jordan entered the league, so I wasn't a front-runner, but I often questioned my brother's loyalty to a franchise that hadn't won anything since he was 10 years old.
The Nets lost a lot of those games that we watched together in the mid-nineties. But no matter the outcome, those games provided an escape for both of us. They brought two brothers, who were nine years apart and had little other than sports in common, much closer together. When I went back to school, we'd talk on the phone often, mostly about hoops.
Phil passed away at the age of 30 in November of 1996. And as each year has passed since, it has become harder to remember the details... his voice, his smile, conversations, things like that.
But somehow I remember pretty clearly his disgust whenever Kenny Anderson pulled up at the top of the key on a fast break. Funny how that works. Yes, by the time he had died, Phil had converted me to a Nets fan.
Well, almost. I still pulled for the Bulls until Jordan retired the second time. The conversion really became complete early in the 2001-02 season. Jordan was back in the league, and that held my interest for a few weeks, but once the Nets started taking the league by storm, I realized were my loyalty was.
The 2001-02 Nets were coming off a 26-win season. They had traded Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd at draft time, but the deal wasn't seen as an obvious upgrade. We didn't know then what we know now, so when Kidd told reporters that fall that his new team would win 40 games, they probably thought he was crazy.
The rest of the 2001-02 Nets' roster was rather short in the talent department, with just one other (eventual) All-Star. And Kenyon Martin was arguably only an All-Star (in 2004) because of Kidd.
But that illustrates the two great things about those Nets. They were entirely centered around Kidd, and the whole was much greater than the sum of its parts.
The Nets had no go-to scorer. Six players averaged at least nine points, but Martin led them at just 14.9 points per game in 2001-02. As a whole, they were a below-average offensive team, ranking 18th in the league at 101.1 points per 100 possessions.
The Nets won with defense. They ranked second in the NBA (just a hair behind the Spurs), allowing just 96.6 points per 100 possessions. Kidd and Kerry Kittles were as good a defensive backcourt as there was in the league, while Martin was both a shot-blocker and a strong post defender.
And the defense fueled the break, which, orchestrated by Kidd, was a thing of beauty. Nobody in the league got down the floor faster than Kittles, and with Martin and rookie Richard Jefferson also running at every opportunity, there were plenty of highlights every night.
The ultimate measure of a true point guard is how well he improves the play of his teammates. And in that sense, Kidd's 2001-02 season was one of the best by any point guard in NBA history. Look at his supporting cast again and figure out how that team won its conference. Yes, the East was relatively weak that year, but 52 wins is still 52 wins.
The Nets were the No. 1 seed, but they faced plenty of postseason adversity and had to survive moments that would normally crush a young and inexperienced team. They should have folded when Reggie Miller sent the deciding Game 5 of the first round to overtime with his 35-foot turnaround buzzer-beater, or when he sent it to a second overtime with a late drive and dunk. They also should have folded after suffering an epic 25-point collapse in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the conference finals against Boston.
But the Nets proved to be mentally tough. And Kidd proved to be much more than a point guard who made his teammates better with his passes and playmaking. He was a leader, and to listen to any of his young teammates speak of him back then was to understand that they would run through walls for the guy.
Kidd simply willed his team to wins on several occasions, especially in the postseason, when he averaged a ridiculous 19.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 9.1 assists over 20 games. Along the way he made big shots, got big stops and even took a few stitches to the head in the conference semifinals against Charlotte, a move Steve Nash would copy eight years later.
One night that winter, I walked out of the Continental Airlines Arena after attending a regular season game with a co-worker and his friend. We were wondering how well the Nets would eventually do in the playoffs -- the franchise hadn't won a postseason series in 18 years -- and the friend remarked, "I just can't picture Marv Albert calling a Nets game on NBC in June."
I honestly couldn't either, but a few months later, the Nets were in The Finals.
Of course, a few days after that, their dream season was done. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts, but it was still a lot less than Shaq and the Lakers.
Maybe my favorite team of all-time should be the '94-95 or '95-96 Nets, because those were the teams I watched with my brother. But those losers weren't exactly lovable.
And honestly, I feel like Phil was there with me when I watched the 2001-02 Nets too.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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