It was 20 years ago next week that the Nets made a consequential front office hire, installing long-time team and league executive Rod Thorn as general manager.
After an eight-year playing career, Thorn had gotten his start with the Nets as an assistant coach on the 1973-74 ABA championship team, and returned for a two-year stint in 1976 before going on to serve eight seasons as Chicago’s general manager — drafting Michael Jordan in 1984 — and another 14 years in the league office.
In his first two drafts, Thorn brought in Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson, the second through a draft-night trade with Houston. A month after selecting Jefferson in 2001, Thorn closed the deal on a point guard swap that sent Stephon Marbury to Phoenix for Jason Kidd.
With Kerry Kittles back from a knee injury and free agent Todd MacCulloch and rookie Jason Collins shoring up the center spot, Kidd drove the Nets to a 26-win improvement with a franchise-record 52 wins and the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. The Nets repeated as Eastern Conference champions in 2003 after Thorn dealt Keith Van Horn and MacCulloch to Philadelphia for Dikembe Mutombo.
The Nets eventually won four Atlantic Division titles in five seasons, with Thorn acquiring Vince Carter in December 2004 and drafting Brook Lopez in 2008. He stepped down after the 2009-10 season.
In 2018, Thorn was inducted into the Hall of Fame, coincidentally in the same class that included Kidd.
Wednesday night, Thorn joined Nets play-by-play broadcaster Ian Eagle on YES We’re Here to look back on his tenure with the Nets. Here are highlights from their conversation:
On trading Keith Van Horn for Dikembe Mutombo in 2002:
“I was probably influenced by the (2002 NBA) Finals that we did not have what it took at center, you know, when MacCulloch started and Jason Collins came in the game for us, that that wasn’t going to beat the Lakers. And Mutombo had always played reasonably well against Shaq, you know. Shaq just couldn’t totally dominate him, and Keith was a good player. We had about three guys that averaged 15 (points) that year, (Van Horn) was one of them. If I had to do it over again, I would not have made that trade because Dikembe didn’t fit with what we were doing. You know, we were a running, open court team. We weren’t going to wait on him and what he could for you defensively was negated by what was taken away from our team on the offensive end. Plus, he broke his wrist and was out for a big, big part of the season.”
On replacing coach Byron Scott with Lawrence Frank in January 2004:
“Of all the coaches I had, Byron was the easiest guy to work with. I love Byron. You could talk to him, you know. He didn’t go off the deep end if you critiqued something, and (he was) just a stand-up guy, and we’d gone to the Finals twice. Sometimes his message wasn’t getting through to players in that next year. We were going along at about a .500 clip, I think were a couple games over .500, when we made the change and went to Lawrence, and we won 13 games in a row.”
On why he took the Nets job after 14 seasons as an NBA Executive VP:
“My feeling always was, ‘Why can’t the Nets be good?’ Sitting in New York, seeing a lot of their games, you know, this is such a great area, why can’t the Nets be good? You know, they’ve been on the cusp a few times, but they’d just never done it. And the competitive aspect of it, as you point out, you know was certainly part of it. The first time it came along, I turned it down, and then it came along again after that and I decided to do it and you know, it was, you know, a great time.”
On the double-overtime Game 5 win to clinch the first-round playoff series against Indiana in 2002:
“It was an incredible game, to begin with. Finally, we get up by three points, they come down and miss and we’ve got less than three seconds, two and a half seconds, whatever it was, left in the game and Richard Jefferson gets fouled. So, I’m, you know, sitting up and I’m saying, ‘Whoa boy, he’ll make one, he’ll at least make one. And we’ve got it.’ So, he misses both, they get the rebound, they come down the court and Reggie Miller makes this shot that ties the score. Number one, I went to my knees and number two, I said ‘That shot wasn’t good’, it wasn’t good because, you know, I’m looking at the...score and this wasn’t the time that you could go over and take a look, that was before that (replay), and sure enough it (Miller’s shot) was late. But we go into overtime and we’re down four points with about a minute and a half left, Ron Mercer drives the baseline, I don’t know if you remember it, drives the baseline, scores, there’s a collision, referee called a charge. If he didn’t call a charge, we’re dead. He called a charge and then we came back down and won the game. But that game was an absolutely seminal moment, as you point out, for the franchise. It made us legitimate, we had to win that. You know, one against eight (seed), you got to win that.”
On drafting Michael Jordan for Chicago in 1984:
“It’s a thrill to me, to tell you the truth. I mean if you’re gonna be known for something, drafting arguably the best player ever is not a bad thing to be known for.”
On Kenyon Martin:
“Heart. We never were the same after Kenyon left. We never replaced him while I was there. Tremendous heart, gave it all, run the court, was great playing with Jason. A little undersized for Tim Duncan, but did a great job for us, loved it.”
On Vince Carter:
“Talent. Loved the game. Still playing; 20-something years he’s been in the league. Wasn’t the kind of guy that was a killer-type personality. You know, Vince could get 20 points just showing up. He didn’t want to have to be that guy to get you 25 to 30 every night, that wasn’t his personality, but he’s (a) great player and that was a good trade for us.”
On Richard Jefferson:
“One of my favorite players, ever. Great personality, really good player, wonderful guy on the team, all about the team and got better. Was a guy that worked at his craft, got to be a better shooter. Just a terrific player and a great player to have on the team.”