Despite their recent stumbles, the New Jersey Nets are going to be good this year and may even wind up on top of the East (and thereby become the sacrificial lamb that the conference offers up to the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals).
The reason to be optimistic about the team that has always rewarded pessimism is the exquisite point guard Jason Kidd. Acquiring him for the misanthrope/shootaholic Stephon Marbury was the smartest, most transformative NBA trade in years. Every team has decent shooters—even a middle-of-the-packer like Marbury can do 80 percent of what top-notch Kobe Bryant can do. But there's no middle-of-the-pack point guard who can do 50 percent of what Kidd can do. Putting the ball in his hands gives the Nets an almost Shaq-like advantage.
That's because the point guard position has been teetering on the edge of obsolescence for years. There are two main reasons. First, there were the Bulls, who, in their heyday, dispensed with a designated playmaker and often let Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen bring the ball up the court. Phil Jackson basically cut out the middleman—since those were the guys he wanted to take the shots, why let anyone else touch the ball? It's a tantalizing strategy, but it only really works for a team that has Jordan and Pippen, two great players at their peak, who could both penetrate and shoot from the outside.
The second factor in the decline of point-guarding was Pat Riley and his idea, born in the Patrick Ewing era, that offense could be reduced to simply giving the ball to the man on your team who was better than the one covering him and clearing space for him to make his move to the hoop. If the double-team came, the ball was simply swung around to the other side of the court and somebody got to take a wide-open 20-footer. A great many NBA teams now design their offense around this basic scheme.
As it stands, most NBA teams have either shameless gunners masquerading as point guards (that would be Marbury, Milwaukee's Sam Cassell, Memphis' Jason Williams, Denver's Nick Van Exel) or overachieving gym rats who must get others involved because they don't have much game themselves (New York's Mark Jackson, the Lakers' Derek Fisher, Orlando's Darrell Armstrong). The authentic professionals, like Gary Payton and John Stockton, have too many miles on their odometers, and the guys coming up behind them, like Mike Bibby, Steve Nash, and Andre Miller, aren't quite ready to fill their high-tops.
That leaves Jason Kidd all by himself on top. The talent that sets him apart is speed, not to be confused with quickness (which he has, too). Most NBA teams plod their way up the court as if they're trying to be good sports and give the opposing defense a chance to get set. Kidd, by contrast, zooms ahead, punishing opponents for the slightest lapses.
Beyond that, he may be the most complete player in the game. Intense on the defensive end (averaging a couple of steals a game), he blocks shots, and he is the best rebounding guard in the league (he's averaging almost eight boards a game this year, more than many starting power forwards, including the Nets' own). His one deficiency, well-noted, is a lack of confidence shooting the ball, but he turns this into an advantage, too—he is more inventive at finding an open teammate than any other point guard except maybe Stockton.
So why didn't Kidd lift his previous team, the Suns, to new heights the way he has lifted the Nets? The answer has to do with big men, who are a point guard's best friend. A shooting guard or a small forward, generally speaking, doesn't need much help to find an open look. All but the lamest of them are usually able, on their own, to get the couple of inches of separation they need to crank off a shot. Everyone else needs more assistance. Even a great post player like Karl Malone relies on Stockton's smarts to get him the ball in a place where he can get a good shot. A lot of very promising inside players, such as Antawn Jamison and Antonio McDyess, suffer because they have rotten point guards
(This is why the Suns stank last year—their starting front court consisted of Clifford Robinson, Mario Elie, and the cement-shoes tandem of Jake Tsakalidis and Chris Dudley. No point guard in history could save this sorry lot. It's good they got Marbury—it's better he take the shots than these guys.)
The Nets' big men possess a surprisingly diverse array of talents. All three starters have fine finishing skills. Center Todd MacCulloch is not exactly a lean, mean basketball machine, but he's got a soft touch around the basket, good hands, and, for a big man, a very quick release. Keith Van Horn is a bit of a sad case, a talented guy who often tries to do things that are beyond his abilities, like going to the hoop with three guys draped all over him. But he's got good fundamental abilities and knows how to score. Second-year power forward Kenyon Martin might be an emerging star—extremely active around the basket and a powerful dunker.
Even with Kidd, the Nets are by no means a safe bet—they are the Nets, after all, and their propensity for choking should never be discounted. They haven't shot very well as a team this year, just 42 percent from the field, including a dismal 33 percent by Kidd. That will have to improve. If opponents are able to leave the perimeters open and clog the middle, Van Horn will break out his vintage one-on-three moves, and before you know it, the Nets will sink to the bottom of the Atlantic, back where they've always been.