A Net Loss The firing of coach Byron Scott weakens the East's reigning power

February 02, 2004

Here's why the Nets fired coach Byron Scott on Monday: The team
had become uncharacteristically sluggish, plummeting to 10th in
field-goal-percentage defense and 27th in rebounding after
ranking among the league leaders in both categories the last two
years. New Jersey was 37-38 in the regular season going back to
last February, and team president Rod Thorn doubted that Scott
could reverse the trend.

Here's why the move stinks: After winning only one playoff series
in 26 seasons, the Nets had won six series and made two trips to
the Finals under Scott. As the franchise's most successful coach,
hadn't he earned the opportunity to lead his team back into
contention? "If you're playing the right way, wins and losses
take care of themselves," Thorn says. "We haven't been, so now
we're making a change, and we'll see."

If New Jersey hadn't gotten hot and stormed through the Eastern
Conference playoffs, team sources say, Scott would have been
replaced last summer--probably by Jeff Van Gundy, who took over
the Rockets, or by assistant coach Eddie Jordan, who became the
Wizards' head coach. The sources denied reports that Jason Kidd
played a major role in Scott's firing, noting that the two played
golf together last Thursday in Miami, on the eve of an 85-64
shellacking that convinced Thorn that Scott had to go. The
problem, according to the insiders, is that few of the players
believed in Scott as a strategist, especially when Jordan wasn't
there to support him.

By turning control over to fourth-year assistant Lawrence Frank,
33, the Nets are hoping to kick-start the team while maintaining
continuity. Frank has strong relationships with the players and a
solid understanding of how to run the Nets' complicated
read-and-react Princeton offense. "I don't think there are too
many people who know more about basketball than Lawrence," Thorn
says.

A former team manager under Bob Knight at Indiana University, the
5'8" Frank was cut repeatedly by his high school team in Teaneck,
N.J., and has never been a head coach at any level. "We have to
have the work ethic, and it has to be there on an every-day
basis," he says. "You can't fool your players: They know when you
don't know what you are talking about."

This is a dangerous crossroads for a team that appeared headed
for years of prosperity after re-signing Kidd to a six-year,
$103.6 million contract in the off-season. Last week the Nets
were sold for $300 million to developer Bruce Ratner, who
(pending NBA approval) will move the franchise to a new arena in
Brooklyn, perhaps as soon as 2006-07. The sale may force the team
to move to an interim site on Long Island after next season, a
prospect that doesn't thrill the players. Then there is the
question of whether restricted free agent Kenyon Martin will
remain with New Jersey; his contract negotiations broke down last
summer.

One reason the West is so much stronger than the East is coaching
continuity. As of Monday the Celtics' Jim O'Brien and the Hawks'
Terry Stotts are the only coaches from last season still with
their teams. The West, by contrast, has made long-term
investments in coaches like Jerry Sloan (16 years), Flip Saunders
(nine) and Gregg Popovich (eight). Unless Frank steadies the Nets
by living up to his billing as the next Van Gundy, what seemed to
be the conference's most stable franchise may be in flux for
years to come.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (KIDD) Though Kidd likes Frank (top right), he didn't drive out Scott (lower right). COLOR PHOTO: AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES (FRANK) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (SCOTT) [See caption above]

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