In the Hunt

After struggling for nearly two months, New Jersey is showing signs that it still has what it takes to be a force in the East

HIS SUB-.500 Nets were trailing by 14 points at Chicago last Thursday, yet there was Jason Kidd running off the court at halftime clapping and nodding as if he had the Bulls right where he wanted them. "I felt that we took their best shot," Kidd said after the game. "If the leader comes off down and dejected, then everybody else might throw in the towel."

The ensuing revival showed why no one should give up on New Jersey despite a horrid 11--18 start and last month's season-ending knee injury to center Nenad Krstic. At week's end the Nets had won five of their last seven—all against playoff contenders, including two 18-point comebacks against the befuddled Bulls. Last Thursday's 86--83 victory was all Kidd, as he shut down Ben Gordon (20 points in the first half, three thereafter) while putting together his seventh triple double of the season (23 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists).

Kidd appears fully recovered from microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2004, and at 33 he is having one of his finest seasons. Through Sunday he was averaging 13.9 points, 9.3 assists, 8.3 rebounds and 1.92 steals and was on course to smash his personal high of nine triple doubles. He's doing so despite personal woes that would cripple other players. Last week Kidd, claiming to be a victim of spousal abuse, obtained a restraining order against his wife, Joumana, and then filed for divorce a day later. Joumana responded by hiring celebrity divorce lawyer Raoul Felder and asking for a restraining order of her own, saying that she was the battered spouse. Felder promised that Joumana's counterclaim would be "pretty explosive" and include charges of adultery.

"This guy has an ability to concentrate no matter what goes on with him," says Nets president Rod Thorn. "I think this is the best year he's had. He's playing every bit as well as he played three years ago," when Kidd was first-team All-NBA.

As the Feb. 22 trade deadline approaches, Thorn is sure to field numerous queries about All-Star guard Vince Carter, who can opt out of the final year of his contract after the season. This would seem the perfect opportunity to unload a high-priced veteran and rebuild the Nets for a future run. But unless someone offers an elite scorer in return—a highly improbable event—it would be a mistake to move the 29-year-old Carter (25.0 points per game), given the pathetic state of the East. It's a conference with no intimidating favorite, and the Nets' Big Three of Kidd, Carter and Richard Jefferson (16.4 points per game) gives them a chance to beat any Eastern opponent. The Atlantic Division is so bad that New Jersey could end the season below .500 and still finish in first (and be guaranteed the No. 4 seed)—at 16--20 through Sunday the Nets were in a virtual tie with the Raptors atop the Atlantic—but it may not qualify for the playoffs unless it wins the division.

Further, it is unlikely that the Bobcats or the Magic, Carter's most probable suitors this summer, would be willing to make him an offer that would equal his guaranteed salary of $16.4 million for next season—which means there's a very good chance that Carter will return to New Jersey.

Jefferson's improving health is another reason for optimism; his struggles with the lingering effects of a right-ankle sprain contributed to New Jersey's poor start. "He's the key—if he can stay healthy," says Kidd. Adds coach Lawrence Frank, "We're keeping our fingers crossed because the alternative is that he'll need surgery." Jefferson averaged 18.7 points over the Nets' recent spurt, even occasionally throwing down an inspiring dunk that raised hopes for the second half of the season.

"In this month we need to make up ground," says Kidd, who stops short of asking the front office to keep the team intact. "If we can step up and put ourselves over .500 and start moving, that would take a lot of pressure off management to make any changes."

And it would prove that the Nets already have the correct pieces in place to make a run.

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Scout's Take

On Chris Webber (right), 33, whose contract was bought out by the 76ers and who said he would sign with the Pistons this week:

"If he could accept not being the focal point, then he could help an established team. He can still make the jump shot, he can pick and pop, he has that little jump hook, and he's still one of the best-passing big men in the game. The problems are on defense—his lateral movement isn't what it used to be—and offensively when he doesn't get to touch the ball a lot, because then he feels the need to score when he finally does get it. If he could put aside that instinct to post big numbers and instead be a passer who sets up other guys, then he could make a positive impact on a contender's second unit while taking advantage of opposing backup players."

PHOTOJESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESTHREE'S COMPANY Kidd (5), Carter (15) and Jefferson still make up a formidable nucleus. PHOTOPHELAN M. EBENHACK/AP (WEBBER)