Unlovable Losers

March 01, 2010

The future is bright for the Nets. The present? Decidedly less so, as they stumble toward NBA infamy without any of the endearing quirks that can make terrible teams so much fun

Here's what might be the most amazing thing about the amazing Nets: You can watch them play for a long time and never realize that they have a pretty good shot at becoming the worst team in NBA history. They just don't look that bad. Nothing like you'd expect, nothing dramatic—no basketballs bouncing off heads, no teammates injuring each other, no air-ball free throws, that sort of thing.

Yes, through Sunday the Nets had only five wins—eight fewer than the next-worst team, the Timberwolves. Yes, at 5--51 the Nets were still on pace to break pro basketball's record of shame, the 9--73 mark set by the 76ers in 1972--73. Yes, the Nets have yet to even put together a winning streak. Here is a quick breakdown of their season: Lose 18, beat the Bobcats; lose one, beat the Bulls; lose 10, beat the Knicks; lose 11, beat the Clippers; lose eight, beat the Bobcats again.

Stark. And yet, when you actually watch the Nets play, it feels as if you're watching a real NBA team. Take last Thursday at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., one night after they beat Charlotte to get that elusive fifth victory. ("The drive for five," the New Jersey beat writers bitterly called that three-week odyssey. Now they are on to "the joy of six.") The home team is introduced with a light show, the mascot dunks off a trampoline, the dance team throws burritos at clamoring fans. It's another NBA night in another NBA town. And the Nets lead the Heat by six with five minutes to go.

"You can't lose that game," New Jersey point guard Devin Harris will say after it ends.

No. You can't lose it. And yet, you know the Nets will. For most of the night they have looked like the superior team, especially with Miami star Dwyane Wade out injured. New Jersey's second-year center, Brook Lopez, is the best player on the floor—he has 26 points and 10 rebounds, and at times he looks like a young Tim Duncan. Harris, an All-Star last season, gets to the basket at will. The Heat players seem almost resigned to defeat. You can't lose that game. So how do the Nets lose?

Here's how. They fail to get the ball to Lopez for the rest of the game. ("That's my bad," Harris says later.) Shooting guard Courtney Lee misses back-to-back wide-open three pointers that would have given the Nets a nine-point lead. (Lee finishes 0 for 9 from the floor.) Swingman Jarvis Hayes misses an open 16-footer. Power forward Yi Jianlian, for reasons that nobody understands, tries a 21-foot jumper and misses. Harris misses a pair of short jumpers. ("Short-armed 'em," he says sheepishly.) Reserve big man Kris Humphries has his layup attempt blocked by two Heat players. All in all, the Nets—whose field goal percentage (42.5 at week's end) is the worst in the league in six seasons—miss 10 of their last 11 shots.

And Miami wins 87--84.

"We just didn't make shots," interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe whispers after the game ends. "You've got to make shots. You've just got to make shots."

The 51-year-old Vandeweghe looks haggard. This isn't the first time he's said those words. It will not be the last. You imagine him mumbling, "You've got to make shots," again and again, all night and well into the morning.

Sure, there have been a few funny moments. It is impossible to have so many things go wrong without having a few of those. There was the time in January when motivational speaker Joachim de Posada came to talk to the players and, to prove that the human mind can overcome all kinds of pain, stuck a needle in his cheek. He then tried to stick more needles in his face but team officials, believing the point had been made, stopped him.

"They've taken sharp objects away from me," Lopez said to reporters after that.

There's the ongoing contest, being put on by Zappos.com: Coach the Nets for a day.According to the official rules, "Coach of the Day position shall be strictly honorary and Winner shall not make any material or other coaching decisions." As more than one person cracked, it's hard to tell how the Coach of the Day position differs from Vandeweghe's.

Ah, Kiki. He is pointedly not funny. Despite the whimsy that his name evokes, Kiki Vandeweghe is the opposite of funny. With New Jersey in the midst of an NBA-record 0--18 start, longtime Nets president Thorn fired Lawrence Frank and asked Vandeweghe, his G.M., to take over. He had never been a head coach. By all accounts, he had never wanted to be one, and it shows. ("You can tell he doesn't have a passion for coaching, and the result is the players have no passion to play," a scout says.)

But the team is in a fluid situation. The Nets are planning to move to Brooklyn, but ground has yet to be broken on a new arena there, so they will spend at least the next two years in Newark. Russian billionaire and International Man of Mystery Mikhail Prokhorov is on the verge of buying an 80% stake of the team from Bruce Ratner for $200 million. "Different owners want to do different things," Thorn says. "We weren't going to hire a coach on a [permanent] basis, so that limits your alternatives. I thought Kiki would be our best option. It's obviously a tough position for him."

Obviously. But the Nets won two of Vandeweghe's first four games, and it seemed that this crazy thing just might work.

Then they lost 21 of their next 22.

In December the Nets brought 72-year-old Del Harris out of retirement to help Vandeweghe coach. Harris lasted only two months. He claimed he'd left because Vandeweghe had blossomed as a coach and no longer needed help. Nobody bought that. Reports soon circulated that Vandeweghe, in an effort to get off the bench, had offered to make Harris coach, something that came as a surprise to Thorn, who as president tends to believe he makes those decisions. Thorn reportedly nixed the deal, and Harris left.

Whatever the truth, Vandeweghe is still on the bench, where he seems to be dying a slow death. Night after night he wanders wearily into the postgame press conference, saying earnest things like "We didn't make shots" and "We need to learn how to finish games" and "At least we were in the game, so that's a good sign."

It is Vandeweghe's bland professionalism that best reflects the Nets' personality. They are not lovable losers like the '62 New York Mets or an overmatched expansion team in creamsicle uniforms like the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. No, there's something, well, professional about these Nets. They just go out night after night and lose.

They can lose big. On a West Coast trip in January, they lost by 11 to the Clippers, 24 to the Suns, 33 to the Jazz and 32 to the Warriors. For a stretch, New Jersey worked much harder at losing. The Nets were in the game and then scored 13 points in the fourth quarter against the struggling Wizards for Loss 41. They were in the game and then scored 12 points in the third quarter against the dreadful 76ers for Loss 42. They led the Atlantic Division--leading Celtics in the fourth quarter before succumbing by nine points for Loss 45. In Losses 46, 47 and 48 they got off to terrible starts against the Pistons, Cavaliers and Bucks and never quite came back. These Nets can lose in a variety of ways.

The Nets are a contradiction. On one hand, they are—as one NBA scout says—"a disaster." On the other, they could have the league's brightest future. Look: They have Lopez. They're the favorite to get the No. 1 draft pick in the lottery and a shot at Kentucky's John Wall. They are not weighed down with bad contracts. They have enough cap space to take a run at any free agent this summer. Prokhorov, a precious metals magnate who is ranked as the 40th-richest man in the world by Forbes, appears to be the kind of owner fans dream about. (His Moscow CSKA basketball club has won the last seven Russian league titles.) And if the Nets move to a new arena in resurgent Brooklyn—which looks more likely all the time—there is every reason to believe that they can attract fans (and players) put off by Manhattan's dysfunctional Knicks.

"We still have to follow through with it, of course," Thorn says. "We still have to make the moves to get us to another level. We have to make good choices. But, yes, we are in position to get better pretty quickly."

That makes this season's futility seem oddly beside the point. The Nets went into full rebuilding mode last June when they traded Vince Carter to the Magic in a salary dump. "We knew we were rebuilding," Thorn says. "But we certainly thought we would be a lot better than this."

And that was the point—to just win enough games in 2009--10 to avoid embarrassment, to help young players such as Lopez and Harris get better as the team prepared to move on. It hasn't worked. Lopez has been terrific, almost heroic, in the losing role—"He's the next big thing," Thunder star Kevin Durant said after Loss 29. But Harris has found it tough to penetrate and create because defenses can collapse on him. Other young players have not developed. They're the NBA's lowest-scoring team (90.0 points per game through Sunday), and their average point differential of minus-11.2 is the worst in the league in 10 years.

"Look, there are a lot of reasons," Thorn says. "But if you want to cut through the gray area, we just hit spells when we don't make shots. I don't want to say it's that simple, but in many ways it really is that simple."

There it is again: making shots.

They don't want to break the record. That sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how often players on bad teams will hide their feelings about such things. They will say things like "Oh, we're not thinking about that" or "That's for other people to talk about" or "We can't worry about records, we just need to win our next game."

Here again, these Nets are different. They sit in front of their lockers after another loss, and the locker room is deathly quiet. No music. No chatter. But as the loss sinks in, everyone answers questions and the quotes are surprisingly candid. They're quite open about it. They don't want that record.

"We hear about it every day," backup guard Keyon Dooling says. "We don't want to go down in history with that record. Believe me, everybody in this room feels the same way. We don't want to be that team."

At this point the players and coaches and management still believe that the Nets will not become that team. "I'm certainly confident that we won't break that record," Thorn says. When you ask him where that confidence comes from, he pauses for a couple of beats and then says, "I think we're better than that. We're obviously not a good team. But I keep looking at our players and thinking we have some good players. We're not that bad. I keep believing that." Then he says, "Of course, no matter what I believe, we actually need to win some games."

As he spoke, the magic number was five. Five more wins, and the Nets would catapult themselves from historically bad to merely awful. Five more wins and the Nets could go gently into their bright future in a new home, backed by Russian riches and enough cap room to tempt the biggest stars in the game. Five more wins ...

"It's ridiculous that we're even talking about it," Lopez says. "But I guess we have to talk about it. It's ridiculous. And it's true too."

Now on SI.com

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"We don't want to go down in history," says Dooling. "Believe me, we don't want to be that team."

PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID DOW/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESWHY US? Lopez (far right) and Harris (far left) haven't been able to keep Vandeweghe (below) from dropping 34 of 39 since taking over in December. PHOTONATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP[See caption above] PHOTOSERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS (PROKHOROV) PHOTOBILL KOSTROUN/AP (FAN) PHOTOJASON MILLER/US PRESSWIRERUSSIAN ROULETTE Prokhorov (opposite page) is taking a chance on a bungling team that has lost in every way imaginable. PHOTOBILL KOSTROUN/AP[See caption above] PHOTOWINSLOW TOWNSON/REUTERS[See caption above] PHOTOFERNANDO MEDINA/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOARISTIDE ECONOMOPOULOS/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PRESSWIRE[See caption above]

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