You’ve probably already objected to the headline. “Fox, you idiot, the Brooklyn Nets didn’t exist in 2002, they were the New Jersey Nets, didn’t you say you weren’t counting franchises that moved?”
Ahem. About that. Moving a team that had been exiled to the swamp after the ABA merger because the Knicks threw a hissy fit about having a better team in their same market back to New York City proper to be the better team in their same market doesn’t count as changing cities. Sorry, East Rutherford, but this isn’t hockey. The Knicks are competing with one franchise that’s been better than they are for at least 20 years, even in the worst of times. The New Jersey Devils are an honest-to-gods New Jersey team, thanks in no small part to the New York Islanders holding what would be their spot in Brooklyn if there weren’t three hockey teams in the same media market.
My point is that crossing the Hudson River doesn’t count the way that crossing an entire state’s worth of territory—say, the distance between Syracuse, New York, and Philadelphia as the Nationals did to become the 76ers—or an entire country as with the Warriors and Kings (with several stops along the way) does. And don’t get me started on the Seattle SuperSonics, hm?
The Nets are the Nets are the Nets. They’ve been New York’s “other” team since they started life as the New Jersey Americans, playing their games in Teaneck at the dawn of the ABA, changed their name to the New York Nets a year later when they moved to Long Island, and zoomed off to 54 years and counting of entertaining people who are sick to death of the Knicks and their garbage fire franchise that will always be a garbage fire as long as Jimmy Dolan owns them.
Now then. Let’s talk about 2002.
The On-Court Record
Now, complaining that the Knicks are a garbage fire while ignoring the fact that the 2001-02 season is the only time in NBA franchise history that the Nets have even won 50 games (although they did go 48-24 in 2021, a 55-27 prorated 82-game record, they didn’t win 50 actual basketball games) in a season is disingenuous at best. And we will get to the old days in Madison Square Garden when it’s the Knicks’ turn.
But you work with the data set you’re given, and that data set says that 50-32 in the regular season and getting pantsed by Shaq and Kobe in the Finals was as good as the Nets ever got.
And sure, they lucked out in that Michael Jordan‘s comeback on the Wizards was hampered by the Wizards Wizarding as they so often do—speaking of garbage fire franchises that haven’t amounted to a hill of crap since the ’70s.
And sure again, they lucked out in that the Detroit Pistons weren’t quite ready yet for their Finals runs and the Boston Celtics had Antoine Walker as the second-best player on their team, never a recipe for championship success no matter how bad the East is.
Point is, they won the most regular-season games in franchise history and made the Finals, as good an outcome as they’ve ever had in the playoffs thanks to the 2021 edition of the franchise barfing away a Game 7 at home against the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. Funny thing, that—a road team didn’t win a game in that series until the Bucks did it when it mattered most.
But hey. 50 wins. Finals appearance. Ain’t no shame in getting swept by the Lakers. The East was trash.
The Featured Players
Richard Jefferson was a rookie in ’02. Vince Carter wasn’t on the team yet—he was still in Toronto. Dikembe Mutombo was still on the Sixers, coming over to the Nets a year later for the second Finals run.
This was a Nets team that cobbled together a run to the Finals mostly thanks to Jason Kidd—acquired from the Phoenix Suns in the offseason that unsurprisingly led to the Suns being total trash until they got Steve Nash in the summer of 2004.
The rest of the Nets’ roster was composed of guys they got thanks to either whiffing on a draft pick—Kerry Kittles was the eighth pick in the legendary 1996 draft that somehow saw six teams completely screw up between 7 and 12 overall before Kobe Bryant, Peja Stojakovic, and Nash went 13 through 15 in that order—or guys they got because they had the misfortune of being a crappy team when the draft talent pool was gods-awful, as in Keith Van Horn (No. 2, 1997, one pick ahead of Chauncey Billups) and Kenyon Martin (top pick in 2000, one of the worst drafts of all time.)
Somehow this group won the East. The Dark Ages were insane. But not as insane as…
But that’s just it. Not for nothing is this era called the Dark Ages around here. Mike D’Antoni wouldn’t plant the seed for the high-flying, fast-paced, three-point-heavy offenses that win big in 2021 (and were all but codified by the Warriors’ five-year run of Finals from 2015 to 2019) until 2004.
Besides, Scott wasn’t even a good offensive coach back then. The Nets didn’t win 50 games playing good offense (they were 17th out of 29 in Offensive Rating). They won 50 games because they had an absolutely stifling defense that led the league in Defensive Rating, which in turn created a plus-4.5 Net Rating that was fifth in the league. That’s how you win 50 games in any era.
But it doesn’t hurt that 14.6 3-point attempts in a game was good enough for 14th in the league. There are players in 2021 who shoot more than that on any given night. Stephen Curry averaged 12.7 3PA by himself in 2021, and James Harden, in 2018-19, shot 13.2 threes a night by himself, which was more than nine whole teams shot in ’02 (you have to go back to 1992 to find a year where no team took that many threes combined.)
What we call archaic now was middle-of-the-road in 2002. And with a defense as good as the Nets had, that was good enough.
We’re keeping this series to NBA seasons and NBA history. But I’d be remiss not to mention Julius Erving and those 1974 and 1976 ABA champion Nets who were the epitome of mid-70s New York cool alongside the soccer New York Cosmos, the Studio 54 New York, the city that’s become larger than life in hindsight.
Besides, those teams actually won titles, in addition to posting a franchise-best regular-season record of 58-26 in the ABA’s 84-game 1975 season, a year they crashed out in the playoffs. They went 55-29 in their two title years. By any metric, the ’75 edition of the team was the franchise’s high-water regular-season mark and the ’74 and ’76 titles the zenith of playoff achievement.
But it was the ABA. Could the ’74 and ’76 Nets have beaten the Boston Celtics, the NBA’s champs in those two years? Maybe, but basketball never had anything like a pre-merger Super Bowl or the pre-interleague-play World Series to test the theory.
Looking at the rosters, it’s hard to imagine Dr. J and a pack of decent but not world-beating teammates having success against the likes of John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, and Jo Jo White—or, for that matter, being able to bang down low against a guy like Paul Silas—but the world will never know.
They still get an honorable mention here, though. And yes, Indiana and Denver, your ABA days won’t be forgotten either.
NEXT: Charlotte Hornets. Or: No, New Orleans, Your Hornets Don’t Count. (but they will with the Pelicans.) Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!