Within the New Jersey Nets' locker room, the issues had transcended the professional to the personal, pushed past the old-school dramas of who's getting shots and minutes and into tumultuous tales of personal treacheries and accusations. For a time this season, Nets president Rod Thorn had to decide for himself whether relationships were salvageable.
He needed to decide if the strife was, in his own words, "Something that can be fixed or are never going to leave.
"But in my mind, I don't think we've had any issues that aren't fixable," Thorn said by phone Tuesday. "We've got some solid people, some people who are relatively competitive."
While that wasn't the most spirited endorsement of his team – relatively competitive – Thorn is a truth-teller in the industry, and he understands the reality of a roster beset by injury (four surgeries, plus a possible fifth with Richard Jefferson), inner turmoil and the nagging, never-go-away questions about the commitment of star Vince Carter.
If New Jersey could make its problems go away, there is still the confounding nature of a Carter disposition that is too often indifferent to honoring his other-worldly talents as a basketball player. For a season and a half with the Nets, everyone had been willing to take the good and the bad with him. No longer. Patience has run thin with Carter.
All along, coach Lawrence Frank has been relentlessly consistent in his defense and deference of Carter, but he finally abstained on Saturday night in Milwaukee. After it had been confirmed that burgeoning young forward Nenad Krstic was lost for the season with a torn ACL, the Nets needed a statement game out of Carter. What he dispensed was beyond disappointing – something downright disturbing.
Carter had been merely 0-for-5 shooting until making his first basket midway through the third quarter, a rash inactivity punctuated with Charlie Bell torching his defense on the way to the Bucks constructing a 25-point lead and a 115-104 victory. For the first time, Frank didn't bother defending Carter, answering a question about him with a telling 12 seconds of sighs and silence.
Inside and outside the organization, people have been stunned at how willing Carter has been to mail-in games this season. Thorn defended Carter's larger body of work in Jersey but acknowledged an "inconsistency" this season. He would go no further, but others have been far less polite in describing Carter's performance.
As his history has shown: The more a team comes to rely on Carter, the more prone he is to checking out on it. He has the sheer talent to be considered with the elite players in the sport, but something in his DNA repels the idea of bearing the total burdens of a franchise player. It happened in Toronto, and it appears to be happening with the Nets, too.
Krstic is gone for the season, Jefferson hasn't been himself with an ankle injury and a Half Man-Half Bored Carter isn't enough with Jason Kidd to simply out-talent the rest of the Atlantic Division. Thorn promises that he won't try to make a move to salvage the season and steal the illusion of success with a hollow division title. "If we made a deal of import, it will be with the long-range view in mind," he said.
Thorn isn't conceding the Atlantic, but gone is the belief that the Nets are due for an inevitable winning streak that would distance them from everyone else. It's not happening. The Nets have played an inordinate amount of home games – 19 in Jersey against 12 by the end of the month – and never took advantage of it. The New York Knicks are playing better, but they've had a softer schedule so far, too.
Most frightening for everyone else in the Atlantic are the Toronto Raptors (12-16), who have played just 10 of 28 games at home, hold first place by a half-game over the Nets (11-16) and have been without star Chris Bosh since Dec. 10. He returns this week, and Thorn isn't reaching when he declares Toronto the team to beat in the worst division the NBA's ever seen.
"I think Toronto is in a very good position," Thorn said. "There's no one not alive in this division right now, but I give Toronto the advantage of the schedule."
Rest assured, there's a strong possibility that the Atlantic champion will likely come with a sub-.500 record, a new low for the Eastern Conference. Considering the state of the division, anyone but New Jersey would consider winning the division an achievement. With the core of the Nets, Thorn had considered it the most minimal of expectations for this franchise. Over the summer, he decided he would keep that core together and try to upgrade the supporting cast.
This season, he was determined to decide whether Kidd, Carter (a free agent next summer) and Jefferson had run the course together and a profound reshaping of the team would be necessary. Under these circumstances, "It's a little bit tough to assess," Thorn said. All around the Nets' president, the alarms are sounding. They've had a good run here, reached two NBA Finals and rebuilt on the fly by using the draft picks from the Kenyon Martin trade to get Carter.
Now, Rod Thorn has to ask himself: Even if the Nets can work out the most private of issues in the locker room, there are still the most public of problems on the court.
- Rod Thorn