There’s pride in accomplishment, but pain in missed opportunities. The artists formerly known as the New Jersey Nets have both.
Head to any location where legit hoops conversations normally take place. The barbershop, where every barber and/or customer is the next coming of Hubie Brown. Or the bar, where the old-school WWF-equivalent to “hell in the cell”-type debates happen. Wherever the location, ask people to name their greatest “What If?” NBA team of the ‘90s. Chances are the most common answers revolve around the Shaq/Penny-led Orlando Magic and the Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp-era Seattle SuperSonics. Both choices come with their heavy share of logic, yet there’s one team largely dubbed an outcast. Who remembers the complicated story of the 1993-94 New Jersey Nets?
On the surface, the squad is immortalized largely for the tragic death of Drazen Petrovic following a car accident on June 7, 1993. And in a sense, it is the most important factor in realizing why the team derailed. Digging below the surface, however, finds a unit marred by lack of trust, mismanagement of talent and several additional storylines that have since been tossed to the wayside in the two decades since.
Let’s break down the known facts surrounding the 1992-93 squad:
- These Nets went 43-39, good for third in the Atlantic Division.
- They lost their first round matchup against Cleveland 3-2, in a series many figured would be a sweep by the Cavs prior to Game 1.
- Of the team’s three best players -– Petrovic, Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson — the oldest was 28.
- Chuck Daly was the head coach.
- Both Drazen and Coleman made the All-NBA third team.
The team was beginning to find its own identity apart from being type-casted as the Knicks’ sideshow act in Jersey. They experienced the bumps and bruises teams need when acquiring that playoff grit all championship-caliber teams would need in future seasons. Everything appeared to be on the up and up. Then, the season ended.
For as bright as the immediate future held for the Nets, it was equally as murky, if not more. Then second-year guard out of Michigan Rumeal Robinson revealed in May 1993, “I’m outta here. I can’t take this anymore. I’m leaving. There are other teams that will treat me right.” He didn’t want to return to being Kenny Anderson’s back up once he recovered from a wrist injury that shortened his ’92-’93 campaign.
Another hurdle in the road presented itself in the form of Derrick Coleman’s contract negotiations. The New York Times dubbed Coleman as the most important player to his team not named Michael Jordan during the second half of the ’92-’93 season, where he averaged 20.7 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Larry Nance dubbed him the game’s best power forward, high praise coming from a guy who was an All-Star power forward ahead of D.C. during that very season. Chuck Daly saw him as a top five-or-six player in the league. Coleman wanted compensation, and while no one knew it at the time, his demands ultimately prove to be a first class ticket out of Jersey.
And yet, here’s the nugget that’s so often forgotten — Drazen Petrovic was very serious about not returning to the Nets for the ’93-’94 season. It’s the reason why Coleman was reluctant to sign a long-term extension that summer. He wanted to see what general manager Willis Reed and the Nets would do with Petro and fellow free agent Chris Dudley.
“Nothing has changed,” said Petrovic weeks before his death on a phone conversation from his mother’s house in Zagreb, Croatia. “I still want to see all the options I have, but I’m not coming back to the Nets. This is the place where I would be most happy. This is my home.”
Running topics as to why Draz was so adamant about not returning to the organization that helped turn him into one of the league’s most promising talents were plentiful. First was his feeling of xenophobia being the reason he failed to make the All-Star Team his final two seasons. Second, he wasn’t sold on the Nets’ commitment to becoming more than a fringe playoff team, evident in their willingness to allow players like Mookie Blaylock and Terry Mills walk. Drazen wanted a contender, and as far as he knew, who’s to say Coleman wasn’t next to be shipped out of town?
“I think maybe two or three guys that are here now will be here next season,” said Petrovic to the NY Times’ Mike Freeman on May 10, 1993. “Maybe Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson and some others. It’s hard to figure this organization out. But I have to think about my finances and what’s best for Drazen Petrovic.”
Third, of course, was the almighty dollar. There was the very real possibility that Petrovic had a $4-5 million contract (largely tax free!) waiting for him in Europe. He wanted the Nets to reimburse him for what he felt like was yeoman’s work in New Jersey. Check Draz’s final two seasons in Jersey to realize not only the threat he was becoming on the court, but the legitimacy of his stance against the Nets’ front office. It was hard to argue against him.
1991-92: 82 games played (82 started), 20.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 50.8 FG, 44.4 3PT, 80.8 FT
1992-93: 70 games played (67 started), 22.3 PPG, 2.7 RPB, 3.5 APG, 51.8 FG, 44.9 3PT, 87% FT
Whatever the case, Petrovic was long since respected as one of the NBA’s most straight shooters who backed down to no man, whether it be Michael Jordan or oppression in his home country of Croatia. He was hell-bent on playing next season in Europe where he was already the biggest draw talent and name-wise. If the Nets were going to turn the corner with one of the most promising nuclei in the league, they were going to need an Oliver Miller-sized pool of good luck.
None of which would play in to their favor.
The summer/fall of 1993 was arguably the most trying offseason ever faced under David Stern. Lockouts are more frustrating than anything. Death is a totally different animal to deal with.
On top of Petrovic’s passing, Boston Celtics’ promising swingman Reggie Lewis died a month later on July 27, 1993, from what paramedics described as full cardiac arrest. He was a year younger than Drazen, just 27. Michael Jordan’s father, James, was found dead August 14, concluding a three-week search for his body. And just weeks before the start of training camp, Michael himself announced he was retiring on October 7, 1993.
The NBA had lost its signature star at the peak of his domination and two of its most promising talents in the most bizzare and depressing fashions. About the only thing that went right was the arrival of Chris Webber, who was undoubtedly the most recognizable star in college basketball (although his last moment as a member of the Fab Five has since gone down in infamy).
Meanwhile, for the Nets, everything was therapy on the fly. Every move that offseason was a mask for how the team would respond in the 1993-94 season. It was like placing a Band-Aid on an open gash. They lured Kevin Edwards away from Miami and drafted Rex Walters with the 16th overall pick in the Webber/Anfernee Hardaway-led draft.
None of it compensated for a loss Reed said as he broke into tears, “…was like losing a son.” Kenny Anderson confessed he damn-near collapsed when first hearing the news. “Petro and I were starting to get really close. We were just starting to get to really know one another and now he’s gone. Actually, I think the whole team was beginning to come together. We were really putting the pieces together.”
Perhaps whatever ill will that festered before June 7 was legit. Perhaps the Nets were willing to gamble on the futures of Draz, Chris Dudley and even Derrick Coleman when business overrode everything else. It took death, and its eternal uncanny ability, to put everything in perspective.
Suddenly, these Nets stood on the brink of a season without their leading scorer and a growing frustration in a player who is seen nowadays as the prototypical pouty big man. The emotional anguish haunted New Jersey throughout the season. What felt like stress months earlier had turned into full-fledged panic mode. Daly, in November 1993, openly questioned how far the team could go without the lack of post presence. “I’m not sure either one of them [Benoit Benjamin and Dwayne Schintzius] is mentally strong enough to be a starter.” Coleman had already rejected an eight-year, $69 million extension. Depending on which side of the story is rehashed, D.C. had already begun the process of mentally checking out of New Jersey.
The 1993-94 Nets somehow managed to win 45 games without their heart and soul who moonlighted as arguably the world’s best shooter. They secured a first round matchup against, ironically, the New York Knicks. In some sense, there was the unspoken belief the Nets were being carried on the now heavenly shoulders and will of Petrovic, a teammate who made life for both Anderson and Coleman explicitly easier on the court.
Pat Riley’s top-ranked Knicks defense swarmed Anderson and Coleman in that series, making it difficult to get into an offensive set, let alone find an open shot. Petro’s laser-like shooting could’ve completely changed the series, especially considering the Nets’ two-guards found iron more than they found buckets, as Kevin Edwards and Chris Morris combined to shoot 32.2 percent for the series (30-93!), leaving Anderson and Coleman as two Apollo Creeds fighting a swarming fleet of Ivan Dragos.
Credit a large part of that to Riley’s scheme and the Knicks’ overall jaws-of-life style of defense. However, thoughts of “but what if…” creep into the conversation when Petrovic’s numbers against the Knicks in his two full seasons in Jersey are brought up. The 3-6 win/loss record isn’t attractive, but when looking at Morris’ and Edwards’ numbers compared to Draz’s 19.1 points per Knick game on 51.1 percent shooting (65-127) and 63.2 percent from three (12-19), it’s hard to believe the Nets don’t at least force a fifth and deciding contest at the Garden.
Opening Pandora’s box is dangerous when discussing basketball. Who knows what happens had one offseason from the seventh-level of hell not struck New Jersey. Maybe:
- The Nets finish with a better record than 45-37, thus avoiding the Knicks in the first round. Keep in mind, the East was wide open now that Jordan was off learning how to (not) hit off-speed pitches.
- Drazen’s brother, Aleksandr, was right and he returns to Jersey. This possibly influences Derrick Coleman to rectify his contract situation realizing what the Nets had in place. Or not.
- The front office realizes this team has a puncher’s chance to become something special with an elite shooter who pulled double duty as one of the league’s toughest characters, a crafty floor general who averaged 19-10 and an automatic 20-10 on the block and invests in keeping them together.
- Kenny Anderson’s career isn’t set on a weird spiral looking for the potential and chemistry in another backcourt mate like Drazen.
- Drazen joins the rare 50-40-90 fraternity, which seems all but a given since he was entering the prime of his career.
Instead, it wasn’t meant to be. Given the emotional roller coaster, basketball just didn’t feel fun. Chuck Daly retired following the ’93-94 season, not even two years after leading the Dream Team to gold in Barcelona, at the very same Olympic games where Petrovic would earn the iconic coach’s respect. The ’94-’95 installment would go 30-52. Kenny Anderson was traded to the Hornets in January 1996 after declining the Nets six-year, $40 million offer earlier in the season. And Derrick Coleman was traded a month before, to Philadelphia in a deal that netted the Nets the incomparable Shawn Bradley. Just like that, a team was dismantled and its potential officially laid to rest.
20 years later, the expectations and excitement of Nets fans as they head into the 2013-14 season is understandable. Sure, unlike during the ’93-’94 version, the game’s best player is still in their conference at the peak of his powers with no apparent interest in baseball. But at least this season, there’s no black cloud hovering above. At least this season, the Brooklyn Nets have their full arsenal of weapons. At least this season, the Nets have a chance.
Really, what more could a team ask for?