Justin Tinsley is a sportswriter who’s written for The Sports Fan Journal and The Smoking Section.
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.”
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