Let's just call it Black Tuesday.
January 11, 2005, was a doozy of a day for metro area basketball fans, as both the Nets and Knicks suffered devastating setbacks. While New Jersey announced that it had lost its leading scorer, Richard Jefferson, for the season, New York was handed an embarrassing home loss at the hands of the lowly Hornets.
The ruptured ligament in Jefferson's left wrist effectively ends the Nets' 2004-05 campaign. The high-flying forward said he hurt the wrist against Detroit on December 27, when he was low-bridged on a fast break by Chauncey Billups and hit the ground wristfirst. The numbers back up that claim: In the seven subsequent games, RJ shot a miserable 40-for-118 (33.9%).
Not only is Jefferson gone, but along with him went all the cautious optimism that enveloped the team in the wake of the Vince Carter trade. Now Nets fans will have to wait until November to see Jason Kidd running the break with Carter and Jefferson screaming down the wings.
Until then, they'll be treated to 47 more games of the dull, dismantled pre-Carter Nets. Rodney Buford makes an unwelcome return to the starting lineup, getting more chances to show off his impressively bad shot selection (some Nets have taken to calling him "Chucky"). In fact, between Buford and the Knicks' Jamal Crawford, the Big Apple boasts the two shooting guards with the worst tunnel vision in the league.
Now that the demise of the three-time Atlantic Division champions is all but certain, let's zoom in on the key, underrated aspect of their failure: the bench. As much as Nets fans pine for the return of Kenyon Martin, it isn't his departure that's done the most damage; it's the absence of solid reserves like Rodney Rogers, Lucious Harris, and Aaron Williams, who could stabilize things when one of the starters was out of the lineup. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a worse second unit than New Jersey's current five.
The shoddy reserves are a direct consequence of the dismantling of the team's roster last summer so they could avoid paying the luxury tax. The only way the Nets were going to be competitive with this roster was if all the key players stayed healthy for the entire season. That's great if it happens, but it's a pipe dream for most teams during the typical season.
The Knicks' situation isn't quite as dire. Though Tuesday's loss exceeded even the direst predictions, they're still on top of the paean to mediocrity known as the Atlantic Division. But as I mentioned earlier this week, a combination of a tough upcoming schedule and some amazingly lackluster defense should sink the Knicks several games below .500, especially with Crawford out at least two more weeks and Michael Sweetney also on the shelf.
So if all is gloom and doom for the local cagers, where to from here?
From New Jersey's perspective, the season can't be salvaged. As much as it might rankle Jason Kidd, the Nets have to play for next year. That means figuring out who will be important parts of the future, giving lots of minutes to recent first-rounders Nenad Krstic and Zoran Planinic (when he returns), and identifying who won't be a part of said future (that means you, Chucky).
It also means giving Kidd time to get familiar with Vince Carter and cutting back on Kidd's minutes to save his knee for next season. The Nets can only hope that Kidd won't renew his trade demands between now and November.
Upon closer inspection, there's a silver lining. The Nets will end up with a high first-round pick, or even the top one, in June's draft, to go along with the one they kept from the Kenyon Martin trade last summer (the other two went to Toronto for Carter). Unfortunately, as New Jersey's luck would have it, the top-rated player in this draft is a point guard - Wake Forest's Chris Paul.
Winning the lottery aside, first-rounders rarely are a panacea. But in New Jersey's case they could help a lot, because what the Nets need more than anything are bench players who won't kill them. Rod Thorn would have to draft very badly to avoid accomplishing that, and his track record in the draft makes that scenario highly unlikely.
The Knicks are likely seeing a few bright spots of their own, starting with Jerome Williams. With Tim Thomas sidelined, Williams took over as the starting small for ward two games ago, and immediately gave the Knicks an energetic defensive presence that was notably absent with Thomas. In fact, Williams is likely to keep the position even when Thomas returns. "It's a great possibility," Lenny Wilkens admitted after Tuesday's debacle.
The bigger question is whether Wilkens will be around to make that decision. Certainly, some of the developments aren't his fault. Allan Houston is walking around on one leg, but is forced to log big minutes due to injuries to Crawford and Penny Hardaway.With Sweetney also out, Wilkens has almost no choice but to turn to the jalopy that is Vin Baker.
But those problems pale beside the Knicks' lack of intensity, which is Wilkens's fault. The Knicks' defense has been awful all season, a direct result of Wilkens's complete and total lack of fire. On Tuesday against the league's worst offensive team, the Knicks forced only nine turnovers, couldn't control their defensive board, and let Baron Davis make 13 trips to the free-throw line.
Lawrence Frank would have planted his right boot in some rear ends a long time ago, but laid-back Lenny just looks on bemusedly. (And is it me, or does he look more like Christopher Walken with every passing day?)
Overall, January 11 was a lamentable day no matter which team you support, with the only solace being that things hardly can get worse. The Nets' season is over, but with Carter in tow, Jefferson returning at full strength next year, and more draft picks on the way, this looks to be a temporary setback.
And while the Knicks look pathetic right now, there's still talent on the roster, Isiah is sniffing around for a trade, and a coaching change could do wonders for their effort level. Perhaps we'll come to remember this January as the time when things hit rock bottom. If not, I shudder to think what might be next.