They got there in 2002, Jason Kidd’s first season with the Nets after being traded from Phoenix to New Jersey. It was Richard Jefferson’s rookie season, a young and athletic small forward, backing up The Pale Rider, aka Keith Van Horn. They got swept by the Lakers, one year later they would try their luck again, this time playing the Spurs. Jefferson was a full-time starter by now, with Van Horn being traded to Philly, and although he and his team lost to San Antonio 4-2, the future looked promising. A frontline with RJ along with Kenyon Martin and having the best point guard running the show throwing lobs and finding you wherever you are on the court is a great situation for any player to be in. A return to the Finals would be imminent. Well, that’s what I thought. Insert the new-look Detroit Pistons, who acquired Rasheed Wallace late in the season, and defeated the Nets in the second round of the playoffs in ’04 (4-3) and became champions for the first time since 1990.
And now it’s 2008, and I think Jefferson understands he won’t be back into the Finals anytime soon. In fact, within now and a few months he’s on a plane to join his new team, the Milwaukee Bucks. I’m not saying the Bucks are that bad, but it’s obvious they are in no way contenders for the title anytime soon. The same can be said about the Nets. Even if they kept Jefferson, it wouldn’t get much better. But call me naïve; I really would’ve liked to see a full season of RJ, Vince Carter and lighting bolt Devin Harris and the rest of the now very young crew. Instead, “we” now have Yi and Bobby Simmons. Sure, Yi can be a great player someday, or a total bust. Simmons hasn’t been healthy for a couple of seasons now, so you don’t know what you’re going to get from him. I don’t like this trade. I don’t like it at all. Maybe for sentimental reasons, but also from a basketball standpoint.
In the summer of ’04, when Kittles and Martin were traded for basically nothing in return, it frustrated the hell out of me. Kittles was something I could understand, because injuries really took a toll on his career. It’s a shame, but sometimes it happens. After he was traded to the Clippers he went down and it was all over. When Nets owner Bruce Ratner refused to lay down big bucks (no pun intended) to keep Kenyon Martin, it angered Kidd, the rest of the team and every Nets fan out there. Back then no one knew Martin would almost miss two seasons because of microfracture surgery to both knees. We got Vince Carter later that year, but every season the Nets have been stuck in mediocrity, unable to return to the elite of the NBA. President Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe decided enough was enough and decided something had to be done; hence trading Jefferson to the Bucks for Yi and Simmons.
I don’t understand the hate RJ is getting from basketball fans around the world. He speaks his mind, he’s brutally honest when giving his opinion, is that a problem? And although some might say he wanted to be “the man” too much, to me it didn’t seem damaging to an already weak Nets team. Jefferson was a top five scorer in the first couple of months of the season (and ended ninth), which took some toll on his otherwise above average defense. Then again, somebody had to put some points on the board for New Jersey, because Carter sometimes seems reluctant to be the main go-to guy, so why not RJ? I saw plenty of Nets games this season to notice that Jefferson became outstanding in creating his own shot. He improved his jumper, and because of his strong body he was able to slash to the basket at will, creating contact and going to the free throw line. He even shot 36% from threepoint range, so you could say he’s offensively well-rounded.
In the days since the trade I read several things, people writing that RJ shouldn’t be the top player in your team, but maybe the second or third guy, I read that Rod Thorn said that even if Jefferson wouldn’t be traded, the Nets weren’t going to any better next season. You make a trade to improve your team, but that’s not the case in this situation. We all know what the real reason behind the trade is: money. I understand it’s that way, it’s a business and I’m a sucker that I love my one team and the players on it. Especially the ones who were on that team for a long time, from being in the Finals to missing the playoffs. I understand it would be great to bring a huge star to the Nets in 2010 (he who shall not be named in this post), but as a fan I’m always in a win-now mode. With RJ we won’t win the Trophy in ’09, but we won’t win it with Yi either.
The perception of him by a lot of people these days is that he’s the most overrated player in the League today, with the “numbers” to prove it. Maybe I’m biased, maybe I’m blinded by my affection for the Nets, but I’ve seen plenty of games this past season to realize he was one of the few bright spots my team had. Now after the trade, we have two forwards who took turns sitting on the bench in Milwaukee, and the possibility to get a really good small forward in 2010, but you never know if that’s really going to happen. I always focus on the here and now, so with RJ leaving, it truly marks the end of an era. There’s no one left of those Finals teams of ’02 and ’03. I can only wish my favorite forward of the past seven years all the best, and hopefully he’ll return to the Big Dance someday.