The greatest era in New Jersey Nets history began with the acquisition of an All-Star point guard. The Nets hope history repeats itself, but only to a degree.
The Nets made one of the most surprising trades of the NBA season Wednesday, February 23, when they sent two players, two first-round draft picks and an additional $3 million to the Utah Jazz in exchange for point guard Deron Williams, a two-time All-Star, a member of the gold medal-winning United States basketball team in 2008 and someone viewed as one of the best young players in the game.
Williams made his home debut for the Nets last night, February 28, and visitors to the Nets’ official Web site were greeted by a “WELCOME DERON WILLIAMS!” message and reminded that the first 10,000 fans to the Prudential Center in Newark receive a free Williams T-shirt. The Nets lost by a point in overtime to the Phoenix Suns, 104-103, but the game was exciting throughout, and Williams electrified the crowd with 18 assists.
While the Nets would no doubt like for Williams to spark a winning streak, the trade was made with the future and another state in mind. The Nets are in the midst of a major rebuilding project during the first of two lame-duck seasons in Newark as their new arena in Brooklyn is completed in time for the start of the 2012-13 season.
Last year, in their final campaign at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, the Nets set an NBA record for most consecutive losses to start a season, when they opened up 0-18 and finished 11-71, which tied the Nets for the second-worst record in NBA history. Not surprisingly, the Nets finished last in the NBA in attendance with a per-game average of 13,104.
Things are a little better this year — the Nets entered play last tonight 17-42, in fourth place in the NBA’s Atlantic Division and 9 ½ games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference — but luring fans to home games remains a challenge. Newark presents a more convenient location for fans who use public transportation to get to games, but those who are driving from one of the boroughs or Long Island have a longer trek. The Nets continue to rank last in the NBA in attendance with an average crowd of 13,114 at the 18,711-seat Prudential Center. The team received a bump in attendance Monday night at 15,836.
The Nets are hopeful the move to Brooklyn, a youthful borough whose sporting history with Major League Baseball’s Dodgers appeals to older generations as well, will finally allow them to gain traction in the New York market, but history suggests it will be an uphill climb even if Williams stays with the Nets (he can be a free agent after next season) and sparks a resurgence.
The Nets played in front of plenty of empty seats even after the acquisition of Jason Kidd (a teammate of Williams’ on the 2008 Olympic team) following the 2000-01 season, which resulted in unprecedented success for the team on the court. Kidd led the Nets to the NBA Finals in 2001-02 and 2002-03 and to the playoffs in each of the following four seasons, but the Nets never ranked higher than 18th in the NBA in average attendance over that six-season span.
The cross-river New York Knicks, meanwhile, ranked in the top half of the NBA in attendance in each of the previous nine seasons and only fell out of the top 10 once (2006-07) even though they were a combined 180 games under .500 and were swept — by the Nets — in their lone playoff appearance following the 2003-04 season. The Knicks stole the spotlight from the Nets last week, as well, by acquiring superstar Carmelo Anthony — whom the Nets had been linked to for months — from the Denver Nuggets.