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MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

At 0-16, the New Jersey Nets are bad, but not THAT bad

Nets are one loss from equaling worst start in NBA history, but their talent level is much better than the 1988-89 Heat and 1999 Clippers, who share the record, or the all-time losers, the 1972-73 Six

November 29, 2009|Mark Heisler

On the bright side for the 0-16 Nets, who must beat the Lakers today or join the dregs of NBA history, they're the best historically awful team ever.

Two teams have previously started 0-17, the expansion Miami Heat in 1988, and the may-as-well-have-been-expansion Clippers in 1999.

The Heat wound up 15-67 with only three players, Rony Seikaly, Grant Long and Kevin Edwards, whose NBA careers lasted longer than three seasons.

The Clippers went 9-41 in the lockout-shortened season when Donald T. Sterling waited until Jan. 13 to hire coach Chris Ford, the perfect ending for their Sports Arena Era, which they would gladly put in a time capsule and launch into deep space.

The Nets, who have a prospect-studded roster, are in this storied company because of injuries to starters Devin Harris, Yi Jianlian and Courtney Lee.

Otherwise, they would have one win or two, anyway.

As Coach Lawrence Frank noted in Milwaukee, where they were down to eight players, "We were looking for Bango the Buck to see if he wanted to wear a Nets uniform."

Not that 0-17 starts can match the season-long standard for misery set by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who set the record, going 9-73.

The 76ers didn't look laughable with veterans Fred Carter, Tom Van Arsdale, John Block and Bill Bridges, at least until they got on the floor.

With Billy Cunningham having just jumped to the ABA and coach Jack Ramsay bolting for Buffalo, the new coach (read: only man who would take the job) was rah-rah Roy Rubin from little Long Island University, whose players took one look at him and did a team eye roll.

The media wasn't much more impressed. The Philadelphia Daily News' Jack Kiser unfailingly referred to him as Poor Roy Rubin, or PRR.

Given to motivational ploys, PRR didn't understand that his veterans didn't want to listen to a psychologist explain group dynamics on a bus trip to Baltimore, when they could be doing something more productive, like sleeping.

"We're sitting on the bus and this guy is going on and on about group decisions being better than individual ones," said Alan Richman, the Philadelphia Bulletin beat writer who survived to become GQ's wine and food critic.

"I'm looking at Bill Bridges and he looks like he wants to rip this guy's head off."

With Rubin going all out, they went 4-4 in the preseason, suggesting they could split their games with other bad teams, to PRR, anyway.

Actually, no one was as bad as they were. If someone was on a given day, investigations ensued, as when Seattle fired coach Tom Nissalke after the 76ers won there, prompting stories that the SuperSonics players did it on purpose to get rid of him.

Rubin lasted 51 games, of which he lost 47.

The new player-coach, Kevin Loughery, went 5-26, wondering, he said, "how it is in life that people are assembled for a purpose, to come together for good or bad."

Deciding that coming together for good was preferable, Loughery then jumped at an offer from the ABA's New York Nets and coached them to two titles.

The 76ers were back in the NBA Finals by 1977 with former ABA stars George McGinnis and Julius Erving, got there again in 1980 and 1982, and finally won in 1983 with Moses Malone, another former ABA star, and with Cunningham, who had returned from the ABA, as coach.

What goes around comes around. Historically bad seasons, however anguished, are just transitions to whatever comes next.

The Nets have a promising future, even if it's always receding further into the future, with more talent and cap room than the Knicks, even if that and minority owner Jay-Z may not get them into the LeBron James derby.

"LeBron's relationship with Jay-Z will go on regardless," former James confidant Sonny Vaccaro recently told the New York Times' Jonathan Abrams.

"If the Nets aren't in Brooklyn, he's not going over there [New Jersey] for even $200 million.

"They're putting pieces together. They're doing the right things. They're just living in the wrong building."

The Nets are still expected to move to Brooklyn, eventually.

A Russian billionaire is in the process of buying 80% of the team, which would take it out of continual cost-cutting mode and make it a major-market player.

In the meantime, someone may have to take the fall soon and it's not going to be their trainer.

Frank, compared to Doogie Howser, the child physician on TV, when he was hired in 2003, had a nice run, at least until this season.

Nevertheless, it's not good to start 0-16 with your contract running out and a new owner coming in.

In Sacramento, where the Nets fell to 0-16 Friday, Frank, a stand-up guy to the end, put it on himself, noting, "I take full responsibility that we can't play 48 minutes . . . especially in the situation we're in."

Yet to break ground in Brooklyn, the Nets hope to move into the new Newark arena next season, which would end their Swamp Outpost Era with its motel-off-the-turnpike ambience and their desperate marketing ploys, like sending players to season ticket-holders functions.

"I'm Devin Harris of the Nets and I'd just like to wish the Bar Mitzvah boy L'chaim!"

In another silver lining, where is there to go but up?

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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