For his second franchise in a row, Kiki Vandeweghe has firebombed the roster, sacked a decent coach with the carnage and prayed for some luck with the draft and free agency. It worked for the Nuggets, but will it work for the Nets in New Jersey/Brooklyn?
Let's take a quick trip back to 2002. The Nuggets are floundering with a losing record, a coach/team president that calls a Hispanic fan a "Mexican piece of shit" and an expensive, relatively worthless roster featuring the likes of draft busts Raef LaFrentz and Tariq "Don't Call Me Olivier St. Jean" Abdul-Wahad, the mercurial Nick Van Exel and the grossly overpaid Avery Johnson. In comes Kiki Vandeweghe - a former Nuggets star who had been mentored by the Nelsons in the Mavericks front office - as the new G.M. Vandeweghe's first act, a bold and swift one, is to deal away LaFrentz, Abdul-Wahad, Van Exel and Johnson to his former team, take back some expiring contracts, suck for a season-and-a-half and hope for the best with free agency and the draft.
The huge - and in my opinion, unforgivable - misstep of drafting all-time bust (and Denver Stiffs Hall of Famer) Nikoloz Tskitishvili aside, Vandeweghe's gamble worked. As part of the plan, Vandeweghe brought in a young, hard-working coach in Jeff Bzdelik to change the culture on the floor and the Nuggets remarkably won 17 more games than they should have in the 2002-03 season. 17 wins was low enough, however, for the Nuggets to score Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 draft and by parting with those heavy contracts, the Nuggets had enough cap room to sign Voshon Lenard, Andre Miller and my all-time favorite one-season Nugget, Jon Barry.
Years later and in a new geographical location, Vandeweghe is doing very similar things in New Jersey under the tutelage of Rod Thorn (who in the ironies or ironies swindled Vandeweghe into trading three number one picks for Kenyon Martin in 2004). Hired in late 2007 as a "Special Assistant" to Thorn, Vandeweghe became the Nets G.M. in May of 2008.
During Vandeweghe's tenure with the Nets, the franchise has dealt the aging, overpaid Jason Kidd to Dallas for Devin Harris and several soon-to-be-expiring contracts including Trenton Hassell's, sent the overpaid Richard Jefferson to Milwaukee for Yi Jianlin and Bobby Simmons' soon-to-be-expiring contract and recently traded another max player, Vince Carter, to Orlando for the expiring contracts of Rafer Alston and Tony Battie.
Left in the wake of all these deals is the 26th lowest payroll in the NBA with the salaries of Simmons, Alston, Battie, Hassell, Keyon Dooling and Jarvis Hayes coming off the books in 2010. Plus, the Nets have one of the better young point guards in the NBA in Devin Harris, a solid center in Brook Lopez (even though my Uncle Marty claims he's a Stiff after watching him up close against the Nuggets last week), a good swingman in Chris Douglas-Roberts and even Yi was playing well before going down with another injury. Oh, and the Nets have their own lottery pick plus the Mavericks' first round pick in 2010.
But also left in the wake is a lost season that head coach Lawrence Frank - whom Vandeweghe inherited - is about to take the fall for. Saddled with a gutted-out, injury-riddled roster Frank is being Bzdelik'd. And it's not fair. Lest we forget that Frank won his first 13 games in a row when he took over the Nets for Byron Scott several seasons ago. But life's not fair (Frank does make - gasp - $4 million a year, so I don't feel that bad for him) and unlike Bzdelik's amazing performance in 2002-03, Frank's team is losing all the games they're supposed to lose.
Similar to the situation for Bzdelik in Denver, Vandeweghe won't stand up for Frank (even though this is clearly Vandeweghe's plan) and is just buying time before he can hire a big name coach to right the ship when LeBron James and/or other free agents and a top draft pick join the franchise next summer. Different from what happened in Denver, though, is that Vandeweghe is rumored to take over as head coach. I guess the bottom line is that when you lose your first 16 games (about to be 18), no matter how bad your roster/injury situation is your job isn't salvageable. Good bye, Lawrence Frank.
How's this for a far-fetched prediction moving forward? Vandeweghe takes over as coach for the remainder of the season and - a la Kevin McHale in Minnesota - the Nets beat up on some equally bad teams en route to winning about 15-18 games with a spirited effort on the floor. Then, the Nets score LeBron in the 2010 free agent sweepstakes (I really don't think LBJ is leaving Cleveland, but if he does it's to the Nets who have the best surrounding cast plus cap space to offer him) and none other than current Nuggets coach George Karl takes over as head coach when the Nuggets fail to offer Karl an extension. (On a side note, I used to think that Karl was imposed on Vandeweghe by Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke in 2005 but have since learned that Karl and Vandeweghe have a friendly relationship and get along great, so I'm just connecting the dots here.)
With Karl overseeing a roster featuring Harris at point guard, Courtney Lee or CDR at shooting guard, LBJ at small forward, (enter free agent here) at power forward and Lopez at center, the Nets move into their shiny, new Brooklyn confines in 2011 with the support of their Russian billionaire owner as a championship contender.
Frank might be getting Bzdelik'd right before our eyes, but sunny days are ahead for the Nets and Kiki knows it.
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Bill Kostroun