If anybody knows what Carmelo Anthony is going through it's Kenyon Martin. K-Mart had his own rollercoaster-ride of a season back with the Nets during the 2003-04 campaign. And like many New York Knicks fans and New Jersey Nets fans of today with Melo, I couldn't wait for K-Mart to ink a deal with my team.
When doing a little research for this article I realized something ... blogs have really taken off in the past two or three years. I found a few message boards that sort of discussed when Martin was a free agent with the New Jersey Nets and only a few places where people commented on Martin signing with the Nuggets. My-oh-my how things have changed since 2004. (That sounds weird and this paragraph will look crazy in a few more years).
Nowadays if you want to discuss any aspect of sports with people who feel just as passionate as you do, you no longer have to bore your buddies who really couldn't care less. There are plenty of outlets, like Denver Stiffs, where you can really get some quality discussion going with diehard fans ... from all over the planet. Still pretty amazing to think about sometimes.
I dwell on the increasing popularity of blogs and message boards because back from 2002-2005 there was a lot to talk about with Nuggets basketball, but not a lot of people, for me, to talk about it with. When I was living in Fort Collins I watched a lot of bad basketball with my buddy Rory (the 17 win season right before we drafted Melo). We watched games hoping that our new draft picks Nene (7th pick of New York Knicks) and The #5 Pick Who Shall Not Be Named would pan out. I was still pretty bummed that Denver passed on Caron Butler, but the Nene kid was somewhat promising.
I was also pretty happy that Denver acquired Marcus Camby, as I was a fan of his at UMass and he had pretty good NBA success when he was healthy. He came to Denver injured, but played in 29 games and showed flashes of things to come with nine games of 8 rebounds and above and 11 games with multiple blocks.
And as the season wore on and the losses piled up ... Rory and I focused our attention away from the developing rookie (and the non-developing rookie) and to the Nuggets chances of landing the high school phenom LeBron James. As history should have taught us, the Nuggets had no chance of winning the NBA Lottery and with the Cleveland Cavaliers losing games left-and-right as well, the Nuggets were going to get one of the top picks ... we hoped. And rising college freshman star Anthony at Syracuse started showing up on our radar as the young Orangemen gained national attention.
During that 2002-03 season the Nuggets had the following losing steaks; 5 games, 5, 10, 7, 14, 4 and 8. The last time the Nuggets had a losing streak of four games or more? Try a four game skid back from February 14-24, 2007. Yes, that's right ... 2007! We've been treated to a lot of good basketball with the Denver Nuggets since Anthony came aboard, but in his first season in Denver it was clear the Nuggets needed a more experienced big man to go along with Melo and Marcus Camby. Chris Andersen was a nice energy guy, but that was about it. Francisco Elson showed flashes of ... well, he would always be a back-end bench guy. And in-season waiver pick up Michael Doleac was a decent shooter, but again not a difference making big man. In his second season, Nene was producing and looked like he would develop into a nice power forward to pair with Melo, but the uncertainty of Camby's health was a concern for me as Nene couldn't hold down the fort alone if/when Camby went down again.
So, during the 2003-04 season Rory and I talked often about the Nuggets chances of luring K-Mart away from the New Jersey Nets ... the Nets who had just appeared in back-to-back NBA Finals, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002 and the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. Despite all the success, things were not all rosy in New Jersey.
Early in the 2003-04 season head coach Byron Scott and point guard Jason Kidd seemed to be feuding, ownership was still unstable until Bruce Ratner bought the team during the season for $300 million (the man known for the fall of the Nets) and the impending free agency of K-Mart (after the season) and Richard Jefferson (the next season) left the Nets with some crucial decisions in the quickly approaching future.
During the '03-'04 season the Nets, in first place in their division at the time, fired Scott despite of the two straight Finals appearances. From an ESPN article about the firing, "The Nets, an unspectacular 22-20 with the All-Star break approaching, lead the 22-24 Celtics by two games in the Atlantic Division but have only the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference. The game that sealed Scott's fate was Friday's loss at 18-26 Miami, in which the Nets were routed 85-64, sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein."
Lawrence Frank took over as coach and led the team to a 25-15 (47-35 overall) record and got them into the playoffs. A pretty hot start for an in-season coaching change, something that George Karl knows about. Karl came in during the 2004-05 season in Denver and took over a 17-25 underachieving squad and led them to a 32-8 finish (49-33 overall and Martin's first in Denver).
The firing of Scott was bizarre because a coach in first place of his division had only been fired during the season two other times in NBA history. The first, was the 1958-59 St. Louis Hawks who replaced Andy Phillips with Ed Macauley. The second, when the 1988-89 Utah Jazz canned Frank Layden and replaced him with ... you guessed it, Jerry Sloan. Macauley, Sloan and Frank all led their teams to division titles during the season in which they were hired.
In the 2003-04 season the Nets were again in the postseason, under Frank, and swept the Knicks in first round, but lost to the eventual NBA Champion Detroit Pistons in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. The end of not only the NBA Finals appearances came, but also the end of the Kidd, RJ, Kerry Kittles and K-Mart run-and-gun Nets as the Nuggets jumped in and completed a sign-and-trade for K-Mart on July 15, 2004.
Rory and I were certain that salary cap room Kiki Vandeweghe managed to create was for Martin and we couldn't have been happier when the deal was made. Well, I recall not being too thrilled that Denver gave up the three first-round picks for Martin, but I figured the playoff success that was sure to come would make the picks an afterthought. Though it was likely Martin would have chosen the Nuggets anyway, the Atlanta Hawks had offered Martin a max contract (worth about $85 million), but the sign-and-trade allowed Denver to give Martin $91 million and a $1.5 million signing bonus and the guarantee that Martin would be a Nugget. Best not to leave things to chance of letting the player choose between teams.
Coming over to the Nuggets, Martin was coming off an all-star season in Jersey where he averaged 16.7 points (career-high) and 9.4 rebounds (led the team and a career-high). He put up 26 double-doubles in 65 regular season games , scored season-highs of 29 points twice, and on December 5, 2003 against the Milwaukee Bucks he posted 20 points, 21 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals. His impressive numbers just fed my appetite to have him join the Nuggets. Martin missed nine of the team's final 15 games with left knee tendinitis (sound familiar?), but came back for the playoffs and posted six double-doubles in 11 games.
Former Nets CEO Rod Thorn had this to say about losing Martin to the Nuggets back in 2004, "This was an extremely difficult decision for our franchise, but I felt that the magnitude of the contract, both in its first year due to the signing bonus as well as over its duration, would seriously impair our ability to sign enough quality players."
So the Nets chose Richard Jefferson over Martin and signed RJ to a contract extension to the tune of 6-years and $78 million in 2005. Is a wing player more important than a power forward? If you want to judge things by Martin's injury history you could say yes, but who knows how K-Mart's time would have played out in NJ.
At Cincinnati, in his senior season, on March 8, 2000 Martin broke his right fibula during a game against St. Louis in the Conference USA tournament. He went on to be the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft, but late in his rookie season he again broke his right leg on March 23, 2001 as a hairline fracture in the right fibula was revealed. The break wasn't in the same part of the fibula, but it ended Martin's season.
I remember seeing the replay of the broken leg at Cincinnati and feeling bad for Martin as he was a top college player and deserved the chance to try to win it all in his senior campaign. I don't even recall the injury with the Nets his rookie year and didn't think Martin would have any problem staying healthy with Denver. But a high-flyer like Martin is always playing with fire as basketball doesn't lend itself kindly to players' legs. Since joining the Nuggets, Martin has famously undergone microfracture surgery twice, in May 2005 on his left knee and on his right knee before the 2006-07 season. And in June 2010, Martin again underwent surgery on his left-knee (patella tendon) to which he's still recovering. That's five leg injuries since 2000 ... pretty unfair for Martin.
When K-Mart did come over from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference he had the chance to become a dominant forward with the Nuggets. Only two guys were clearly better than Martin out West and they were Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. Nuggets fans had every reason to believe that Martin would push Denver to another level as a team and make his name a household one for his great play on the court.
Martin was supposed to be the missing piece to come in and take a bit of the scoring load off Melo and provide the Nuggets with a tough defender to pair alongside Camby. When Martin has been healthy he has done exactly that for the Nuggets. But overall things didn't quite turn out the way they were planned as Camby, Nene and Martin all dealt with injuries and the Nuggets were forced to shuffle other pieces in to try to put them over the top.
The promise of things during that 2003-04 season remain one of my favorite times as a Nugget fan. I just knew Martin was going to be acquired and with the team improving from 17 wins in the 2002-03 season to 43 in 2003-04 (+26 wins) I thought with K-Mart in town that 50+ wins would be achieved on the regular (in Martin's first six seasons in Denver the Nuggets have reached 50+ wins three times) and playoff success would surely follow and perhaps an NBA title if we were lucky.
Looking back on things now, I feel sort of bad for rooting for the Nuggets to steal Martin away from the Nets. He was their franchise guy in the fact that they spent a No. 1 pick on him, but some would say it was Kidd who made Martin an all-star.
Interesting now, it's the Knicks fans who are rooting for their franchise to steal Melo away from our Nuggets. Even more interesting is that the Nets also seem to be in the hunt to steal a player back from the Nuggets. I know exactly what their fans are thinking because I had all the same thoughts once upon a time.
The Knicks seem to be the franchise of the two that is on more of the upswing. Amar'e Stoudemire, like Martin, was pegged as a guy who benefitted from a point guard (Steve Nash), but is carrying his new team so far this season. Raymond Felton, like Andre Miller, is the new man in charge of running the show in New York after moving on from Charlotte. After winning 29 games in the 2009-10 season, the Knicks have 16 wins already this season and are looking to make the post-season for the first time since Martin's Nets eliminated them back in 2004 when they made the playoffs despite a 39-43 record.
The Knicks six full season playoff drought (so far) is a little less than the Nuggets eight full season drought before Melo came aboard. So the Nuggets had their 17 win season, grabbed Melo in the draft and won 43 games, then added Martin and won 49 games. The Knicks had a 29 win season, added Amar'e and are building on their win total and might just make a run at Melo as the key piece to their resurrection either this season or in the offseason.
I'm sure Martin had his doubts on where he'd continue playing his career in his last season with New Jersey, just as Melo might be wondering what uniform he'll wind up in.
The only thing I know is that I've been in the position of wanting the team I follow to lure a star away before with Martin, and I have a feeling that I will do it all again at some point. What a vicious cycle ...
The great news on Kenyon Martin ... Chris Tomasson of Fanhouse has been Tweeting that he could be back by December 22nd vs. San Antonio!