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Friday, June 28, 2013

Nets made out like bandits in deal with Celtics

I received two phone calls from avid NBA fans Friday morning, guys who know that I have spent a portion of my life as a sportswriter covering the Nets, both in New Jersey and now in Brooklyn.

They called because they wanted my take on the blockbuster trade that Nets general manager Billy King pulled off Thursday night, as the NBA Draft was taking place at the Barclays Center.

Somewhere in the bowels of their home arena, King made his biggest trade to date, far bigger than the acquistions of Deron Williams two years ago and Joe Johnson last year.

Although the trade cannot be officially announced until July 10 due to the NBA collective bargaining agreement, it is believed that King secured the services of future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, along with reliable guard Jason Terry, from the Boston Celtics for a pile of players and draft picks.

The Nets apparently have surrendered Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Toko Shengalia, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans and Kris Joseph, along with first round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, in order to get the package from the Celtics.

My opinion on the deal? It's a steal for the Nets. A downright Brink's job.

My two friends disagree, but my point is this: The draft picks mean absolutely nothing.

In today's day and age, any draft pick that comes in the lower half of the first round is not a player of impact. The Nets will be a very good team for the next five years or so, therefore the draft picks that the Celtics receive will be lower tier picks in the first round.

When you weigh the players the Nets gave up, only Wallace had any real value and his game was in decline last year, as he had career lows in points and rebounds and couldn't make a shot past 10 feet. Humphries' game also suffered last year as well, losing his starting position to the immortal Reggie Evans, a rebound machine who couldn't throw a beach ball into the East River.

Brooks had a decent rookie year, but he took a step back last year, trying to do too much when he got on the floor. The rest have contracts and not much else.

In return, the Nets have now given themselves a legitimate shot of winning the whole shabang. They're not as good as the Heat, but with Garnett at power forward and Pierce at small forward, they're close.

And I don't care what anyone says, but as they are constructed right now, the Nets are a better team than the Knicks. In fact, it's no comparison. Brook Lopez at center, Garnett and Pierce at the forwards, with Williams and Johnson at the guards. All five have been NBA All-Stars. All five are proven scorers.

The Nets are not going to run up and down the floor like they did when new coach Jason Kidd was playing for the franchise. In fact, they're going to have to be a methodical team, concentrating on the half court approach, with the new acquisitions.

But they're going to be much better than the team that won 49 games last year. They're going to push the 55-win mark and perhaps 60 if both Garnett and Pierce, both 37 years old and on the down side, can play 70 or more games.

When Russian billionaire Mikhail Prohkorov bought the Nets three years ago, he boldly proclaimed that the Nets would contend for a championship in five years. I sat at the press conference when he said those words and chuckled under my breath. I thought mighty Mikhail must have been nipping at the vodka a little too much. The Nets won 12 games the year before he bought the team. They were a complete laughingstock.

But with this trade _ and taking the hit on what will be an incredible $80 million luxury tax _ Prohkorov has proven one thing. He's willing to win at all costs.

Is the trade a gamble? Sure it is. Garnett and Pierce are not getting any younger. They've both seen better days. There's no guarantee that they will stay healthy, although both have been pretty injury-free throughout their storied careers.

With this new lineup, the Nets have one, maybe two years to go after the NBA title that Prohkorov promised.

The way their roster was before Thursday, they could count on winning 50 games tops, go to the playoffs and perhaps win a series or two. Now, with healthy playoffs from Garnett and Pierce, the Nets are legitimate contenders.

Sure, there will be obstacles. Garnett likes to shoot from the perimeter. Pierce and Johnson are very similar players, who like to get the ball in isolation and play with their backs to the basket. There's only one ball to go around for five offensive-minded players to share.

But in one day, the Nets instantly became the best team in New York and put themselves in solid contention for an NBA title.

And if anyone thinks that it was a bad move for the Nets and a good move for Boston, you need your head examined. The Nets got two future Hall of Famers for basically a pile of nothing.

Last week, while everyone in the metropolitan New York area was mourning the passing of brilliant actor James Gandolfini of "Sopranos" fame, the sports world suffered a loss whose death was overshadowed by the sudden passing of Gandolfini at a young age.

Dave Jennings died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He also died young at 61.

Jennings gained fame in local sports as an All-Pro punter, both for the Giants and the Jets, in the 1970s and 1980s. Jennings was a standout for the Giants at a time when the Giants were not good, back in the days of planes flying over Giants Stadium with a message "Fifteen Years of Lousy Football: We've Had Enough," and fans burning tickets.

Jennings did his job and obviously had to punt a lot for the Giants, because the team wasn't very good.

In 1978, I was just beginning my senior year in high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living, where I wanted to go to college. I had no course to follow.

But I received encouragement about possibly becoming a writer from my journalism teacher at St. Peter's Prep, Jim Horan.

I had an assignment for my journalism class to interview someone and do an in-depth feature. I had a suggestion to interview a professional athlete and decided I wanted to interview Dave Jennings.

I went to an autograph session where Jennings appeared and asked if I could somehow interview him. He gave me the phone number of the Giants' PR person, a wonderful man named Tom Power, and told me to call Power to set up a day that I could do the interview.

Well, Power went out of his way to call me and told me that I should come to Giants Stadium on a Wednesday afternoon after practice. There was only one problem. I didn't have my own car and I knew my mother wasn't going to be home in time to drive me to Giants Stadium.

So I called my friend Alex Chiarella, who was a huge football fan, but he liked the Cowboys. I told him that if he drove me, I could get him into the Giants locker room, but he just had to wait until I did the interview with Jennings. He was happy to do so.

I went to Giants Stadium, nervous and excited, fearful and happy all in one. I had a list of questions I wanted to ask Jennings and went through each question with the poise of a scared high school senior.

Jennings was wonderful. He never once treated me like a kid. He answered every single question. I learned that his favorite football player growing up was a Giants receiver named Del Shofner. I then did my research about Shofner, a player I never heard of before, but now know a lot about because of Jennings.

I learned that he always thought he would be a basketball player first, because he never punted once before he was a student at St. Lawrence College in upstate New York. I learned about his family life, his student life, his getting noticed at a free agent camp by the Giants. In a span of perhaps 15 minutes, I got to know Dave Jennings.

When the interview ended, Jennings praised me for doing a good job.

"Maybe I'll read you one day in the Daily News," Jennings said as he shook my hand and bid farewell.

The article about Jennings was submitted to the Prep school newspaper, the Petroc. It was the first published article I ever wrote that received a byline. The article then received an award at the state high school newspaper competition at Princeton University later that year. I won two awards at that competition, the first awards of my career.

Through Jim Horan's guidance, I went to Marquette to study journalism like he did. It gave me a sense of what I wanted to do, becoming a sportswriter. Dave Jennings was the first athlete I ever interviewed.

As I got older and started to cover the Giants and Jets regularly, I would see Jennings from time to time. He always remembered that interview. He would kid me about it, saying that I asked better questions then than I do now.

The last time I saw Jennings was at the Ring of Honor ceremonies at MetLife Stadium, in December of 2011. I went down to the field to interview Alex Webster to do a story for the Kearny Observer, one of the papers I work for.

Jennings was bothered by the cold that day. I only said Hello briefly. I was there to talk to Webster, the Kearny native, who knew of me from being an avid reader of his hometown paper, doing so online every week.

I didn't realize it was the last time I would see both Alex Webster and Dave Jennings, as both are gone now.

I owe a lot to Dave Jennings for giving me that bit of encouragement when I was a teenager. I still think I was predestined to be a sportswriter, like that was my calling even as a kid. I just didn't realize it. But Jennings helped to push me along and I'll be forever grateful.

That's why I was so saddened by his passing last week. I'm glad his suffering is over, but I'll forever remember the many times we shared space in the Giants' press box _ and that fateful fall afternoon in 1978.

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