As the New Jersey Nets enter the twilight of their Garden State years, let's take a look back at a few of the milestone seasons the franchise had in that state. They played 36 seasons in New Jersey, but, unfortunately, they had their most successful ones while playing on Long Island, winning two ABA Championships with Julius Erving leading the team and going to another ABA Finals when they had Rick Barry as their star. And while the best moment(s) of this year's NBA season for me involved watching all the games that had teams wearing ABA uniforms (the Muskies! the Floridians! the Chaparrals! -- couldn't one team have donned the Spirits of St. Louis' duds for just one game?), as there was something aesthetically pleasing about the throwbacks, this list won't include any of the team's New York years, as they're saying good-bye to New Jersey, so with that in mind, here are five noteworthy, though not necessarily successful, seasons the Nets had in Jersey.
5. 1967-'68: The Nets were one of the original ABA franchises, though for their first season they were known as the New Jersey Americans. After being stiff-armed by the New York Knicks in their attempt to play in New York, and after a long search, they found a home in the Teaneck Armory. The Americans were coached by Max Zaslofsky, with their leading scorer being Tony Jackson (19.4 PPG) and leading rebounder Hank Whitney (12.9). Duke legend and former Knick Art Heyman was also briefly on that team. The Net franchise played its first-ever game on Oct. 23, 1967, losing to the eventual ABA Champion Pittsburgh Pipers, 110-107, but two days later they won their first game, 118-100, over the Minnesota Muskies. The Americans finished with a 36-42 record, which put them in a tie for fourth place (and the last playoff spot) in the Eastern Division with the Kentucky Colonels, which forced a one-game playoff, scheduled to take place in Teaneck. The Armory was booked, though, so they instead attempted to play at Long Island Arena, but the conditions were deemed unplayable due to condensation from the previous night's hockey game, one basket being higher than the other and floor boards coming apart, among other things. The Americans were forced to forfeit the game, and moved to Long Island the next season, changing their name to the New York Nets.
4. 1977-'78: It was their second year in the NBA but first in New Jersey (well, second), as they found a temporary home at Rutgers in Piscataway and again had a new name -- the New Jersey Nets. Their coach that led them to a pair of ABA titles was still leading the team, Kevin Loughery, and they had a few offensive superstars in Super John Williamson (29.5 PPG), Bernard King (24.2 points), Kevin Porter (16.2 points, 10.8 assists), not to mention Al Skinner and Darnell Hillman, who sported one of the legendary Afros of the 1970s, but they weren't enough as the Nets finished in last place with a 24-58 record.
3. 1981-'82: This was the first year that the Nets would finish above .500 while playing in the NBA, and it was also their initial season in their permanent home, the then-named Brendan Byrne Arena (but it was the second time they qualified for the NBA playoffs, after doing so in 1978-'79, though with a losing record of 37-45). The team was on the upswing with Larry Brown as their coach, and they had a talented roster with the likes of Ray Williams, Buck Williams, Otis Birdsong, Albert King and a guy named Mike Woodson. The team finished in third place, with a 44-38 record, before falling two games to none to the Washington Bullets in the playoffs. The next season, Brown would stiff the Nets by taking the head coaching job at Kansas with only a month left in the season.
2. 1983-'84: With Brown gone, and new coach Stan Albeck in place, the Nets would make the playoffs for the third straight season (followed by two more consecutive playoff appearances), after going 45-37 and finishing in fourth place in the strong Atlantic Division. This team was probably the most talented of all Net teams since entering the NBA. Birdsong and (Albert) King were still around, and they now had Darryl Dawkins, Michael Ray Richardson and Mike Gminski. And in the first round of the playoffs, they accomplished the unthinkable, with a three-games-to-two upset of the defending NBA Champion Philadelphia 76ers, who of course featured former Net Julius Erving. They fell to the Bucks, 4-2, in the next round, but their victory over the Sixers is one of the great upsets in NBA history.
1. 2001-'02: Rod Thorn was hired to run the team in 2000, and he quickly assembled the best Net team ever to play in the NBA. With Byron Scott taking the reins, and newly acquired Jason Kidd (in a swap with the Phoenix Suns for Stephon Marbury) to go along with Kenyon Martin, Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn, Richard Jefferson and Lucious Harris, the Nets finished in first place for the first time, with a 52-30 mark (still the best-ever for the NBA Nets). After defeating the Pacers (highlighted by a double-overtime victory), Hornets and Celtics in the playoffs, the Nets appeared in their first-ever NBA Finals, but were swept by the Lakers. And we're kind of lumping in the next season's team here, too, as it was essentially the same (sans Van Horn), also reaching the Finals, but this time winning a pair of games before being vanquished by the San Antonio Spurs, in the only matchup of two former ABA teams to play in the NBA Finals.