EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. --- This could be the indelible image of the man responsible for rising the Nets out of the ruins, Rod Thorn rounding that corner in the corridor of the Palace of Auburn Hills, a disheveled, exhausted entrance that inspired a rousing round of laughter out of Lawrence Frank and his assistant coaches. Outside the Nets' locker room, they were waiting for the players to file inside, and Thorn looked like he had gone those four hours and three overtimes in his business suit.
Here was how the Nets' top executive lives and dies with his basketball team, huffing and puffing it out with his players, sweating through cotton dress shirts like Jason Kidd does his No. 5 mesh jersey.
Someone should've snapped a picture of the moment, framing it for posterity in the Nets' practice facility as a reminder of the days that the Nets were immersed with competing for championships. Every day that the franchise inches closer to developer Bruce Ratner's taking over as owner, the more precarious that commitment.
They're creeping closer to bringing this beleaguered franchise back to the old days, when ownership was chaos, when stars were let go, when nobody knew who was coming, and who was going. Around the Nets' offices, there's a sense of impending doom. Privately, several Nets players and employees are under the impression that they're on the eve of a dismantling of the franchise's core. Thorn won't say it, but how can he? Ratner is still waiting for the NBA to rubber stamp his purchase of the franchise, so it isn't exactly wise business sense to declare your candidacy as Donald Sterling East when you're taking over the franchise once the Clippers-East.
Who else in the NBA would draft Kenyon Martin with the No. 1 overall pick, develop him into an All-Star cornerstone for two Eastern Conference championships, and refuse to let Thorn match a max-out offer sheet to keep him?
Who else but the Clippers. And if that happens, nobody believes Thorn will stay on the job long enough to tear down what he had worked so tirelessly to construct. If you can't pay to keep a player like that, there's no point in purchasing a team.
Thorn had a chance this week to rule out the possibility of trading Jason Kidd, and well, he couldn't do it. Because he knew it wouldn't be telling the truth. He's already had to sell his No. 1 draft pick for $3 million to the Blazers. Everything is possible with these Nets now; everything fluid. The only untouchable in the franchise is probably Richard Jefferson.
"They deserve so much better than for some guy to come in and rip apart what Rod worked so hard to build," one sympathetic Western Conference official said. "No one wants to remember the laughingstock they were. They were one home win from going back to the finals again this year. I hope Rod can convince the new owner to spend to make more money."
But Ratner isn't a big basketball fan. It's hard to tell if he knows whether the ball is round, oblong, whatever. He's a real estate developer. In his public proclamations upon paying $300 million for the franchise, there was never discussion about his desire to construct a championship contender. All he's talked about -- and all he's concentrated on -- is a $2.5 billion development plan in downtown Brooklyn that would include a new Nets arena. The Nets won't be a passion for Ratner, just a pawn to get a big real estate deal done.
Between now and then, it seems he has little interest with funding the financial losses of life at the Jersey Meadowlands, choosing to slash costs across the board. This time a year ago, the Nets' ownership was willing to pay such a steep price to keep Jason Kidd, they gave him his $103 million contract and $22 million to Alonzo Mourning understanding the genuine possibility that he wouldn't make it long on the court with his failing kidney.
Now, the franchise has a strapping, 6-foot-9 All-Star desperately wanting to stay a New Jersey Net. Martin wants to re-sign. He's begging for them to keep him. He hits the market at midnight Wednesday, where a real possibility exists that the Denver Nuggets will quickly sign him to a six-year, $82 million deal, and Thorn will be helpless to retain his rights.
There was discussion for a Martin-for-Nene trade before July 1, but Denver GM Kiki Vandeweghe didn't dare. Why bother? If he could sign Martin to an offer sheet in July, a contract too steep for Ratner's priorities, he could have Martin and Nene.
Down to the wire, Thorn and his GM, Ed Stefanski, are constructing a thousand different scenarios within the Nets' front office that could allow them to keep the three cornerstones of the franchise -- Kidd, Martin and Jefferson -- but all indications are that it's a dicey proposition, at best. If it's a choice to max-out Martin now, or Jefferson later, the Nets are siding on Jefferson, the younger, more charismatic star they believe can be the face of the franchise.
For now, the Nets are desperately trying to unload Kerry Kittles' nearly $10 million contract for 2004-2005, trying to get back two or three useful players -- Cleveland's Dajuan Wagner and Eric Williams, for instance -- to replenish the Nets' depth and lower the payroll. At this point, they're expected to buy out the final seasons of contracts for top reserves Lucious Harris and Rodney Rogers. The Nets promise to get younger and cheaper, when the rest of the Eastern Conference elite, including Detroit and Indiana, are searching for ways to get bigger and better.
Lawrence Frank needs to complete a coaching staff, but is struggling to find quality assistant coaching candidates with the salaries he's commissioned to offer. Patrick Ewing would've loved a chance to return to his Northern Jersey home, but it wasn't worth leaving the Houston Rockets for the pittance they had to offer him.
Ultimately, assistant coaches are the most minimal of the Nets' problems. In his four years on the job, the Nets have come a long, long way, a laughingstock delivered to respectability on the sweat-soaked shirts of Rod Thorn. He's had a hell of a run in Jersey, a bright basketball mind gathering three stars along the way -- Kidd, Martin and Jefferson. Finally, the bills are due. The party's over. After all that progress, all those possibilities, wouldn't you know it: The Nets are threatening to become the Nets again.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist with The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.