By Chris Sheridan
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - They don't give out Ws in the NBA for moral victories, which is why the New Jersey Nets will awake Sunday still sporting the league's only goose egg in the win column.
But what happened Saturday night, with New Jersey sticking with the Boston Celtics all the way into the final minute of the fourth quarter of an 86-76 loss despite having only eight healthy bodies, can arguably be considered the most positive night thus far of what promises to be a dismal season.
"Our guys are battling their tails off, and we'll break through. We're not discouraged," said Nets coach Lawrence Frank, whose team dropped to 0-7. "Our team going in, we said none of us is as strong as all of us, and it's literally come to fruition in a seven-game stretch. Go figure. But our guys have a great deal of pride and they're trying to win. We walked in the locker room, and it wasn't like a moral victory. They wanted to win, and we're disappointed we came up short, but it's a credit to those guys in the locker room, and we're going to keep on battling."
The Nets were without starters Devin Harris (strained right groin), Courtney Lee (strained left groin), Yi Jianlian (sprained knee) and Chris Douglas-Roberts (swine flu), along with reserves Keyon Dooling (hip), Jarvis Hayes (hamstring) and Tony Battie (knee), but they led by as many as eight, kept the game tight the entire way and had four chances to cut into a six-point deficit in the final 90 seconds, only to miss on offense each of those four times.
Frank had to go with a starting five of Brook Lopez at center, Bobby Simmons and Josh Boone at the forward spots and Rafer Alston and Trenton Hassell in the backcourt. His only available reserves were rookie Terrence Williams (4-for-14, 4 turnovers), Eduardo Najera (zero points, one rebound and two turnovers in 12 minutes) and Sean Williams (4 points in 5 minutes of playing time.)
"Sometimes when you're in that forest it's hard to see in between those trees," Frank said, "but I think in the process we are getting better, and the numbers will take care of themselvs in terms of wins and losses. If we keep plugging away, we'll get the wins we deserve to get. I like the approach that our guys have, they have no fear of anyone."
If Frank has any fear concerning his job security, he is keeping it well hidden.
Frank, team president Rod Thorn and general manager Kiki Vandeweghe are all in the final year of their contracts, and the entire organization is in a state of limbo while they wait to see if the sale of the club from Bruce Ratner to Russian oligarch Mickael Prokhorov goes through.
That issue may not be resolved until the end of December, and the school of thought at the Meadowlands is that nobody on the coaching staff is in job jeopardy simply because of the fact that the club would have to spend money to pay a replacement, and spending money is not something the Nets are doing these days.
(Frank's No. 1 assistant, Brian Hill, decided to leave over the summer after management asked him and most of the other assistant coaches to take pay cuts, and the Nets are scrambling so far and wide for sponsors that the rotating signage on the front of the scorer's table featured advertisements, in English and Chinese, for the Agricultural Bank of China, and for a product called YiLi Low Lactose Milk).
So for at least another 7-8 weeks, Frank -- the longest tenured coach in the Eastern Conference, with a career record of 225-232 -- should remain secure.
But once the outcome of the Ratner-Prokhorov transaction is known, everyone in the organization is apt to morph from lame duck to on the chopping block.
"I think somtimes because your record is bad people assume that the coach is in trouble, and I don't know if that's the case here," Boston coach Doc Rivers said. "I know it shoudn't be. In our case, at least in Boston, it was more talk from the media than from inside. I never felt threatened that I was going anywhere -- that don't mean you're not, it can happen.
"But I think they're pretty smart here. They know what they have. They know what they're dealing with, especially right now with the injuries and the youth. They decided to go in this direction. So you just do your job. You come and you show up and you do your job every day, and I think Lawrence has done a fantastic job but has nothing to show for it, and that's tough."
The last time a coach was fired in-season without any victories was in 2002 when Memphis dismissed Sidney Lowe after the Grizzlies opened 0-8. In 1988, the Pacers let Dr. Jack Ramsay go when Indiana started 0-7, in 1996, Cotton Fitzsimmons was fired in Phoenix with an 0-8 record, and Rivers lost his job in Orlando six years ago after the Magic opened 1-10.
"All of us go through it [rebuilding]," Rivers said. "Pat Riley went through it, Phil [Jackson] went through it, one year. Guys go through it, and you've got to just maintain what you do and your belief system. And when you go through this, is does challenge you, it absolutely does.
"In Boston I went through it, and you just think 'How am I going to figure a way to win this game tonight?' And then to also build for the future when you have a young team, it's a tough, tough line to walk."