Thorn has Nets contending again

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Just a year ago everyone wanted out of here. Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles were gone for draft picks. Ownership was slashing payroll. Rod Thorn had to think long and hard about his desire to continue as Nets president. What's more, fans were canceling their season-ticket purchases, swearing that they would never come back to the Meadowlands for those gutted, Brooklyn-bound Nets.

"Last year at this time, it looked rather gloomy," Thorn said. "Jason [Kidd] and Alonzo Mourning were deserting ship. It did not look good."

No one believed Thorn could've rebuilt the Nets a second time on the job as team president, but it sure looks like that Here Today, Gone Tomorrow franchise has turned into the hottest ticket it's ever been. For all the breathless hype over the arrival of Larry Brown to coach the Knicks, it's the Nets who've made the shrewdest moves to become Eastern Conference contenders again.

As long as the issues with Shareef Abdur-Rahim's knee are worked out in the next few days, allowing the completion of the sign-and-trade with Portland for the forward the Nets desperately need, Thorn has moved New Jersey into the conversation with Detroit, Miami and Indiana. The Nets had to cancel a news conference to introduce Abdur-Rahim on Thursday, waiting for more doctors to deliver a prognosis on him.

Still, Abdur-Rahim has never missed games because of the knee, and he's had no problem working out this summer. Ultimately, Thorn will probably OK the deal, but between now and then, he wants to look closer.

With Abdur-Rahim, the Nets deliver four potential All-Stars to the floor this season, including Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. Truth be told, the Nets' offseason started in December, when they stole Vince Carter out of Toronto for two first-round picks and the rights to the bitter Mourning.

Now they're still spending money, taking care of one long-standing Nets problem -- backup point guard -- with the signing of Cleveland free agent Jeff McInnis. He has a knucklehead reputation chasing him to New Jersey, but his ability to play the point and shoot the ball left Thorn to bank on his strong, veteran locker room to keep McInnis in line.

Clifford Robinson re-signed to anchor the Nets bench, and management thinks it got a tough defender and sure shooter in first-round pick Antoine Wright out of Texas A&M.

For all the angst over ownership's refusal to pay Martin a max-out contract a year ago, letting him leave turned out to be the best move the Nets could have made. The draft picks Denver sent along in the sign-and-trade gave Thorn and GM Ed Stefanski the flexibility they needed to make the Carter trade.

"What we essentially did was trade Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles for Vince and Shareef," Thorn said. "On paper, that looks pretty good."

Most of all, the Nets stabilized Kidd, and that means they've stabilized the franchise. Once Mourning was gone and his incessant cloud of pessimism out of Kidd's ear, the organization had a chance to start winning back his faith again.

Still, Kidd knew the Nets were desperate for a low-post scoring presence to go alongside the developing Nenad Krstic. Now, they've got Abdur-Rahim -- at least, they think they do -- and the mindset of the franchise is back to where it had been in modern times: Contending.

So much ultimately rests on Abdur-Rahim, one of the NBA's gentlemen, who is willing to take less money to play with Kidd and have a chance to be a needed part on a playoff-bound team. All those losing seasons in Vancouver, Atlanta and Portland have left him desperate for a winner.

"Kenyon was a different player," Thorn said. "His toughness, his intensity, his defensive-mindedness -- you couldn't put a price on what that did for us. We missed him last year. I think Shareef is a better offensive player, a better rebounder. Shareef has never made the playoffs, and I think he's coming here with something to prove."

The Nets will miss the versatility of forward Brian Scalabrine, who signed a five-year, $15 million free-agent contract with the Celtics. Yet, that's all they've lost in a summer in which they can pick up so much ground on the Eastern Conference again. No longer does Kidd talk about leaving the Nets, and no longer is this franchise simply biding its time until it leaves for its new arena in Brooklyn.

As long as that Abdur-Rahim knee checks out, the Nets are contenders again, and nobody would have believed that possible just a year ago -- when it looked like this franchise had closed down for business, when it all looked so gloomy. It wasn't enough that Thorn had rebuilt the Nets once, he did it again.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His best-selling book "The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty" can be purchased in bookstores nationwide and on Amazon.com.