One of the age old questions that any New Jersey Nets fan asks is: had Kenyon Martin not left, would the Jason Kidd-led team of the early 2000s that went to back to back championships have won a NBA ring or two?
Well, why not ask the man yourself?
“We would have had a couple of championships down, no doubt,” Kenyon Martin told me on Scoop B Radio.
“I think we were a couple moves away. I think we needed at the time, we needed a true center to deal with a lot of the likes of Shaq and them. But I definitely think we would have had a couple of championships. Us and the Pistons would have battled it out. There is not a doubt in my mind what we could have done. Had management not made the decisions not to pay me.”
The Nets boasted talented led by all star point guard Jason Kidd. The team also heralded Kerry Kittles, Martin, Keith Van Horn and a young forward in Richard Jefferson. In 2002 the Nets played the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals and were swept in 4 games. The Lakers were a behemoth of talent that included both Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and well-rounded supporting cast of Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw, Samaki Walker and Derek Fisher.
At 6’9, Martin covered everybody defensively. To quote gospel singer Shirley Cesar : You name it! Martin revelled in the opportunity. “Oh it was a wake-up call just to see a well-played team played together,” said Martin.
“I have never been afraid when it comes to basketball, period. I’m not afraid to mix it up with guards or big men. But that experience there was a good team and we got to, but Shaq was dominant that series. We got to being out there and playing on that level, me holding my own, helping my team and putting them in a position to win. That meant a lot that I was there for my career and my confidence moving forward.”
The Nets would return to the NBA Finals in 2003 facing Tim Duncan, David Robinson and a Gregg Popovich-led San Antonio Spurs. They’d lose, but the Nets had a legitimate chance to win.
Martin thinks so too!
“Yes,” he said. “If we go home and win because we split in San Antonio. So we came home and they went up two games to one and we tied it up so it was 2-2. And we lost game five.
“So that put us behind the eight ball having to go back to San Antonio to win a game. They had a good team, Tim Duncan played his ass off. He made plays, he blocked; that is why he was the finals MVP. He played his ass off. I have to take my hat off to him, he played well. He put them on his back and they followed him. Guys made open shots when they had to and Stephen Jackson made threes in game six. It was a collective effort, but Tim [Duncan] definitely led them. But we definitely had an opportunity to win that.”
After the 2003 NBA Finals, things would change for the Nets. Jason Kidd would sign a 6-year, $99 million deal to stay with the New Jersey. The Nets acquired Alonzo who’d missed the season before due to his worsening kidney condition and after a 22–20 start to the season, Byron Scott was fired as head coach and was replaced with lead assistant Lawrence Frank. “We had a target on our back,” said
“People wanted to beat us and teams weren’t going to let us keep running through the east. So teams got better. “I don’t think we made enough moves to better our team, but we were right there. We still proved we were one of the better teams in the east. So it was one of those things, Indiana came in first and they came in first in the east. It was just one of those things man. Teams got better and I think we stayed the same.”
New Jersey would salvage their season after going on a 14-game winning streak at the midpoint of that season and would finish with a 47–35 record record and a Division Championship and number 2 spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
The Nets would sweep Hudson River rivals New York Knicks in round one of the 2004 NBA playoffs. They’d lose in round two of the NBA Playoffs to the Detroit Pistons, the eventual NBA Champions in seven games. The only constant thing in life is change. The Nets didn’t and the east got better. “Yeah that is what it is,” Martin said. “You gotta make moves man. You can’t stay the same. You have to make moves to get what you need and what you are missing. You’ve got to make moves.”
Following the season, Martin was traded to the Denver Nuggets. When asked if he could turn back the hands of time, K-Mart was honest. “Yeah it wasn’t up to me man,” he said.
“They didn’t offer me a contract and that is what people don’t know. Like those people didn’t offer me a contract, you know what I’m saying? So when they offered me the year before, I left to go to Denver. The summer before, they offered me 6 years $66 million. I turned it down and told them I would play the year out and see how it goes.
“I made the All-Star team that year. So they made the decision not to pay me and it’s because the new management. It wasn’t because of Rock Thorn or because of Lawrence Frank, it was because of management. It was Bruce Ratner. He was the owner of the group that bought the team and they made the decision not to pay me. They didn’t even call me to offer me a contract. So I waited around and I waited around and they never called. I had to do what was best for me and my family.”
That summer that Martin was banished, they’d also trade Kerry Kittles to the Los Angeles Clippers and Rodney Rogers signed with the New Orleans Hornets. The Nets would later try to attempt a facelift by acquiring Vince Carter, but the team was never the same.