When Willis Reed says that "this will be a big year for the New Jersey Nets franchise," he is not necessarily being positive. "Big" doesn't mean "good" in Jersey.
Here's what it does mean:
We are well aware that we have assembled a rather large group of uncontrollable dingbats here. We love their talent, but several of them quit on Bill Fitch and the franchise last season, and that is unacceptable when we are paying them a million, 2 million, or 3 million bucks. Chuck Daly has won two championships. He coached the Dream Team. There is no basketball coach with more worldwide credibility at this moment than Chuck Daly. If these guys can't play for him, they can't play for anybody."
This is a big year for the Nets, who begin training camp in Princeton Friday. "Big" means "pivotal" in Jersey. And Daly, who is well aware of the controversies of last season, does not minimize his task.
Like any champion, Daly wants another championship. He likes the talent on the Nets. But he also knows about some of the characters who were out of control last year.
"Willis Reed said to me, 'This is a wild bunch,' " Daly said. "We've got some mavericks on this team, and we've got a lot of blending to do. It (a title) is a goal, but I think certain things have to happen before that."
"Words like professionalism are important," Daly said bluntly. "Work ethic. All of these things that go into getting where you want to go. Everybody can use expressions, but then going out and doing them is a whole new ballgame. We have to find out who will do them."
Some questions Daly will want answered:
1. Will Derrick Coleman pay the price to be great? His talent is beyond question. At 6-foot-11, Coleman is the complete package -- a scorer, rebounder, passer and even, perhaps, the Nets' best ballhandler. Everyone keeps on looking for the next Magic Johnson. There is no such thing, but Coleman is a reasonable facsimile. He is also comparable to Karl Malone. Magic and Mailman. That's how good he is.
But he doesn't have a great work ethic. He is not known as cooperative. He refused to play for Fitch on a number of occasions last year. If he's dedicated, he can lead the Nets into contention. Is he dedicated?
2. Has Kenny Anderson grown up? He was the No. 2 pick in the 1991 draft, but he reported late last season and spent a lot of time pouting. He has worked hard during the summer, and seems ready to demonstrate his skills. How good is he? And if called to play a supporting role for another year, will he be cooperative? Is he concerned about "team" or "self"?
3. Has Chris Morris matured? Again, he is a very talented player, and he made significant strides last season from his inconsistent past. But he also refused to play for Fitch at times, and seemed uninterested in team accomplishments. Morris is embroiled in a contract dispute. When that is resolved, what will his approach be? Will he make more positive strides? Or will he continue to be moody and unpredictable? His energy and athleticism are invaluable, if channeled in the right direction.
4. Can Sam Bowie come to grips with being a role player, not a star? Something strange is always going on with the Nets. Perhaps the strangest thing right now is that the least of their problems seems to be Bowie's legs. He missed most of five years with leg problems, but Bowie is in good health. He gives the Nets an inside presence with his shot-blocking ability, and he's a nice guy. If he understands his role, he can become a great team leader.
Previous Nets craziness has had an effect on the future. Drazen Petrovic is the Nets' third-most valuable asset (behind Daly and Coleman), but he was so upset by the negative team atmosphere last year that he is considering completing his contract and moving to Europe next season. Petrovic had planned to play three more years in the United States before returning to Europe, where he is wildly popular. But if the Nets are anything like last season, the surroundings are simply too weird for him.
All of that weirdness, however, is why Daly is the perfect coach for the Nets. He does not have the forceful presence of Pat Riley, but he does have the same sort of credibility -- he owns two championship rings and was coach of the gold-medal Olympic team.
"I think it's a plus," Daly said of his accomplishments. "But it also depends on who you're working with."
Daly is unique. His approach is to be kind and gentle. His leadership is fatherlike. He never is reluctant to give the players credit for a job well done.
But he also is a no-nonsense character with complete backing from Nets management. He is 62. He wants to win another title.
This is a big year for the Nets. They are not good enough to win a title, but they are good enough to defeat any team on any given night. They are good enough to win a playoff series.
But, as always, there are questions. And the biggest is whether this season will be big as in "good," or big as in "disappointment."