By Steve Lichtenstein
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Somewhere in Russia, Mikhail Prokhorov is sitting in some chamber in his mansion ready to blow up his expensive American toy.
Prokhorov’s Brooklyn Nets, now down 2-0 in their Eastern Conference semifinal series after losing the game they had to have, 94-82, on Thursday in Miami, have so far fallen way short of his expectations on the biggest stage.
And it’s Brooklyn’s biggest stars who have come up the smallest, led of course by $98-million point guard Deron Williams.
It is way too easy to pile on D-Will right now. His scoreless Game 2 performance—shooting 0-for-9 from the field while getting whupped on defense by the likes of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole—further emboldened his detractors.
It’s very possible that Williams’ ankles are the source of his recent descent, as he needed cortisone shots to ease the pain from a tweaking during Game 6 of the Nets’ first-round series versus the Raptors.
But that’s nothing new. This is who Williams is — a fine player with chronic ankle issues who has the ability to score in a variety of ways and find teammates for open looks.
Unfortunately, he is not someone to build a franchise around, which is what the Nets did by first trading the equivalent of three first-round draft picks (if you include Derrick Favors, whom the Nets just selected the prior offseason) plus Devin Harris to Utah and then doubling down with that maximum five-year deal when he became a free agent prior to last season.
It’s been theorized that almost all of Brooklyn general manager Billy King’s moves with Prokhorov’s money since have been made to placate Williams. The idiotic (in the sense that the draft pick surrendered for the free-agent-to-be was only top-three protected in the upcoming lottery) Gerald Wallace trade, the taking on of Joe Johnson’s onerous contract, the dalliance with All-Star big man Dwight Howard and subsequent extension of injury-prone center Brook Lopez.
Then came last summer, when King not only second-mortgaged the franchise by sending three more first-round picks for aging future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in essence to show D-Will how champions lead, but he tapped Jason Kidd, just 10 days removed from the end of his playing career, to coach his vacation buddy.
It’s been painful to watch the precipitous decline in Garnett’s game this season, though it’s not uncommon for older big men (see Ewing, Patrick). His expertise can be valuable on the defensive end and his rebounding rate is still top tier, but he often has the look of a senior citizen who can’t find his way home when he has the ball inside.
For the second game in a row, the turning point came when a Nets center couldn’t convert a gimme in the paint. In the third quarter of Game 1, it was Andray Blatche’s miss from right next to the rim that preceded a 12-0 Heat run from which the Nets could never recover. On Thursday, the Heat drained two three pointers following KG’s misfiring of a fourth-quarter baby hook, which wasn’t even necessary as he had an uncontested dunk. A tight game had become a double-digit Heat lead with four minutes to play.
That led to Kidd removing Garnett for the remainder of the game in favor of forward Mirza Teletovic. Now that’s going really small.
While I don’t fault Kidd for his outside-the-box thinking—Teletovic was on fire from deep with a team-leading 20 points–there’s no denying that the Nets’ configuration was largely responsible for Miami being able to take 1:40 off the clock down the stretch thanks to three offensive rebounds. After LeBron James’ layup on his fourth attempt of the possession, it was time to start thinking about Game 3 on Saturday.
And maybe beyond.
Prokhorov expensed around $190 million this season in salary and luxury taxes. Unfortunately, since there’s little chance that the Nets will win four of the next five games against the two-time defending champions, they are still far from his directive to King.
To compound matters, the Nets are not only devoid of future first-round picks to use as trade chips, but the luxury tax rules are onerous for teams looking to make quality additions.
Now consider the likelihood that KG will retire—really, does anyone think he’d be willing to go through another season like this? Then figure that Pierce, Blatche, Alan Anderson, Shaun Livingston and Andrei Kirilenko might find other homes in free agency—Pierce is the only one of those five for whom the Nets hold Bird rights and can outbid other suitors.
That leaves Williams, for whom most fans are willing to pony up the train fare to shuttle out of town, and Lopez, who will be coming off his fourth and last-chance foot surgery, plus Johnson, Teletovic, Marcus Thornton and Mason Plumlee.
King knew the risks of what he was doing. He went all in on this season in the belief that the roster was ready to compete for a title. Now, barring a remarkable comeback, he will be flush out of cards.
The only way to get back in the game is to clear cap space by blowing it all up.
If the Nets lose on Saturday, that ticking will only get louder.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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