By Steve Lichtenstein
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And we thought Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov went all in last summer when he committed about $330 million of his vast fortune on player contracts for his Barclays Center Grand Opening.
Now we know that was only the ante.
When all of Friday’s signings and trades that were previously reported are officially announced, Prokhorov will be on the hook for a ridiculous $182 million — just for the 2013-14 season.
That amount includes over $80 million in luxury-tax payments, which everyone thought would constrain general manager Billy King’s options as he looked into how to raise the Nets to a higher status following a 49-win season.
As a luxury taxpayer, the Nets were prohibited from executing sign-and-trades and were limited to a “mini” mid-level exception of about $3.1 million for free-agent contracts above the league minimum.
Well, evidently, Christmas in Brooklyn has moved to July.
Last year’s wish list included an elite point guard (the re-signing of Deron Williams), a complementary scorer (the trade for Joe Johnson) and an All-Star center (thought to be Dwight Howard, but turned out to be the re-signing and return to health of Brook Lopez).
When that group failed to lift the Nets out of the first round of the playoffs, the fans sent Santa Prokhorov a new list, begging for some scoring forwards and a better bench.
So King went to work and again delivered the goods.
There was the blockbuster trade, expected to be finalized on Friday, where the Nets acquired future Hall of Fame forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce plus backup guard Jason Terry from Boston.
In addition to solving the Nets’ dire needs, the trade allowed them to offload their defective toys from last summer’s haul in the form of the onerous contracts to underperforming forwards Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries.
King has been equally impressive since that trade was consummated, proving that he can be just as adept at hunting for bargains as he is for the big-ticket items.
King managed to convince backup big man Andray Blatche to return and signed free-agent point guard Shaun Livingston without having to dip into the Nets’ mini MLE.
Finally, King somehow secured the services of forward Andrei Kirilenko on Thursday night after the buyout deal with Euro star Bojan Bogdanovich fell through.
Kirilenko, who, like Blatche, could have earned substantially larger amounts had he signed elsewhere, accepted the Nets $3.1 mini MLE. Kirilenko will be counted on to supply the defensive energy required to guard all the talented small forwards in the East. Considering Garnett and Pierce’s advanced ages, the Blatche and Kirilenko signings could prove to be as significant as the big trade.
I similarly raved about King’s roster makeover last summer, but also noted that the job was incomplete. This time, Nets fans would be hard-pressed to find many flaws on this roster, once they come to terms with the short window. The three lost first-round draft choices in the Boston trade can be managed, especially if the Nets stay out of the lottery as expected and can replace their older stars with players better than those who would be available at those low draft slots.
For now, the Williams/Johnson/Lopez/Garnett/Pierce starting five is the best in the franchise’s history. Pierce will knock down all those wide-open opportunities that were wasted when the ball swung to Wallace last year. Garnett is still a strong defensive stopper on both post plays and pick-and-rolls. His presence will send Reggie Evans back to a reserve energy role, where he can focus on rebounding and hustle plays for 10 minutes instead of the Nets wondering how to work around his limited offense for 30 minutes.
I still worry about the Nets’ dearth of strong three-point shooters off the bench (neither Kirilenko nor Livingston shoot it well, while Terry is also aging and can be hot or cold). Maybe forward Mirza Teletovic will step up after being overwhelmed in his inaugural NBA season.
But my biggest concern is that King placed all these toys in the hands of a kid — rather Jason Kidd, novice coach.
The NBA is a player’s league, so a lot would have to go wrong for the Nets to tank this season, even with Kidd having traded his basketball uniform for a crisp suit only a month ago.
However, please stop with all the plaudits of how Kidd’s exceptional vision and unselfishness from his days as a player will translate into superior coaching. Kidd’s high-level skills as a player are in fact the LEAST relevant traits in terms of predicting how he will fare as a coach.
Coaching involves managing people and game plans and making adjustments on the fly. Those who believe star players have an advantage diminish all the hard work and accomplishments of such elite coaches as Tom Thibodeau, Frank Vogel, and the two coaches from the most recent NBA Finals — Erik Spoelstra and Greg Popovich — just to name a few who never reached the pinnacle of pro basketball as players.
Judging from the analysis of certain members of the media, Lawrence Frank somehow finagled his way into this group, having been lured back by the Nets to become the league’s highest-paid assistant coach. Never mind that it was Eddie Jordan who installed the Nets’ Princeton offense for then-head coach Byron Scott, who put the ball in Kidd’s hands with full-speed-ahead freedom and watched as the Nets earned back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals.
It was Frank who weened the Nets off that system when he replaced Scott in 2004 and then stayed on board as the team sank in the standings over time. The Nets had finally seen enough when Frank started 0-16 in 2009.
Of course, the talent on this roster is so far above those teams from the club’s latter days in New Jersey. But that also brings with it higher expectations.
Prokhorov isn’t putting up all this money just to make the playoffs — he wants a championship, or at least a serious run at it. Kidd, with help from his staff, will have to sort out all these new parts to find the right formula in a hurry.
After all, Prokhorov has stated that if the Nets fail to win a championship in five years, he will give up his days as a bachelor and get married.
Talk about a gamble.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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