By Steve Lichtenstein
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Whenever Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is in town to watch his favorite American toy play basketball, the game often turns out to be of secondary importance. When he speaks, it’s like listening to a combination of George Steinbrenner and Rex Ryan—with a Russian accent.
Monday night was no exception, Brooklyn’s home opener notwithstanding.
Sure, the Nets obliterated Oklahoma City’s D-League team, 116-85, in front of a sold-out crowd at Barclays Center, but that was to be expected. The Thunder were missing their All-NBA duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in addition to a few other role players.
It was an easy game for the Nets to re-acclimate All-Star center Brook Lopez, who played his first regular season game since last December 20. That was when Lopez incurred his third fracture in his right foot and was sidelined for the remainder of the 2013-14 season. Lopez also sat out this season’s first two games after suffering a mid-foot sprain in the same foot during an exhibition game in China.
Lopez finished with 18 points in 24 minutes of work on a night where the Nets could do little wrong on the offensive end.
Still, nothing topped the buzz from Prokhorov’s pregame press conference, where he took a few shots at his former head coach while reiterating his mission of building a championship team for Brooklyn.
That’s probably a bit far-fetched this season, but Prokhorov believes the blueprint has improved despite outsiders’ lowered expectations from a year ago.
Back then, the Nets were able to start a lineup featuring five All-Stars after Prokhorov signed off on the blockbuster trade with the Celtics for future Hall-of-Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
However, injuries and the steep learning curve of rookie coach Jason Kidd stymied Prokhorov’s championship plans, and the Nets eventually fell to Miami in five games in the second round of the playoffs.
“Sport isn’t predictable–that’s why I like it,” said Prokhorov of the disappointing result.
The Nets then let Pierce walk away as a free agent over the summer, not even deigning to match Washington’s contract offer.
Prokhorov called the Pierce/KG trade “a great investment in the Brooklyn brand. It was very important to invest some money to make the team better.”
Pierce wasn’t re-signed solely due to Brooklyn’s sudden cost-cutting measures—Prokhorov pooh-poohed the reported $144 million loss from operations he booked last season—this was a step to get the Nets younger.
“We need some kind of balance,” said Prokhorov. “We need a basket of very strong, very experienced players, but we need to keep some space for the youngsters.”
Euro-stash rookie Bojan Bogdanovich, who has so far been starting in Pierce’s place, and sophomore center Mason Plumlee, Lopez’s understudy, are two examples of the Nets’ search for “balance.”
Prokhorov also believes this team has more potential because of the coaching change from Kidd to Lionel Hollins. Kidd engineered his own migration to Milwaukee over the summer, leaving the Nets hanging at an inopportune point in the offseason planning.
And that’s when Prokhorov inserted the dagger.
“There’s a nice English proverb,” said Prokhorov of Kidd’s underhanded exit ploy. “Don’t let the doorknob hit you where the good lord has split you.”
“It’s a philosophical question. I think we shouldn’t get mad, we should get even, and we’ll see it on the court,” he added. “I like what we have now. I think our structure is optimal. We have a strong and spirited coach and a very strong GM–Billy King.”
Prokhorov admires that Hollins is a’ “no-frills, meat-and-potatoes coach” who is far less likely to create all the drama of his predecessor.
In turn, Hollins has already shown in the Nets’ small three-game sample the benefits of having a real NBA coach on the sideline.
Before Monday’s game, I noticed that the white board in the locker room that detailed the Nets’ game plan was significantly more extensive and detail-oriented than those displayed last season. I got smiling “No comments” from a pair of members inside the Nets’ organization when I asked about it.
Hollins follows the in-game matchups and knows when to halt the action with timeouts at points where he sees that his team is meandering from its game plan. No more rec-ball time management of personnel no matter the opposing force. Or “having the boys play through” long lulls.
Hollins doesn’t have all the answers. The Nets are still particularly brutal in the defense and rebounding areas–especially when Lopez is on the floor (though Hollins was “excited” when Lopez blocked a pair of shots in the second half on Monday by “actually going from one spot to another”)–and then there are unsettled rotation questions.
Both Bogdanovich and Alan Anderson played their best games on Monday night, but neither has really cemented the critical fifth starting spot. Andrei Kirilenko looks 100 years old on the court—the once jack-of-all-trades could still be plagued by back spasms—and was benched on Monday night until the final five minutes of garbage time. And I’m still questioning whether the Nets are better off with Jerome Jordan at backup center instead of Plumlee.
Add in the Nets’ medical history and that’s why we’re likely headed for a somewhat up-and-down third season in Brooklyn in spite of Prokhorov’s proclamations. The Nets are way better than what they showed during the Opening Night debacle in Boston and they won’t be able to dominate every team the way they did at lottery-bound Detroit and versus depleted Oklahoma City.
“It’s just one step,” said Hollins after Monday’s win. “We have a lot of work to do. This is not our mountain. We want to keep building and building and just keep getting better. I hope that we’re a better team–and not this team–in January and February.”
Of course, Prokhorov is looking for results a few months further down the calendar. The bachelor billionaire is inching closer to a certain self-imposed deadline, one that has him wearing a ring other than one designed for NBA champions should the Nets fall short of a title.
“Just between you and me,” said Prokhorov. “I haven’t started research for a new wife. I stay committed to the championship. By the way, we have lost George Clooney (to marriage). I think it’s enough.”
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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