Memo To Proko: Winning The Back Pages Won't Get You To The Promised Land

By Steve Lichtenstein
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The coverage following Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s State of the Franchise address to the media on Monday understandably focused on his zinger directed toward former coach Jason Kidd. I mean, how often do we hear “a nice English proverb” like “Don’t let the doorknob hit you where the good lord split you” in these often-canned sessions?

But there was one other response from Prokhorov on Monday that has just as much to do with where the Nets stand today as the one regarding the most recent in the cavalcade of coaches who have paraded through and out the organization ever since Prokhorov took over the then-New Jersey Nets in 2010.

When asked about the summer 2013 blockbuster trade with Boston that netted future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in return for three first-round draft choices (and irrelevant bodies) and the subsequent decision to let Pierce walk away to Washington as a free agent this offseason, Prokhorov said, “I think we did a very good deal. It was a great investment in the Brooklyn brand. For me it was very important to invest some money to make the team better because as soon as we moved to New York, it was a great leap for us.”

In other words, Prokhorov may talk ad nauseam about his desire for his Nets to climb over 29 other teams to bring an NBA championship trophy to the borough, but first he wanted to knock the Knicks off the city’s perch with a big bang last year.

Ugh, here we go again with the Nets’ obsession with the Knicks.

I hate to break this to Prokhorov (possibly because he could break me with one muscle twitch) but…

It’s never going to happen in my lifetime.

When the rivalry between the two teams separated by a 20-minute subway ride resumes Friday night at Barclays Center, Prokhorov is expected to be in attendance. Though I presume he has arranged a different mode of transportation to the arena.

From his luxury box, Prokhorov will be disheartened when he sees first-hand an upper deck awash in Knicks blue and orange. I’m telling you, it’s not just Spike Lee—even the Barclays’ ushers and security personnel go ga-ga for the Knicks.

The Knicks have such a storied relationship with this city that the Nets needn’t bother to compete with it. Producers are still filming documentaries about the one relatively short era of Knicks dominance—from over 40 years ago!

Look at Los Angeles. The Clippers may be a true contender during a period where the Lakers truly stink, yet all anyone talks about is how many shots Kobe Bryant is taking. Altering a city’s fan allegiances takes a looooooong time. We’re talking generations.

No amount of Jay Z-designed logos or Brooklyn apparel will change that timetable.

So Mr. Prokhorov, let’s forget about this Knicks nonsense for a while and get down to what this organization really needs to make a significant dent in the New York marketplace: a competent general manager who knows how to build an enduringly successful NBA franchise.

And I’m not talking about the mid-to-upper 40s victory totals and early playoff exits the Nets put up in their first two seasons in Brooklyn. I mean beyond the hype of last season to being legitimate threats to reach the NBA Finals every year. A move past Toronto in the standings would be most impressive to basketball fans in the city. A sixth or seventh seed in the East with the Knicks eighth or even lower? The needle would barely move.

Of course, these Nets are closer to Lottery Land than Title Town. General manager Billy King has blown wads of Prokhorov’s cash with very little to show for it. Salary cap-stretched and trade assets depleted, the Nets are stuck in NBA purgatory. Not good enough to contend, no draft picks to tank for.

The Nets enter Friday’s game with a 2-2 record after Wednesday’s dismal effort in a home loss to Minnesota. This despite an easy schedule that featured no one who is remotely on the radar for a postseason berth (when you take into account all the injuries that decimated Oklahoma City’s roster on Monday night).

New coach Lionel Hollins still has a long way to go in order to mold this team into one with his signature grind-it-out personality. Center Brook Lopez was particularly soft in the loss to the Timberwolves.

But let’s not also lose sight of the struggles of the player who King tabbed to replace Pierce in the starting lineup.

Bojan Bogdanovich, the 25-year-old European rookie, has gotten off to a really slow start. For a guy who is so often left unattended in the corners, he is shooting a disappointing 38.7 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point territory.

It shouldn’t have been unexpected–it’s taken teammate Mirza Teletovic, among others, over a year to adjust to America’s top league, with its different game speed, ball, and three-point distance.

Bogdanovich may one day evolve into a serviceable player—who knows, maybe even better than Teletovic—but there’s no one who can argue that this isn’t a downgrade from last season.

Even at age 37, Pierce would have been the better fit across the board—shooting, rebounding, passing, defending. Plus his warrior mentality saved the Nets on numerous occasions last season, most memorably his last-second block of Toronto’s Kyle Lowry in Game 7 that allowed the Nets to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Apparently King deemed those traits extraneous on a team with one strong wing player in Joe Johnson. Tell me again why the Nets mortgaged their future for just one year of Pierce? Now they want to get younger? Does King have ADD?

Many mentioned the dreaded luxury tax as the motive behind King’s refusal to even offer Pierce a new contract. Folks, the Nets are going to be in luxury tax hell until they rid themselves of the onerous deals King took on with Lopez, Johnson and Deron Williams. Those three contracts won’t expire until after the 2015-16 season.

Prokhorov even made light of his reported $144 million loss from last season that arose primarily from the record tax bill he received from his fellow NBA owners. You see, Prokhorov reminded everyone on Monday that the rise in the team’s market value has shot up “five or six times” since his purchase, with such increase exceeding the club’s cumulative operating deficits by a large margin. The billionaire dismissed the loss as “not a big deal, because I personally compensated this money from my pocket.”

The real problem here was that King, who previously failed in his stint as 76ers GM, grew impatient after the Nets purposely tanked their final seasons in New Jersey so they could start with a clean slate in Brooklyn–only to find that some of the biggest names couldn’t be had. So he bet large on players who were not only below elite level, but were also aging and/or injury-prone.

He doubled down by trying to squeeze a few more years out of Pierce and KG, but when that didn’t bring the Nets any closer to a title, he ran out of cards. So the Nets now have no choice but to alter their spending course for the next two years and then attempt to start over. Hopefully with someone with a more successful resume in the GM chair.

That’s why Pierce was exiled.

Prokhorov’s statement on Monday kind of sounded like the KG-Pierce trade was nothing more than a ploy for the Nets to own the back pages of the New York sports dailies—for a year.

If that is indeed true, here’s the irony–with the jettisoning of Pierce, Prokhorov and King condemned the Nets to at least another few extra years of being afterthoughts to the Knicks in this town.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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