By Jason Keidel
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So the Nets have gone against their nature and hired someone somewhat competent, from a royal basketball family no less.
Sean Marks is now Mikhail Prokhorov’s new general manager and will try to transfer some of the magic he learned as an executive with the San Antonio Spurs to the black hole of Brooklyn.
And what a Homeric journey it will be.
The Nets’ record this season reads like a basketball obituary. They are 14-40, and in 14th place in the Eastern Conference.
It gets worse.
They’ve lost 16 of their last 20 and are averaging 96.3 points per game, 28th in the NBA.
They’ve allowed opponents to shoot 47 percent from the field, 28th in the NBA.
They have a minus-7.3 point differential, 28th in the NBA.
The Nets are also 27th in attendance, averaging a paltry 14,801 fans per home game. By vivid contrast, the Knicks are fifth, averaging 19,812 at MSG, which puts them at 100 percent capacity every night, and just short of fourth in the league (behind Toronto, at 19,844).
I’ve been called all matter of moron — mostly by Twitter trolls and other online gangsters — for banging on the Knicks. Which means I’ve told the truth about the Knicks and the World’s Most Overrated Arena, a hardwood dungeon since the franchise’s last title, 42 years ago.
But no matter how wretched the Knicks become — not even a 17-65 record last season discouraged their jaded congregation — they matter. Because they play in Manhattan. Because they consume some of the most regal real estate in the world. Because our parents remember them when they were great. And because we remember when they were good.
But the Nets, the nomads of New York, play with an inferiority that matches their inferiority complex. They hopped the Hudson from Long Island to New Jersey in the 1970s, playing before a freckling of fans in the Meadowlands swamp. Even when the Nets were relative royalty during the Jason Kidd era, they couldn’t fill the Izod Center, despite two trips to the NBA Finals.
Even at the Nets’ apex and the Knicks’ nadir, there has only been one team of record in the Big Apple. Fair or not, it will take a few wins, and a few years, to nudge the needle of public sentiment anywhere near Brooklyn.
Why is it so hard for the Nets to get respect? If the Mets or Jets can bogart the bold ink from their more heralded neighbors, why can’t the Nets do the same?
The Jets entered pro football while the NFL was still mushrooming into a national behemoth. Back in 1965, when they drafted Joe Namath, baseball was still the pastime, the public eye still adjusting to the new wave of televised sports.
The Mets had the luxury of entering New York City in a vacuum, in a position to scoop up millions of heartbroken Dodgers and Giants fans, without a home since both teams moved to California in 1958. Those diehard baseball fans would have rooted for Red Russia over the Yankees. So the Mets cobbled up a fertile fan base by default.
The Nets have had no such luxury, and since they’ve moved several times, and lost even more, it hurts them to have had no ancestral home for the last 40 years. Between Long Island, East Rutherford, Newark, and Brooklyn, the Nets have hopscotched the Tri-State Area too often, and not won enough to garner the requisite loyalty.
Then there’s the Russian titan who owns the Nets. While no one doubts Prokhorov’s desire to win, colossal drive to conquer has cost him and the team, literally and figuratively.
According to a surgical piece from CBS’ Matt Moore, the Nets are the emblem of waste. To get to 14-40, they spent $123 million in luxury tax in the five-plus years under former GM Billy King, before salary and overhead. That includes an NBA-record tax of $90.57 million in 2013-14.
If that weren’t bad enough, the Nets don’t have a first-round draft pick this spring, because it was traded away in the Kevin Garnet-Paul Pierce deal. Neither player, nor Jason Terry, is with the team anymore.
At the time of Moore’s piece on CBSSports.com, the Nets were 29th in offense, 21st in defense, 28th in net points per 100 possessions, and 20th in assist-to-turnover ratio. And no franchise player to surround.
The Nets have copious cash coming off the books this summer, and will have just $45 million guaranteed money committed to their roster, about half of the new salary cap next year.
So Marks’ first job, other than understanding the depth and breadth of the hardwood hole he has to fill, is to resist Prokhorov’s impulse to buy a contender, the very approach that got them into this mess to begin with.
Not only do the Celtics own the Nets’ first-round pick this year, they own it in 2018 and have the right to swap slots with Brooklyn in 2017.
Then you have the reality that no high-end free agent will come within flying distance of Barclays Center. If the Knicks, with way more cash and cachet, can’t attract an All-Star other than ball-hog Carmelo Anthony, how will the Nets possibly lure Kevin Durant or even a second-tier stud?
So the Nets have a binary job before them. They have to build a competent team and convince lifelong Knicks fans to defect.
That’s what Marks has in front of him.
Brooklyn may only be a few miles from Manhattan, a bridge and a hop over the East RIver, but it feels like a continent away, in distance, sentiment, and importance. Other than their distant titles in the 1970s, when Dr. J was soaring over ABA rims, the Nets have been in a 40-year slumber in the city that never sleeps. It’s Marks’ job to end the hibernation.
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Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel