By Steve Lichtenstein
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Now that Mikhail Prokhorov’s deal to sell the Nets to Joseph Tsai has been closed, according to a Forbes report, it’s time to take a look at what the Alibaba co-founder has bought from the Russian oligarch.
Tsai reportedly acquired 49 percent of the team (the operating rights to Barclays Center will remain a Prokhorov-controlled property) with an option to buy a controlling stake after four years at a $2.3 billion valuation. That would make the Nets the sixth-most valuable team in the NBA, per Forbes.
Too bad such financial status has no correlation with what transpires on the basketball court.
Remember when the playboy Prokhorov promised to get married if he couldn’t deliver a championship within five years? Yeah, he backed out of that one as well.
Since it is assumed that Tsai would not shell out that kind of dough to be a silent partner, he will soon be taking over a franchise that is only marginally better than when Prokhorov rode into town in 2010 with his billions from the Russian nickel business. We all bought the hype that his successful résumé was an indicator that he would save the Nets from New Jersey oblivion.
Unfortunately, outcomes in professional U.S. sports leagues are not so predetermined. Operating under Prokhorov’s mission statement, if not his direct insistence, former general manager Billy King spent lavishly to build a competitive team in time for its move to Brooklyn in 2012. King gambled away all but one (Mason Plumlee in 2013) of the Nets’ first-round draft picks over an eight-year period ending in 2019. The summer 2013 blockbuster with the Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry will have cost the Nets three high lottery selections after Cleveland makes the pick (conveyed to it from Boston in last summer’s deal involving Kyrie Irving) in June.
All that money, including a then-record $90 million luxury tax bill in 2014, and all that draft capital got Brooklyn exactly one playoff series win, in 2014. That team was dismantled soon after, and the Nets have not been relevant since.
Sean Marks, King’s successor, has correctly preached a slow rebuilding process. It hasn’t been painless. The Nets were the league’s most wretched team last season and are a game out of the basement coming out of this season’s All-Star break. Worse, to borrow a phrase, the Nets are still at least two years away from being three years away.
With little salary cap flexibility and only Toronto’s selection (currently slotted at 28th overall) in the first round of the upcoming draft, Marks will have limited opportunities to make significant upgrades this summer.
Hope? Wake me up in 16 months. That’s when we can pray that Marks’ prowess to date with mid-to-late round draft selections can be applied to a more accomplished player pool in a lottery.
Marks recently told NetsDaily.com that he won’t have the team tank next season, but that shouldn’t be too concerning. What is tanking anyway? Characteristics include expanded rotations to get a look at who you want back, prioritizing young players’ time on the court without regard to adequacy of performance, rest nights for veterans and holding out players until they are 115 percent recovered from an injury.
If Marks didn’t opt to retain such plausible trade pieces as DeMarre Carroll, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris at the trade deadline earlier this month, I would accuse Brooklyn of being in full-blown tank mode now.
Off the court, the Nets have been struggling as well. The Sports Business Journal reported Monday that the Nets’ local broadcasts on the YES Network this season are the lowest-rated in the NBA (0.42) while games at Barclays Center are played at 86.7 percent of capacity, the fifth-lowest in the league, per ESPN. The numbers are improvements over last season, but let’s see where the Nets are after all the meaningless March and April contests. Remember, too, that many such “home” games are played in front of majority crowds supporting the Nets’ opponents. That’s understandable for Knicks games, but the Spurs and the Celtics? After six seasons in Brooklyn, it is fair to say that the growth in the Nets’ fan base has not met expectations.
Buying an NBA franchise is a status symbol, which is why Tsai paid the going rate for an underperforming asset. Prokhorov added a bundle to his massive fortune, but his regime will be remembered most for its false promises of glory.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1