Nets avoid pomp despite great circumstances
If the Nets’ much-ballyhooed free-agent bonanza had taken place back in 2012, when billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov had just moved the team to Brooklyn and was about to open the Barclays Center, you’d never hear, or see, the end of it.
Prokhorov came into our fair borough boasting about his “Blueprint for Greatness” and taking this town over from the archrival New York Knicks.
He even staked his bachelorhood on it, claiming he’d give up his single status if the Nets did not deliver Brooklyn’s first major pro sports championship since 1955 to its fans within the first five years of his ownership.
Prokhorov allowed then-General Manager Billy King to author one of the worst trades in NBA history in an attempt to fast-track his Big Apple takeover, swapping out a slew of future first-round picks for Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett back in the summer of 2013.
That move, designed to make the Nets the city’s top team and perhaps even a serious Eastern Conference contender, flopped miserably, resulting in one playoff series win and a five-year span where the team failed to play anything resembling winning basketball.
But it’s been almost a decade now since the more flamboyant and trash-talking version of Prokhorov took over the Nets and their arena from Downtown real estate developer Bruce Ratner.
And Prokhorov has neither a wedding ring nor an NBA championship ring to show for all his early bravado.
Nevertheless, it has been the former Russian presidential candidate’s patient approach these past few years that has led the Nets to the precipice of achieving what he wanted in the first place.
By hiring Sean Marks as his general manager just over three years ago, and allowing the former San Antonio player, assistant coach and executive to bring aboard player-development guru Kenny Atkinson, Prokhorov set in motion what has turned out to be a very successful rebuilding program here in Brooklyn.
And he didn’t even need to put up a billboard adjacent to Madison Square Garden to accomplish that goal, nor did he push Marks to make any number of trades that would have given the Nets temporary relief from their bottom-of-the-league status.
Instead, Prokhorov waited through a 21-win campaign, an NBA-worst 20-win season in Atkinson’s first year and a small eight-game improvement in the win column in 2017-18.
Amid all this losing, Prokhorov sold off 49 percent of his stake in the team/arena to Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai, who will eventually purchase a controlling interest in the franchise by 2021.
When Tsai does assume command, the Nets will more than likely be one of the few teams in the league seriously competing for an NBA title.
With the free-agent additions of two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant and All-NBA guard Kyrie Irving, the Nets are not only the kings of New York City basketball going forward, they have become an instant national fascination, a team that will get more games on TNT or ESPN than most in the Eastern time zone as well as a bona fide contender for the crown once Durant returns to the hardwood from his well-chronicled Achilles injury.
“Part of the strategy over the last three years was to develop a good roster of young players and clear cap space to get some big-name talent, which is exactly what we have done,” Prokhorov told the New York Post this week during the Nets’ Summer League campaign in Las Vegas.
“But there’s much more to the picture than that.”
That big picture wasn’t the giant billboard Prokhorov tastelessly erected at the Garden in a clear shot at Knicks owner James Dolan.
Instead, it was the trust he gave Marks and Atkinson to get this thing right and rolling in the direction that would up the team’s valuation beyond the $2.3 billion it currently sits at, as per a February report in Forbes.
“Sean and Kenny have built tremendous infrastructure, whether it’s within the coaching staff, medical team, physical training — you name it. And the culture has changed significantly,” Prokhorov added. “We’re now more about our own step-by-step achievements than what others are doing that could distract us.”
The more patient, wiser Prokhorov isn’t flaunting his free-agent winnings with Borough Hall rallies or press conferences this week, much the way he did when the Nets signed the likes of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in 2012 or brought aboard Pierce and Garnett the next summer.
Instead, he is sitting back and enjoying the benefits reaped by his charges, Marks and Atkinson.
The Nets extended the shopping hours at their team swag shop over the weekend in anticipation of fans lining up to pick up their Durant (No. 7) and Irving (No. 11) jerseys.
Season tickets and walk-up sales will also doubtlessly receive a tremendous boost, bringing back the average crowds of 17,000 per night the Nets enjoyed during their first three seasons here.
Whether they ultimately win the franchise’s first-ever NBA title or not, Prokhorov can take pride in knowing that the Nets became almost everything he wanted them to be when he first started.
Only they did it without the false bravado and public relations stunts that marked the early years of his ownership.
Instead, they built a very solid and attractive foundation on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues and brought in a pair of title-hungry superstars to make all the previous losing seem well worth it.
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