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Nets leap into legitimacy by keeping Williams

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Deron Williams takes the money and security over playing in his home state. (US Presswire)  
Deron Williams takes the money and security over playing in his home state. (US Presswire)  

NEW YORK -- It was a different NBA world in February 2011, just 17 months ago, when the Nets took a chance on Deron Williams. This was the end of a time in basketball that would produce a transformative five-month lockout. The Nets were lining up at the buffet table to get theirs.

Except there were no guarantees. Nobody knew what the world would look like on the other side of that lockout. Nobody knew what Williams, a Texas boy, would think of New York City -- and Brooklyn, in particular. All the Nets' brass of Billy King and Bobby Marks knew was that their team was taking a step out of purgatory in Newark, N.J., and landing in Brooklyn in a year-and-a-half or so -- and that they'd better bring a basketball team with them that somebody wanted to watch.

Now, the Nets matter. The Brooklyn Nets matter after Williams resisted the urge to take Mark Cuban's money and knack for building a champion and return to his home state of Texas to chase rings with Dirk Nowitzki. In this case -- and possibly, only this case, forever -- Cuban's money wasn't enough. The very rules Cuban fought so hard for during the lockout meant that he could offer one less year and about 24 million fewer dollars than his archenemy, Mikhail Prokhorov, for Williams.

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As it turned out, there was no need for a kickboxing match between Cuban and Prokhorov, after the Russian billionaire had jokingly threatened to "crush" Cuban in such a duel during an April news conference at the Barclays Center.

It was a weird day, but the outcome was what everyone in basketball expected. Williams took the money and the extra year of security, accepted All-Star Joe Johnson as an acceptable running mate and now waits to see if the Nets can get Dwight Howard, too. In a sign of our social media times, Williams announced the anticipated decision by posting a photo of the Brooklyn Nets new logo on Twitter, after the line, "Made a very tough decision today ..." Within an hour, it had been retweeted some 8,500 times, according to ESPN's Rachel Nichols, who, you know, tweeted that.

The bank for whom the Nets' new area is named, Barclays, was mired in an estimated $800 trillion international interest-rate fixing scandal Tuesday, and the NBA's landscape didn't look so much healthier than it did before the lockout -- stars continuing to "aggregate" in big markets, in the parlance of the league office. But at least the Nets got their man.

Hey, Brooklyn -- with a population of approximately 2.5 million -- technically isn't a big market. It's a mid-market. You can just hear commissioner David Stern saying those words, because that's how he explained away the Heat's compilation of talent in Miami. Mid-market, schmid-market, some of Stern's team executives were saying Tuesday night, if not in so many words.

Anyway, with a wink and a nod, King and Marks went about importing the $89.3 million man, Johnson, who is 31 and will be making $24.9 million in three years, when he's 34. The wink and nod were from Williams, who clearly was on board with the Nets' offseason strategy while he went through the motions of dueling meetings with the Nets and his hometown Mavericks Monday. And the wink and the nod came from the overlords of this new NBA economic and competitive system, which doesn't really look all that new. Big markets are collecting stars, and even the stars that may be forced out of big markets -- such as Jeremy Lin via restricted free agency -- aren't exactly heading to Charlotte and Milwaukee in droves.

If Howard somehow wound up in Brooklyn by the end of the weekend, there would be an insurrection in the small and middling markets of the NBA. So it's a good thing that isn't likely. After the Nets pursued Howard for the better part of a year, they finally relented and grew tired of the drama and used their cap space to get Johnson from the Hawks instead. In the process, they sent every expiring contract they could find to Atlanta, which will have a clean slate next summer to chase the biggest of free agents.

The Magic were continuing to talk to the Nets, among other teams, Tuesday night, but for what? Orlando has all the leverage. The only team Howard has said he would sign with if traded has found another use for its cap space, and the Nets now won't have money to chase Howard as a free agent next summer. Like the Nuggets with Carmelo Anthony, the Magic won't receive their best offers until the 2013 trade deadline. Buckle up, Dwight. It looks like the only way you'll be coming to Brooklyn will be as a visitor wearing a Magic jersey.

So while it's perfectly appropriate for team executives to shake their heads at the latest conga line of stars heading to a big market, this takes nothing away from the accomplishment that the Nets pulled off. The impact cannot be overstated: A nomadic team with a mostly comical history has a chance to be relevant again. A great chance.

It was a high-risk, high-reward move to trade Devin Harris, Derrick Favors and two first-round picks to Utah for Williams, who was caught off-guard by the deal. At the time, Williams had just left All-Star weekend in Dallas, where he'd taken stock of all his happy friends who'd teamed up in Miami and Amar'e Stoudemire, who'd been the first star to land in New York. Williams wanted some of that, but he wanted it on his terms. He wanted to control his destiny, team up with a superstar in New York and go chase championships, max money and marketing supremacy.

The decision was made for him, and Williams suffered through what he called the worst season of his NBA career -- the worst of his basketball life. He wasn't signing up to play in a lifeless, half-empty building with no stars to help him, no matter how many millions were there. He was basically traded to Sacramento 17 months ago, the wasteland of basketball, and the Nets turned it into something. It may not make sense, it may not seem like what the lockout was all about, but it's hard not to be impressed.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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