The business side and the basketball side of an NBA franchise should overlap quite a bit, in theory. Good teams should be able to sell tickets, jerseys and other merchandise. It behooves an owner and management to put a good product on the floor because the returns should be quite valuable.
However, there is a patience involved in making sure you build that product responsibly, value assets, and don't put yourself in a potential wasteland for years. During the bright lights and indulgence of the Mikhail Prokhorov era, that patience was never there. The gamble was simple for the Nets under Prokhorov: make a splash in the New York area and try to wrestle control of the city away from the New York Knicks. If you could make a dent in that market, you could make a lot of money.
As soon as the Russian billionaire assumed control of the franchise in 2010, the plan was to get them out of New Jersey and into Brooklyn. Of course, you have to bring a team with some credibility in order to make a splash in that market and in a post-Jason Kidd era for the Nets, the cupboard was pretty bare in the star department. Their young assets were Brook Lopez, Derrick Favors and Terrence Williams.
Shortly after the sale of the Nets to Prokhorov was approved by the NBA owners, the Nets hired Billy King as the general manager. King helped run the Philadelphia 76ers during most of the Allen Iverson era. He was fired at the end of 2007 -- a year after dealing Iverson to Denver. He hadn't been in a front office in three years, but he was going to bring the glitz and glamour to the Nets that Prokhorov was seeking.
Sacrificing Assets For Glory
A few months after taking over as general manager, King traded Terrence Williams, Joe Smith, and two second-round picks in a three-team deal with the Rockets and Lakers, which netted him Sasha Vujacic, a first-round pick that would become JaJuan Johnson in 2011 and a first-round pick that would become Shane Larkin in 2013. I mention this because it may have been the only move during King's tenure with the Nets that he seemingly valued assets in any way.
Three months later, King sent Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, a 2011 first-round pick (that would become Enes Kanter), a first-round pick that would become Gorgui Dieng in 2013, and cash considerations to the Utah Jazz. In return he got Deron Williams. The heavy leveraging had begun.
Now committed to building the team around Williams, who at the time was still smack dab in the conversation for best point guard in the league, the Nets sent Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and a top-3 protected 2012 first round pick to Portland for Gerald Wallace. That sounds like a lot for Wallace on its own, but when you consider who the Blazers ended up drafting with what would have been the Nets pick -- Damian Lillard at No. 6 -- well, then it becomes even worse.
And indeed, things only got worse from there.
A short time later the Nets doled out another $90 million in salary when they traded -- are you ready for this? -- Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, DeShawn Stevenson, Johan Petro, the first-round pick that became Larkin, the right to swap first-round picks in 2014 and 2015, and a 2017 second-round pick to Atlanta for ... Joe Johnson.
The core was now Williams (whose specatacular demise commenced almost immediately upon his Nets arrival), Johnson, Wallace and Lopez, and for just those four players they were committed to an average of $67 million per season. There also wasn't any cap space in sight for the next few seasons. But they had put together a decent enough team with at least one marketable star that could all roughly qualify as the splash they were looking for as the Barclays Center in Brooklyn became the new home of Nets basketball.
But remember that patience thing?
Yeah, not so much.
Just a few months after Avery Johnson won Eastern Conference coach of the month, he was promptly fired. The Nets won 49 games, but the Knicks won 54. Brooklyn was no closer to owning New York then when the frachise was in New Jersey.
Time for another splash.
This is when they ceremoniously brought Jason Kidd in to coach the team before the ink had dried on his retirement papers. They drafted Mason Plumlee with the 22nd pick, signed Andray Blatche, Andre Kirilenko and Shaun Livingston as the core of what would be a veteran-fueled bench, and then sacrificed the rest of any remaining assets to try to recreate Boston's overnight success story by signing the aging Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
All told, the Celtics agreed to send Garnett, Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White to Brooklyn in exchange for -- are you ready for this again? -- Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans, the right to swap picks in 2017, their 2014 first-round pick (became James Young), their 2016 first-rounder, and their 2018-first round pick.
That's not mortgaging the future. That's lighting it on fire.
To summarize, the Nets essentially eliminated themselves from the draft from 2014 to 2018 in the hopes of being an instant title contender. Problem is, they weren't that.
What they were was a team led by Williams and his paper ankles, Johnson and his cap-crippling contract, a 36-year-old Pierce and 37-year-old Garnett, all under the guidance of a first-year coach. Oh, and Lopez wound up playing 17 games. They were worse than the previous season, dropping to 44 wins. Their offense went from eighth to 14. Their defense went from 17th to 20th.
And in the end, after a historicly huge luxury tax bill came due, Pierce left for the Wizards and a power play by Kidd led to him moving on to coach Milwaukee. Garnett would be traded halfway through his second season with Brooklyn. Seven -- seven! -- first-round picks had been given away, not to mention favorable positions in two of those drafts. It was, and is, a mess.
So, what's left For the Nets?
This summer, the Nets re-signed Lopez to a three-year, $60 million contract, agreed to terms with Thaddeus Young (who was acquired for Garnett) on a four-year, $50 million deal, moved Plumlee to Portland for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and eventually bought out Williams' deal so he could return home to Texas and play for the Mavs.
What's left is the shell of a team that was once supposed to be a title contender. Frankly, the Nets would be fortunate to compete for the 8-seed in the pitiful East. The Lopez and Young contracts were justifiable, if only because there is no incentive for the Nets to be bad and try to build through the draft since they have, you know, pretty much zero drafts picks. Their pick goes to the Celtics no matter what in 2016. There is no protection. They'll swap picks with the Celtics in 2017 because it would take a miracle for the Nets to project better than Boston. In 2018, it won't do them any good to be bad and go for a high draft pick again because there is no protection on that picked owed to Boston, as well.
If that sounds like confusing front-office talk, just know this: The Nets are all but cooked.
In reality, the only hope for the Nets lies in the off chance of a couple big-name free agents choosing to move to Brooklyn in the next couple years. With Johnson's expiring deal and the salary cap jump making the Lopez and Young deals pretty friendly, the Nets could have roughly $45 million in cap space. But how much is that cap space really worth to them? They'd sport a core of Lopez, Young, Hollis-Jefferson, Bojan Bogdanovic, and maybe Markel Brown (depending on how much you believe in him).
Is that really enticing?
You could argue the big market could work in their favor, but big-market teams have struggled to gain any sort of recruiting advantage just by being big markets in this latest collective bargaining agreement. The Knicks and Lakers have both struck out on grabbing the attention of big names. What makes the Nets different, especially when they don't have a real foundation to offer a potential free agent? I mean, is Kevin Durant really considering this Brooklyn situation? Is anyone with any sort of starpower? This is where the Nets have to hit winning shots on every small free-agent signing and second-round pick they can pilfer. Not exactly a sure bet.
Looking back, how the Nets didn't have the leverage to fight for, and win, draft pick protection in their deal for Pierce and Garnett is baffling. How they're left with no real young prospects is baffling. At the very least, they should at least be in the position to cash in on their own awfulness over the next three years with some young talent, but the fact that they don't even have the draft picks left to do that is beyond baffling. In the name of marketing, branding and business, this team has been left in shambles.
Prokhorov basically built a house of cards and it doesn't even feel like he did it with a full deck. The fans will suffer. The roster won't see significant growth. The future looks miserably bleak. The only person who walks away from this debacle a winner is -- you guessed it -- Prokhorov. He purchased the Nets in 2010 for $200 million, which gave him controlling interest in the team and 45 percent of the arena in Brooklyn. He assumed nearly $200 million in team debt and spent $100 million on bonds to help finance the arena.
In January, the Nets' franchise was valued at $1.5 billion by Forbes. While being completely mismanaged over a five-year stretch, the Nets' value has roughly tripled, if not more. By the way, there are rumors that he's looking to sell what's left of the team.