Following an offseason that saw them reel in two future Hall of Famers, a host of free-agent gems and an NBA legend-turned-leader fresh off a swan song in rival garb, the Brooklyn Nets were greeted with a flurry of hype tailor-made for a borough on the rise.
Instead, a maelstrom of bad breaks, rotational uncertainty and painful palace intrigue have spawned the kind of perfect storm that owner Mikhail Prokhorov—recipient of the league's highest luxury tax bill—never imagined having to quell.
Through it all, general manager Billy King has miraculously managed to avoid the brunt of Brooklyn’s blame.
But should he?
To answer that, it’s important to understand how we got here.
From frying pan to fire
It’s been six years since King was let go as general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, just one month into the 2007-2008 season. At the time, King’s dismissal was seen as a repudiation of a managerial philosophy that—though admirable on its face—quickly devolved into a culture of high-priced mediocrity.
In Philly, King’s moves were consistently couched between a pair of overarching goals: youth and flexibility. No one—not even Allen Iverson—would transcend the motive. Unfortunately, the disconnect between intent and result was all too clear; King shuffled players and picks in and out, but too often fell victim to wild trades and overpaying on the fringes (see: Dikembe Mutombo and Samuel Dalembert).
The Sixers never quite figured it out, and King would spend three post-dismissal years biding his time in basketball purgatory.
Then, in 2010, the best of breaks: a chance to manage the Brooklyn-bound New Jersey Nets. There, he would be taking his orders from newly minted owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a mercurial Russian billionaire with deep ambitions and an oligarch’s checkbook to match. The pressure might've been ratcheted up, but the purse strings had been permanently removed.
The next two years would see King spearhead a bevy of innocuous transactions, along with one franchise-altering trade: sending Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and a pair of first-round picks to the Utah Jazz in exchange for headstrong point guard Deron Williams.
From there, King continued to leverage his way toward contention, adding Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson to the team’s nucleus of Williams and burgeoning big Brook Lopez, all the while nervously shuffling on the roster’s fringes and waiting, trigger finger taut, for his next big move.
The summer of 2013 would begin quietly enough, with the Nets drafting yeoman forward Mason Plumlee with the 22nd pick and picking up journeyman point guard Shaun Livingston early in free agency.
Then, all hell broke loose.
Going all in
On July 12, King helped orchestrate Prokhorov’s biggest coup to date: a trade that put Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—aging but willing—into Brooklyn black. That same day, the team announced the signing of basketball Swiss army knife Andrei Kirilenko to a two-year, $6.5 million deal.
Eighteen days later, on July 30, the team would ink forward Alan Anderson to a two-year veteran-minimum tender—the sneaky exclamation point to an offseason many saw as a harbinger of big things to come in New York’s biggest borough.
So far, the only winners have been the New York tabloids. With Williams hobbled by persistent ankle issues, KG and Pierce playing their age and Jason Kidd taking antics over tactics, the Nets—overpaid, underperforming, with an owner who seems more concerned with making splashes than winning games—have become the antithesis of what was supposed to be an everyman’s brand.
The Knicks, basically.
Scapegoat hunters could be forgiven for pointing to Prokhorov, who from day one fancied himself a face—if not quite the face—of the franchise. Heck, if you were a 6'8" Russian mining baron with a penchant for models and a money-minter’s budget, you probably would, too.
But as with most of his peers, Prokhorov entered the world of professional sports ownership imbued with a hobbyist's perspective, not that of a basketball lifer. The dinners and the toasts, the paychecks and 10-story statements: that’s Prokhorov’s world. And while he’s most certainly played a role on the basketball operations side, ultimately that job falls to Billy King.
A bad gamble?
While fans and pundits lauded the potentially seismic implications of Brooklyn’s blockbuster summer, few stopped to consider just how many moving pieces and X-factors had to break right.
D-Will’s ankle? It’s been a source of concern for years.
Pierce and Garnett? They looked certifiably spent by the end of last spring’s Knicks series.
Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez? Good players both, but often one-dimensionally so.
Kirilenko? A fine player, albeit one on the wrong side of 30 who hasn’t tallied more than 70 games in a season since 2008.
And that’s before we even get to Kidd. The ranks of former players who traded sneakers for clipboards are as deep as they are exemplary. But seldom has the transition been so sudden, save for the days when player-coaches like Lenny Wilkens and Bill Russell were pressed into pulling double duty.
During the season’s early going, Kidd has looked every bit the part of a rookie: unsure, confused, confidence sorely lacking—a jarring photo negative of what fans saw when Kidd first laced his kicks for the Dallas Mavericks almost two decades ago.
Thanks to the presence of assistant coach Lawrence Frank, the Nets were able to account for Kidd’s unique learning curve. Now, in the wake of Frank’s much-ballyhooed demotion, even that’s been rendered moot.
The Nets are a mess, and while Prokhorov might write the checks, the basketball onus falls squarely on Billy King’s shoulders. A combination of learning curves, bad luck and divisional dysfunction might well provide enough cover for King to keep his job. But if the losses mount and last summer’s free-agent dice rolls continue coming up snake eyes, Prokhorov—political animal through and through—might nave little choice but to cut King adrift.