NEW YORK — Mikhail Prokhorov came to the NBA with billions in the bank, a rich sense of humor and a wealth of audacity. He wielded it all with an impish glee.
"America, I come in peace," a smirking Prokhorov said upon his introduction as the new owner of the then-New Jersey Nets, in May 2010.
He was a mystery then, a Russian oligarch with a thick accent, a lanky build and a quick wit. He exuded charm, even while showing off a Kalashnikov rifle on 60 Minutes.
And he had big plans: a championship in five years. A mass conversion of Knicks fans (who were, seemingly, ripe for the converting). A global following.
Across from Madison Square Garden, a billboard rose: an image of Prokhorov and Jay Z, then a Nets shareholder, under a slogan: "The blueprint for greatness."
Oh, the audacity. It was Prokhorov's calling card from day one.
It wasn't necessarily a bad thing, either. The vagabond Nets, with a new arena rising in Brooklyn, badly needed some personality. The Knicks, living for decades off the fumes of their 1973 title, badly needed a wake-up call.
Alas, audacity is no substitute for a winning plan. And as Prokhorov met the media again Monday morning—24 hours after firing his coach and his general manager, with the Nets mired in the muck—he still had no concrete plan to offer.
"I think that I want us to have firmer, a much firmer blueprint of what kind of players we're looking for," Prokhorov said.
Blueprint. There was that word again.
He also said "championship"—seven times in 20 minutes—audacious even amid crisis.
Under the circumstances, it rang hollow, as empty as those thousands of black seats lining the Barclays Center.
The Nets—who sank to 10-28 Monday night after a brutal rout by San Antonio—are years away from contending, and possibly years from even making the playoffs again. With no elite talent on the roster and no first-round draft picks of their own until 2019, they are arguably the most hopeless team in the league.
Billy King paid the price for that hopelessness Sunday when he was removed as general manager and reassigned to a nebulous advisory role. Lionel Hollins, the cantankerous head coach, was also fired, which seemed merciful under the circumstances.
The only one left standing was the man who bore the greatest responsibility for this disaster: the guy with the smirk and the Kalashnikov.
Yes, King was the one who traded all those first-round picks—two to Utah for Deron Williams, one to Portland for Gerald Wallace, one to Atlanta for Joe Johnson, three to Boston for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—and it was King who constructed the most expensive team in NBA history, only to see that team flame out in the second round of the 2014 playoffs.
But it was Prokhorov who set the agenda and the expectations, never flinching at the cost, whether in dollars or future building blocks. When the mandate is "win now," you make win-now moves. So King kept swinging for the fences, trying to deliver on his boss' swagger.
Prokhorov and his chief basketball lieutenant, Dmitry Razumov, approved every move, making them just as culpable for this debacle. (Razumov, according to league sources, also played a major role in the Pierce-Garnett deal.) Yet there was no sense of reflection or remorse from the owner.
Did he regret the hyper-aggressive tone? The five-year championship window? Any of it?
"Frankly speaking, I deserve championship now much more than six years ago," Prokhorov said (though the NetsDaily.com blog later asserted that he meant "desire," not "deserve"). "I think we have been really bold and did our best in order to reach championship. And I still believe with some luck, our results might have been more promising."
If by "luck," Prokhorov meant discovering a fountain of youth for Pierce and Garnett two years ago, then yeah, sure. That might have pushed the Nets past the Miami Heat.
Reality, though? What the Nets need now is an injection of modesty, a sober realization that the vision—Prokhorov's vision—was a failure, in both concept and execution.
"He still thinks they're only a year away from competing," a veteran team executive said Monday. "You're like three or four years away."
There is no path to a quick revival here.
Williams was banished, via buyout, last summer. Johnson is 34, his game eroding rapidly. Brook Lopez is a skilled scorer who cannot pass or defend or carry a team. He should be a third wheel, not a No. 1 option. Thaddeus Young is a versatile and energetic role player, nothing more.
The Nets have a few intriguing prospects, notably the rookies Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough, but both are injured.
Most losing teams rebuild through the draft, but the Nets' four-year trading binge wiped out that option.
The Nets seem to be staking their hopes on free agency, banking that $33 million in salary-cap room this summer will provide salvation. Don't bet on it.
With the cap set to spike in July, nearly every team in the league will have significant room, and nearly all of them can make a more compelling case to free agents who want to win now.
The Nets will sell the lure of New York, their snazzy arena and their state-of-the-art new practice facility. But glitz and market size do not hold the sway they once did—witness Greg Monroe and LaMarcus Aldridge spurning the big markets last summer to sign in Milwaukee and San Antonio, respectively.
So where does that leave the Nets? In a deep, dark hole, with no rope and no flashlight.
Rumors are already circulating that Prokhorov could chase Kentucky's John Calipari, who happens to be close to Nets executive Brett Yormark. There's a certain logic to it: Calipari is a charmer and a masterful recruiter, an ideal salesman for the July free-agent season. Reality? No amount of charisma is going to convince a star free agent that this Nets roster is playoff-worthy.
Hiring Calipari—presumably in the dual coach-GM role he covets—would win the news cycle for a day or two and provide a momentary jolt of excitement for a somnolent fanbase. (That's no small thing. The Nets are near the bottom of the NBA in attendance, and only two of the city's five local papers are covering the team full-time.)
But going for headlines and quick thrills is what got the Nets in this mess in the first place. What the franchise needs now is stability and patience, a viable long-term plan and a general manager who knows how to build a team from scratch.
Bryan Colangelo and Danny Ferry are both proven, savvy executives who happen to be available. They know the league and its Byzantine rules, and they would have a far better chance of reviving the franchise.
In the near term, the Nets are hamstrung. But there is one card they haven't yet played: cash out. Put Lopez and Young on the market at the trade deadline and see what the market will bear. Squeeze out as many draft picks and prospects as you can get. Replenish that bare cupboard.
This will be considered anathema in some quarters—because the worse the Nets become, the higher the Celtics will draft with Brooklyn's picks. It's irrelevant. The picks are already gone. Winning a few more games just to worsen the Celtics' draft position is a fool's errand. There is no face-saving to be had here.
Could Lopez be worth a couple first-round picks? Could the Nets get a few high-second-rounders for Young? Consider this: A year ago, the Cavaliers traded two first-round picks for Timofey Mozgov. Nothing is impossible.
The Nets tried shock-and-awe for five years, acquiring stars and pseudo-stars and fading stars in a brash attempt to build an instant contender. All it got them was a single playoff series victory and a massive luxury-tax bill.
The blueprint failed. So it's time for a course correction.
Trading the Nets' remaining stars won't be easy. It would be painful in the short term, especially at the box office. It would be risky. Unsettling. Some might even say, audacious.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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