History behind them, Nets eye brighter future

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – All around the floor in the final moments, New Jersey Nets officials stood and smiled, laughing and letting out the longest sighs of relief. No one wanted the punch lines, the history, the humiliation. No one wanted the damn record on his résumé. The Nets had resorted to the most embarrassing of gimmicks, giveaways and foolery, and that humiliated so many who had been with the organization through the recent run of playoffs and NBA Finals.

Brook Lopez and Courtney Lee could finally celebrate after the Nets picked up their 10th win.
(AP photo)

Most of all, the Nets had stopped behaving like an NBA franchise and careened into carnival barkers begging people into the big top for the bearded lady.

So, the final seconds bled away on a 90-84 victory on Monday night, the public-address announcer’s voice boomed, “WEEEEEEE GOT 10!” and the players swayed between joy and the embarrassment of feeling joy for such a trumped-up, nothing accomplishment.

Nevertheless, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers will stand alone in history at 9-73. Out of nowhere, the Nets hit the gas pedal, won three of four games and left the ignobility strewn on the Jersey Turnpike. Out of harm’s way now, the Nets are 10-64 and will be remembered simply as a horrible, horrible team. They just didn’t want to be the most horrible in the history of the National Basketball Association.

“Hey listen, we didn’t want to be part of the worst team in history, so we were excited to get 10 wins, but … it’s still 10 wins,” Nets guard Devin Harris(notes) said.

“We’re not going to jump through the roof because we won 10 games.”

As bleak as everything has been this season, it all promises to change fast. From management to players, everyone watched the “60 Minutes” profile on the Nets’ new owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, and they understand that once the league approves his $700 million bid, the franchise will be instantly transformed.

The nickel-and-diming will be done, and Prokhorov’s mantra will hit the Nets like a tsunami: For every idea they’ll have here – every coach they want to hire, free agent they want to lure, organizational staff with which they want to invest – the mantra from Prokhorov is this: What will it take to get it done?

Prokhorov thinks big and bigger, and that’s the reason sources say they expect his private plane to land with him and minority owner Jay-Z at Akron-Canton Airport at midnight July 1 on the start of free agency. The Nets know it will be a long shot to sell LeBron James(notes) on two seasons in Newark before the new Brooklyn Arena is done. Yet, the possibilities with a playboy billionaire and rap mogul are still intriguing. Even so, the most realistic play for the Nets would be for James to sign another short, three-year contract with the Cavaliers and revisit free agency once the Nets have moved to New York, Brook Lopez(notes) is a franchise center and perhaps the bounce of the lottery balls has earned them Kentucky’s John Wall.

Between now and then, the Nets will likely center on Utah forward Carlos Boozer(notes) this summer. They love Memphis’ restricted free agent, Rudy Gay(notes), but like a lot of teams, they don’t want to overpay to keep the Grizzlies from matching an offer.

Nevertheless, these appear to be issues that will continue to fall to Nets president Rod Thorn. Sources close to Prokhorov’s ownership group say they plan to soon finalize a two-year contract extension for the well-respected Thorn. He’ll have to take a pay cut, sources say, but Thorn understands times have changed and $4 million a year is no longer realistic for most general managers. They’ll allow Thorn to help groom a successor and they’ll lean heavily on him to make the coaching hire.

Sources say the chances of landing top choice, Jeff Van Gundy, are improved with Thorn staying on the job. Van Gundy hadn’t planned to return to coaching next season, but the Nets believe he’ll be willing to listen to a pitch. They want to talk to Villanova’s Jay Wright, too, but he’s turned down big offers from the 76ers and Kentucky in the past two years, and a close friend of his on Monday said, “It would surprise me if he talks [seriously] to them, unless maybe he needs the leverage at Villanova.”

One sleeper for the Nets job: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. While Izzo probably can’t be lured with the collegiate money grab at Oregon, the NBA has never stopped intriguing him. Izzo had a strong interest with the Chicago Bulls’ opening two years ago, but the front office never reciprocated. The Nets are willing to consider an elite college coach without a pro pedigree, and league sources believe Izzo won’t summarily reject a Nets overture without hearing them out.

As much as anything, the Nets want a dynamic name on the sideline. Kiki Vandeweghe had never coached in his life and trudging through his inexperience has been painful for him and the franchise. Thorn asked him to do the job and Vandeweghe’s done it with grace and dignity. Yet it hasn’t been without turbulence.

Here’s a story that illustrates how this season has devolved at times: During an earlier loss in a Western Conference city, several sources say the Nets huddled up at halftime, discussed adjustments amongst themselves and bolted the locker room without waiting for Vandeweghe and former assistant Del Harris to address them.

As Devin Harris said Monday, “It’s been an abomination of a season.”

As brutal as the Nets have been, the Minnesota Timberwolves probably have been a greater embarrassment. They’re stalled at 14-60 and have lost 16 straight. Suddenly, the Nets were no longer talking about catching a team that hadn’t played a game in 37 years, but a living, barely breathing modern disaster.

“If we could catch [Minnesota] and not finish last in the NBA, that would be great,” Courtney Lee(notes) said.

Truth be told, that would depend on whom you ask.

As thrilled as everyone was with a 10th victory, there’s no organizational clarion call to catch the Wolves. The Nets want every possible pingpong ball for Wall.

Whatever happens the rest of the way, it will start to be about basketball again here. As the Nets were beating the Spurs on Monday night, the franchise’s marketers released word they would be forcing two poor radio announcers to cover the CEO’s live-streamed lunch with a fan the executive berated courtside for wearing a paper bag. That was the story on the wire, just before word came through the Nets had beaten the Spurs and beaten back those long-ago 76ers.

For everyone here, enough is enough. The bearded lady needs to leave the arena in Jersey because the Nets need to start taking themselves seriously again. Everything changes now. The Russian is coming and, yes, it won’t be a moment too soon.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Mar 30, 2010