From Russia, with love: Nets eye Coach K?

The Nets could pursue USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo to help them land Mike Krzyzewski

For much of the past week, New Jersey Nets officials and Rick Pitino’s network of confidants and cronies had increasingly discussed the Louisville coach’s not-so-secret angling for a job that he had years ago leveraged and turned down.

Only this time, circumstances dictated a dramatic difference: Pitino’s professional and personal stature has been severely damaged, and the Nets were no longer chasing him. Pitino was chasing them, just like Yahoo! Sports had reported he had done with the Sacramento Kings in May.

Pitino understood that new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire, wants to hire an immense figure to coach the franchise. Pitino mistakenly believed he could still be packaged as a transformative A-list hire in the New York market. Those days are over, and Pitino is seen as something of a desperate and diminished figure. Everyone knows he wants out of college and treats his denials for what they are: a mechanism to protect his recruiting, to deflect the embarrassment of appearing unwanted.

Nets president Rod Thorn was never hiring Pitino, sources say, and Pitino isn’t who’s foremost on organizational minds as Nets officials trek to Dallas for a telltale meeting with Prokhorov this weekend.

Here’s the possible scenario that has some within the Nets franchise uneasy about their futures: After the Toronto Raptors ownership exercised the 2010-11 option on general manager Bryan Colangelo’s contract this week, there’s a growing belief that Prokhorov could be turning his gaze toward Colangelo’s father, Jerry, to hire as New Jersey’s president.

The reasoning would be simple. This way, Prokhorov could have the executive capable of delivering him the biggest, shiniest coach available to the Nets: Duke’s Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. The plan, sources say, would be to make him GM and coach.

With the Nets flushed with as much as $27 million in cap space, with several of Colangelo’s and Krzyzewski’s Team USA stars – LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) – available in free agency this summer, this would be a move that could trigger the most startling overnight transformation a professional sports franchise has ever seen.

Colangelo, the director of USA Basketball, has been open to this kind of high-profile position since selling his stake as the managing partner for the Phoenix Suns in 2007. He would have considered the New York Knicks’ top job, had Cablevision contacted him.

The harder part would be convincing Krzyzewski, who has insisted that upon returning to coach the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 he will finish his career with Duke and never again entertain NBA offers.

Krzyzewski has turned down several NBA overtures through the years – Boston, Los Angeles and Portland most prominent among them – and has a chance to coach long enough to break Bob Knight’s record for career victories. Even so, Krzyzewski’s close personal relationship with Colangelo and a chance to construct an NBA franchise with virtually unmatched resources in the world’s biggest market would probably have to give him pause. Despite the Nets’ historically bad 4-48 record, they have a future All-Star center, Brook Lopez(notes), and the best chance to get the 2010 draft’s No. 1 pick, which would allow them to select Kentucky’s point guard phenom, John Wall.

Prokhorov was a successful owner of the CSKA franchise in Russia, and has the reputation of a tremendous sports owner. He’s a 6-foot-7 former player, a self-made billionaire and he understands the value of relationships in getting major NBA deals done. As Yahoo! Sports had reported in early November, upon his successful bid to purchase the Nets, Prokhorov immediately requested a meeting with entertainment mogul, Jay-Z, who had a minority ownership stake with outgoing owner Bruce Ratner.

Jay-Z is the closet confidant to James, the business and branding model with which James has tried to emulate. Prokhorov has already gone through Jay-Z to try and get the biggest NBA star available, and no one doubts his savvy, nor his acumen, to make a bid for Jerry Colangelo, a Hall of Fame executive, for direct access to Krzyzewski.

NBA commissioner David Stern is believed to have been a strong advocate of Thorn’s to Prokhorov, but everyone knows that Stern’s strongest relationship in the league is with Colangelo. He gave him autonomy to run Team USA, to take over stewardship of the Basketball Hall of Fame and could easily connect Colangelo to Prokhorov.

For now, Thorn is going to All-Star weekend with several Nets executives for a meeting with the incoming owner. The NBA’s board of governors will approve Prokhorov’s ownership bid in March, and sources say that only then will he begin to make his imprint on this floundering franchise. Until then, they only know this about Mikhail Prokhorov in the halls of the NBA’s Olympic Tower and the Nets’ practice facility: The man is planning to go big-game hunting, and Rick Pitino never had a shot with him.

Prokhorov is thinking big, as big as the sport’s ever seen, and as one high-ranking NBA official says: “I don’t think anyone really realizes what it’s going to mean to have him in this league.”