NEWARK, N.J. – Mikhail Prokhorov can unfurl his portrait murals on the sides of Manhattan skyscrapers and marvel over the construction of his new basketball palace in Brooklyn. The Russian billionaire can promise championship parades within five seasons and employ exhaustive research to dispose of the Nets moniker and unwrap something new to call his franchise.
Only, there’s no scrubbing away the residue of decades of dysfunction and disarray with the fresh paint job. There’s no scrubbing it all away with carefully orchestrated news magazine profiles. Prokhorov isn’t the NBA’s most mysterious man, but one more clumsy, clueless creation of the commissioner’s endless failure to resurrect this franchise. All his money and clout and global reach, and yet Prokhorov and his posse look like one more incompetent ownership group killing time and brain cells until the lockout.
It was a stunning, senseless and perfectly fitting performance for Prokhorov on Wednesday night at the Prudential Center: As full-of-it grandstanding ploys go, Prokhorov was brilliant. Once he sensed the New Jersey Nets couldn’t convince Carmelo Anthony(notes) to sign a contract extension, that his trip to the Rockies would be met with one more failure as owner, he made a dramatic declaration the Nets were done recruiting a deal and out of the running for Anthony.
This was no white knight sashaying into the States on a horse, but a basketball dummy on a donkey. This franchise has a long, illustrious history of sitcom moments, and this ranks with the most entertaining of all. This wasn’t the introductory news conference for Rollie Massimino as coach without Rollie Massimino as coach, but pound-for-pound this was a train-wreck worthy of the Nets’ time capsule.
One by one, they’re all passing over Prokhorov: LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes), Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes). Carlos Boozer(notes) and Rudy Gay(notes). A-listers and B-listers, and now ’Melo couldn’t be sold on the owner’s Brooklyn vision. Prokhorov was right to never get on the plane to avoid the public humiliation of ’Melo rejecting the Nets, so he used the bully pulpit on Russian Cultural Night in Newark to play the part of the bad-ass owner jetting in to take control of his franchise.
From the man whose charisma and mystique brought you Travis Outlaw(notes) and Johan Petro(notes) on the free-agent market, here was the white flag of surrender two months too late. Ownership and the marketing people wanted a star for Brooklyn, but made sure to pass the blame onto the general manager who couldn’t sell a dictator coach and an empty gym in Newark over Madison Square Garden and the United Center.
“Everything was mixed information,” Prokhorov said. “It was too conflicted.”
Translated: Between the Denver Nuggets and ’Melo’s agents, they ran one misdirection play after another on the Nets. There were too many starts and stops in the talks, and too many times Anthony himself kept changing his mind. The Nuggets always wanted to do the deal for Derrick Favors(notes), the draft picks and payroll relief the Nets offered, but they could never sell ’Melo on New Jersey. He wants the New York Knicks, who think maybe, just maybe, they’d be wiser to wait for the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard(notes) to hit free agency in 2012.
The Nets are awful, and their GM, Billy King, is wise to build patiently with draft picks, young players and cap space. Still, Prokhorov declared title or bust within five years, and it was clear he was publicly blaming King for how these trade talks played out. In recent days, members of Prokhorov’s inner-circle were grumbling to American basketball friends that they criticized King for failing to get a deal done. “They keep telling us it’s 90 percent complete and nothing happens,” one associate told Yahoo! Sports.
The inability to get direct access to Anthony made the Nets have to take the word of Anthony’s associates, and they had their own agenda: Get him to Jersey, get him the three-year, $65 million contract and gain entrance to the Russian’s personal empire.
Prokhorov said this pursuit was purely on “the basketball level,” but several sources believe King would’ve bailed on this trade months ago because of the way Denver kept changing the parameters of the talks.
Despite reporting earlier that King wasn’t aware Prokhorov would publicly pull the Nets out of the Anthony talks, they had indeed discussed it and King was fully on board with wanting to end negotiations. King no longer wanted to pay such a steep price, and no longer wanted to drag out the process, sources said. And no one expected Anthony would have some epiphany in a meeting with the Nets ownership and management about wanting to go there. He knew Prokhorov was rich, knew the roster and knew they were headed to Brooklyn.
No one does symbolic, empty public gestures like Prokhorov and his cast of characters. They’re long on show, short on substance. Everything’s a public grandstand and ultimately a public humiliation. All this money, all these resources and no one wants to come play for Prokhorov, which is interesting because Rod Thorn didn’t want to stay as the general manager. RC Buford and Joe Dumars turned down overtures to sign contract extensions with San Antonio and Detroit. Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau wouldn’t take the coaching jobs, because they wanted no part of Prokhorov without a promise of Thorn as the GM.
As for Avery Johnson, few trusted him and fewer wanted to hire him as coach. King was out of a job, yes, and needed to get back into the league. Yet King had the history of working with another hard-to-trust and impossible-to-please coach in Philadelphia – Larry Brown. He has the temperament to co-exist with Johnson, who has imbedded himself into the bosom of Prokhorov. When you hear Prokhorov say that “I believe [the trade talks] have cost us several games,” you can bet that’s because Johnson’s whispering the excuse into the owner’s ear.
Too many will make this story about Carmelo Anthony’s agenda, about a new wave of difficult NBA star, but this has far less to do with any of that than a bigger chain of events that’s thrown it all into motion.
This is the way the system has been set up, the way the NBA and the union has empowered William Wesley, allowing him full access to Team USA and the Players Association’s high school All-American camps. Once Anthony left Bill Duffy for CAA, this circus promised to play out. NBA commissioner David Stern created the climate for this endless, embarrassing public drama with his Armageddon labors threats and his recruiting of Bruce Ratner and Prokhorov into the Nets ownership group.
Eventually, the billionaire will learn some lessons about how the league works, how business is conducted and how you run a team. He blindsided his GM on Wednesday, grandstanded a public proclamation and transported the Nets back into time when dysfunction and disarray consumed the franchise. This was a clown act here, a low-rent move to take what had been a bad circumstance and make it worse. They were so sure the world wanted to come play ball for the big, strapping Russian in his Brooklyn palace, but the great players have come and gone – the good players have come and gone – and no one wants with him.
So, yes, Prokhorov took his ball and went home. He canceled his meeting with Carmelo Anthony, which wasn’t so much about making a stand as it was sparing himself the humiliation of more rejection. Give the Nets to a billionaire playboy from across the world, raise a glorious new edifice across the Hudson River, plan to change the team name, logo, uniforms – all of it – and, still, history has a way of haunting this franchise.
’Melo is probably on his way to the New York Knicks, the Russian is headed back to Moscow and the Nets remain a punch line. All these billions of dollars, all these big, shiny ideas and tough talk, and it never, ever changes.
Same old sitcom, same old shameful scene. Same old Nets.