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The rest of the NBA had resigned itself to billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's relentless pursuit of players and playoff success, absorbing it all until the Brooklyn Nets are pushing an unprecedented $185 million in payroll and punitive taxes. From Deron Williams to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce to Joe Johnson, these Nets embody the spirit of the Russian's imperialistic vision.
Prokhorov had come to conquer the NBA, constructing a basketball arena in the borough of Brooklyn and empowering general manager Billy King to transform a barren roster into a championship contender. The Nets were destined to gather talent in this kind of boldly belligerent way, big names and bigger contracts stacked to the stars. From $101 million in salary to $82 million in luxury tax, Brooklyn has introduced itself as one of the biggest targets in the history of the NBA.
Only this time, the rest of the NBA believes the Nets have gone too far, delivering the league into an unfiltered rage. The signing of Russian free agent Andrei Kirilenko – a $10 million-a-year player last season – for Brooklyn's $3.1 mini-midlevel exception has transformed rival owners and front office executives into an angry mob of disbelievers.
The insinuations are unmistakable: Around the NBA, there are calls for the commissioner's office to investigate the possibilities of side deals and Russian rubles ruling the day – for now, unfounded charges based on circumstance and appearances.
Within the NBA, there had long been those promising that deals would start popping up involving Prokhorov that made no fiscal sense, theorizing that high-end players could take less within the constraints of the salary cap and still make up the difference in clandestine pacts.
Once the Russian billionaire convinced a superb Russian player to take $7 million less to be a backup to Pierce, the rest of the NBA's reaction was instant and uproarious. For the first time now, the Nets have truly arrived as a contending franchise. They're good, with a chance to be great, and the rest of the NBA wants an investigation.
"Brazen," one Western Conference GM told Yahoo! Sports.
"Let's see if the league has any credibility," one NBA owner told Yahoo! Sports. "It's not about stopping it. It's about punishing them if they're doing it."
Another Eastern Conference GM: "There should be a probe. How obvious is it?"
The telephone calls and text messages kept coming on Thursday night and Friday morning, and the reason was simple: Few trust Prokhorov to honor the NBA's salary-cap rules and regulations. He made his $15 billion fortune in the wild 1990s in Russia in what he called, "cowboy territory with no sheriff." Bribes were part of the business culture, and Prokhorov confessed to his part in it.
It is easy to make the accusations, but harder to prove that Prokhorov and his management did anything but a solid sales job after the free-agent market had dried up on Kirilenko. When it comes to uninhibited spending and free-agent coups, the modern NBA has a long list of targets. Understand something else, too: Plenty of American-born owners, running respected franchises, have come under these suspicions, too. Charges of side deals didn't start with Prokhorov and won't end with him.
Nevertheless, this is the second time there's been questions about the Nets' signing of a foreign free agent below market value.
A year ago, Brooklyn agreed on a full midlevel-exception deal with Euro forward Mirza Teletovic on a three-year, $15.7 million contract. Shortly after the agreement, Brooklyn realized it needed to alter the exception slot to still keep open the chance for cutting a trade for Dwight Howard. Without re-entering the market, Teletovic accepted a three-year, $9 million deal at the mini midlevel.
Part of all this is the mystery surrounding Prokhorov, the distrust that comes with how he amassed his fortune, and his bold predictions of an NBA title within five years of purchasing the franchise.
When the Boston Celtics made the Kevin Garnett deal to make themselves championship contenders, everyone accused Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Kevin McHale of preferential treatment of the Celtics and their general manager, Danny Ainge, in the deal. When Pat Riley brought LeBron James and Chris Bosh together for discounts on max contracts, there were cries of collusion.
Nets officials will privately tell you they understand these suspicions were inevitable – even if they believe the suspicions are misguided and misinformed. Nevertheless, Kirilenko has long been a target of Prokhorov, the highest-profile Russian star in the NBA and forever an object of the owner's desire. The Nets were discussing deals to back up Pierce with the pedestrian Alan Anderson until discussions with Kirilenko became more serious in the past several days.
Kirilenko wanted a three-year deal with a minimum of $8 million per season, front-office executives said. Several teams, including the San Antonio Spurs, pursued Kirilenko with sign-and-trade discussions with Minnesota only nothing could get done. Kirilenko has history with Deron Williams, the Nets star. They played together for five years in Utah. Most of all, Kirilenko has history with Prokhorov. The billionaire owned CSKA Moscow, and Kirilenko played for him there, too.
The Nets pursued Kyle Korver with its $3.1 million exception to start free agency, but he re-signed with Atlanta. Eventually, Kirilenko and the Nets were left shopping, and a deal was consummated on Thursday.
Brooklyn gets a strong, athletic defender to pursue James and Dwyane Wade in the playoffs, one more willing passer and scorer. For the Nets, too, they get the scorn of the sport now. Everyone can suggest it was easy to construct this roster with no financial limitations, but, rest assured, everyone couldn't have done what Prokhorov and King have done with these Nets – whatever everyone thinks. Brooklyn has arrived with suspicions and charges and jealousies, arrived in unmistakable and unprecedented noise. Here are the Nets now: From Russia, with loathe.