From 2010 to 2014, the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets were focused on one thing and one thing only: winning in the short term. The future? Eh, who cares, let’s worry about that in a few years, after we win our rings. Ever since Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov purchased the team in 2010, the Nets were solely focused on acquiring proven veterans, even if it came at the expense of surrendering future assets. The mindset of the Nets ownership and management was clearly flawed, and now that the future is here and the Nets appear to be stuck at the basement of the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future, they’re paying the price for it.
Analyzing the Defective Former Management of the Brooklyn Nets
The Nets had the third worst record in the league last year, and they probably won’t crack the 30-win barrier for at least a couple of years. Outside of Brook Lopez, there isn’t much talent on the roster whatsoever, and it’s unclear how exactly the team plans on acquiring significant talent in the near future. Many fans will attribute the Nets failures to the infamous trade with the Boston Celtics in which the Nets gave up three unprotected first round picks and a pick swap. However, don’t blame it all on the Boston trade, and more importantly, don’t blame it all on former general manager Billy King.
When Prokhorov took over the team, he boldly claimed, “If everything goes as planned, I expect to be in the playoffs next season…and championship in one year minimum and maximum in five years.” Compiled with his mission to “turn Knicks fans into Nets fans,” Prokhorov’s inexperience, unwavering confidence, and purely delusional behavior – all of which he admitted six years later in an open letter to Nets fans – were the main reasons behind the organization’s lack of success and the steep challenge they currently face.
Moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn
By the end of the franchise’s 36 year run in the swamps of New Jersey, the Nets were one of the least marketable franchises in all of pro sports. In 2011-12, the team’s final season in New Jersey, the Nets finished 31st in the NBA – a league consisting of 30 teams – in merchandise sales. The defunct Seattle Supersonics somehow managed to surpass the Nets in merchandise sales that year. The lack of marketable players and appeal of the overall New Jersey Nets brand was evident, and it was a major problem for the franchise.
In 2012, the timing could not be better for a move to Brooklyn, a market that had been starving for a professional sports team ever since the Dodgers left for the glamour of Los Angeles in 1957. As one of the five boroughs of New York City – the largest basketball market on the planet – Brooklyn is home to over 2.5 million residents. The Nets leadership knew they had the opportunity to create a tremendous fan base, and they did the best they could to seize the unique opportunity.
Majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov wanted to make a splash when the team arrived in Brooklyn. Sure he had a brand new arena, a completely revamped brand with stylish black and white logos and jerseys, and he even had New York royalty, Jay-Z, on his side. However as many in the sports industry know, a powerful business model in sports isn’t fully complete without a winning product and marketable players on the court. If the Nets had moved to Brooklyn with unrecognizable players and a 25-win team, would they ever tap into the potential of the Brooklyn market? Would the Brooklyn Nets ever have a foundational fan base if the team sucked its first few years? These were concerns of the upper management of the Brooklyn Nets, and from a long term business perspective, their whole win-now approach made tons of sense. It was crucial for the Nets to develop a fan base in Brooklyn from day one.
Attempts to Acquire a Superstar
The mindset of ownership trickled down to the front office, where GM Billy King worked tirelessly to acquire superstars and big-name players to bring to Brooklyn. His failed pursuits at trading for Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, both of whom were much closer to wearing Nets jerseys than many fans realize, eventually resulted in the Nets trading for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson to form “Brooklyn’s Backcourt.” In order to acquire both players (in separate deals), the Nets traded away Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Jordan Williams, and DeShawn Stevenson, as well as the 3rd pick in the 2011 NBA Draft (Enes Kanter), and the 18th and 21st picks in the 2013 NBA Draft (Shane Larkin and Gorgui Dieng, respectively).
The Nets also shipped the 6th pick of the 2012 NBA Draft to the Portland Trail Blazers for a month rental of Gerald Wallace (although they ultimately did indeed re-sign Wallace). Who did Portland select with that draft pick? Welp, Damian Lillard. The only reason why this trade doesn’t sting too bad among Nets fans is because the Nets were reportedly never interested in drafting Lillard had they held onto the pick; their primary target was Harrison Barnes. The desire to acquire recognizable veterans over unproven rookies was as evident as it ever was with this trade.
By the summer of 2013, after a successful first year in Brooklyn in which the Nets went 49-33, jumped 27 spots from 31st to 4th in merchandise sales, and built a solid fan base in Brooklyn, the Nets were ready to take the next step. Their win-now mentality was working both on and off the court. When the opportunity to advance from a mere playoff team to a championship contender presented itself, Prokhorov, King, and the Nets jumped all over it. Celtics GM Danny Ainge was looking to part ways with future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as he began to rebuild the Celtics. Hearing that Pierce and Garnett were available for future assets was like striking gold for Nets management. While neither player was still in his prime, they could instill a championship mindset in the Nets players and bring a winning basketball culture to the franchise. When fans think of Pierce and Garnett, they think of toughness, grit, and winning. Pierce and Garnett were two of the most iconic figures in the NBA at the time, and they were more recognizable and marketable than anyone else currently on the roster.
Almost three years ago to the date, the Brooklyn Nets shipped Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, three unprotected first round picks (2014, 2016, 2018), and the right to swap first round picks in 2017 to Boston in exchange for veterans Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry. In 2014, the Celtics used the Nets pick to draft James Young 17th overall, and this year they used it to select Jaylen Brown 3rd overall.
When the trade became official, Billy King claimed, “All three players have championship pedigree and possess the veteran qualities that will make us a stronger team.”
Mikhail Prokhorov added on, “Today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets.” It was quite a time to be a Nets fan. After suffering for nearly a decade, Nets fans finally had a winning team to look forward to, one that could compete for a championship.
At the time, the trade made perfect sense. On paper, the Nets had one of the best rosters in the entire league. A starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez was one that fans dreamed of, and proven veterans Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, and Jason Terry were set to come off the bench. They were third in ESPN’s preseason power rankings. They were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline, “Who Wants a Piece of Them?” It was, without a doubt, a championship season or bust for the Brooklyn Nets.
In a season with many twists and turns, the Nets obviously didn’t win an NBA championship that year. After a dreadful 10-21 start, the Nets rebounded to finish 44-38, good for sixth in the East. They beat the Toronto Raptors in seven games in the first round, followed by a second round exit at the hands of the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. The team didn’t live up to expectations, but it’s tough to blame Billy King for that. On paper, the roster was good enough to win a championship. King was told to put a championship caliber roster together immediately, and he did a damn good job at that. Blame the owner who wanted to win a championship at all costs, not the general manager who followed the orders of the man who signs his paycheck. The Nets ultimately sacrificed an abundance of future assets and paid a record $90.57 million in luxury taxes, but Prokhorov didn’t seem terribly concerned; he wanted to do whatever it took to win a championship.
Why didn’t the Nets live up to expectations that year? Well, for starters, during his tenure in Brooklyn, Deron Williams never came close to playing like the superstar point guard he was with the Utah Jazz. Whether it was the injuries, the intimidating New York media, or the coaching circus that took place in Brooklyn, Williams was at best a mediocre point guard as a Net. He wasn’t mentally or physically tough enough to be the face of the Brooklyn Nets, which is who everyone in the organization and the city expected him to be. Also, Pierce and Garnett experienced sharp declines that year, more so with Garnett. Garnett averaged 14.8 points on 49.6% shooting in 2012-13 with the Celtics, in comparison to just 6.5 points on 44.1% shooting in 2013-14 with the Nets. Andrei Kirilenko battled injuries and often performed like he belonged in the D-League, failing to play like the Sixth Man of the Year candidate many expected him to be. Ultimately, the Nets never developed chemistry or sustainability, and much of that had to do with the lack of leadership coming from their best player, Deron Williams.
Pierce had this to say in April 2015 about former teammate Deron Williams. “Before I got there, I looked at Deron as an MVP candidate,” Pierce said. “But I felt once we got there, that’s not what he wanted to be. He just didn’t want that.” Pierce added on about the team in general, “It was a tough situation (in Brooklyn) last year. Horrible, really. It was just the guys’ attitudes there. It wasn’t like we were surrounded by a bunch of young guys. They were vets who didn’t want to play and didn’t want to practice. I was looking around saying, ‘What’s this?’ Kevin (Garnett) and I had to pick them up every day in practice. If me and Kevin weren’t there, that team would have folded up. That team would have packed it in. We kept them going each and every day.” Yikes.
The Current State of the Franchise
Fast forward to the 2016 off-season, and things look quite different around Brooklyn. Billy King was let go of this past January and has been since replaced by Sean Marks. Paul Pierce signed with the Washington Wizards after his one year stay in Brooklyn. Kevin Garnett was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves at last year’s deadline. Deron Williams was bought out last summer. Joe Johnson was bought out in February. Just one player remains from the 2013-14 team: Brook Lopez, who has been the only source of remote stability within the organization over the past decade.
The media often points its fingers at the trade with the Celtics when giving reasons as to why the Nets find themselves at the bottom of the standings. However when we take a closer look at the failures of the Nets, it’s important to realize that the Boston trade itself hasn’t been nearly as much of a detriment to the franchise as most realize. Of course it has played a significant part, but the Boston trade is just one piece to the disastrous puzzle. Teams often build a successful team by accumulating a bunch of lottery picks over the years, and hitting the jackpot with a few of them. By no means is a lottery pick, let alone a first round pick, bound to produce a player that will be part of the core of a successful team. Trading draft picks, who have a decent chance of never living up to the potential of their draft slot, for proven veterans is not a terrible strategy if it’s done in a limited fashion. Missing out on a first round pick or two isn’t going to haunt a franchise forever, especially if the proven veteran the team receives in return is a pretty darn good player. The Nets strategy bit them in the ass because they traded so many of their draft picks. Missing out on a first round pick or two became missing out on a first round pick or seven. Losing seven first round picks in nine years? Yep, that’s going to haunt you. When it’s all said and done, the Nets will have sacrificed the following draft selections from 2010 to 2018: three #3 overall selections, one #6 overall selection, one #17 overall selection, one #18 overall selection, one #21 overall selection, and two unprotected draft picks in 2017 and 2018 that are likely to be in the top five, given the state of the Nets current roster. By converting Kevin Garnett into Thaddeus Young and then Thaddeus Young into the 20th pick of this year’s draft via trades, the Nets were actually able to bring back one of those picks. And in 2017 they will receive Boston’s first rounder as part of a pick swap from the Pierce/Garnett trade, which is why they’ve technically “only” lost seven picks instead of nine.
The Nets are now trying to make the best of the few resources they have. Mikhail Prokhorov has learned from his mistakes, accepting full responsibility for the position the franchise currently finds itself in.
“We had been told that you can’t buy a championship. Truer words were never spoken,” Prokhorov wrote in his open letter to all Nets fans this past February. “At the Brooklyn Nets, we are now poised to refocus our efforts on disciplined analysis and planning….Lessons learned.”
From a personnel perspective, the Nets don’t have much to offer on the basketball court outside of Brook Lopez. Brooklyn has a trio of players drafted in the late first round of the past two NBA Drafts: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough, and Caris LeVert. They also moved up to take Isaiah Whitehead in the second round of the draft last month, so that makes four players drafted in the past two years. Sean Kilpatrick emerged as a decent scoring option last year after Marks originally signed him to a 10-day contract, which eventually resulted in the Nets signing him through 2018. Bojan Bogdanovic is a solid scorer on the perimeter, too.
Coming into free agency, the Nets knew it would be quite a challenge to attract free agents, despite having the second most cap space in the league. Sean Marks’ strategy was clear; he planned to overpay for unproven young players with potential, hoping that they would blossom into young building blocks. The only downside to this strategy is that his primary targets – Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson – were both restricted free agents. Marks did his best to formulate contracts that would discourage the Portland Trail Blazers and Miami Heat, respectively, from matching the offer sheets. Despite the pricey 4 year, $75 million contract, with multiple bonuses, offered to Crabbe, and the back loaded 4 year, $50 million contract to Johnson, both teams surprisingly matched the offer sheets, leaving the Nets empty handed. Marks’ bold strategy ultimately failed. As of now, Brooklyn’s only impact free agent has been Jeremy Lin. The cultural icon and marketing superstar agreed to a 3 year, $36 million contract to become the team’s starting point guard, which is a bargain for the Nets compared to other contracts that were signed this off-season. Lin credits Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, who was an assistant coach with the New York Knicks in 2012, as the man who helped him most during the “Linsanity” period. Hopefully reuniting the two will help bring out the best in both Lin and Atkinson. Brooklyn has also signed Greivis Vasquez, Trevor Booker, Justin Hamilton, and Luis Scola to minor deals, all of whom figure to be backup players with no significant impact on the team’s future.
After a lackluster free agency period, combined with trading Thaddeus Young and waiving Jarrett Jack, the Nets will likely have a worse record this upcoming season than they had in 2015-16. The Nets may even be worse than the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, especially if Ben Simmons proves he’s the real deal. The chances of Boston getting the first overall pick in the draft via the Nets are pretty legitimate. Ugh.
Since Mikhail Prokhorov took over the team in 2010, the Nets franchise has had its ups and downs. They tried to make a splash when they first moved to Brooklyn by giving up future assets. The future is now here, and the assets are now lost. Sean Marks will be the man responsible for bringing the franchise out of this mess, and he sure has a tough task ahead of him. It will be a long journey to competitiveness, one that will require patience from the previously impatient Prokhorov. Hopefully, better days lie ahead in Brooklyn.