For a few years there, it seemed like the New Jersey Nets were definitely going to move to an arena-like jumble in Brooklyn designed by the world's most famous architect. Then the project was delayed by lawsuits filed on behalf of a group of rabble-rousing locals who meet in a dive bar. Then a bunch of complicated bets based on bogus mortgages given to random people in the suburbs of Phoenix went to hell, and no one anywhere could get money to build anything, let alone an arena and massive luxury-housing development. Then the richest man in Russia decided he would pay for everything, although the architect and his expensive fancy-pants design had already gotten canned. Also, one of the main community groups supporting the project had its credibility undermined when two twentysomething kids tricked one of their representatives into talking on-camera about how prostitutes can cheat on their taxes. So if there's anything to be taken away from the story of the Brooklyn Nets, it's probably that we have absolutely no idea what's going to happen next in the story of the Brooklyn Nets.
Nonetheless, it does look like we're now closer than ever to actually seeing ground broken for an arena at Atlantic Yards. Yesterday, the state's highest appeals court heard arguments in the case disputing the Nets ownership group's right to seize land around the proposed arena site by using eminent domain powers. While judges seemed somewhat sympathetic — and it's hard to read much about this case without feeling that the Bloomberg and Pataki administrations abetted a severely undemocratic process on behalf of Nets owner Bruce Ratner's real-estate interests — the plaintiffs lost in federal court and lower state courts trying to make the same argument. A ruling is expected by Thanksgiving. And while Russian investor Mikhail Prokhorov still needs to be approved by the NBA, indications are that it's not time for beggars (NBA officials and fellow owners looking to get the perenially underattended Nets franchise out of the Meadowlands) to be choosers (of whether or not they want to become business partners with a guy that Bill Simmons has described as the "Russian Mark Cuban").
If the Nets were to get started on the arena soon, they claim they could move in by the All-Star Break during the 2011-2012 season. Despite their poor showing last year, they could be in very good shape by then. It's hard to find anyone, from casual fans to NBA insiders to stat geeks, who isn't high on the potential of mega-quick point guard Devin Harris — he's 26 and improved his points and assists averages drastically last year without hogging the ball. Rookie center Brook Lopez proved to be enjoyably goofy, but also really good, a solid rebounder and shot blocker with a nice touch around the basket offensively. Surrounding those two guys are some promising young role players. We're just digging into this year's edition of the superbly comprehensive Basketball Prospectus, and they're very high on the off-the-bench scoring potential of second-year guard Chris Douglas-Roberts and the all-around game of rookie wingman Terence Williams. Add in Chinese sharpshooter Yi Jianlian, who might still justify his high draft position, and the absence of the traded Vince "If You're Going To Do It, Do It Completely Half-Assed" Carter, and you have a fun, promising team.
But that's not all: The Nets are also expected to have $22.4 million in free cap space to spend this summer. LeBron James's connections to minority owner Jay-Z have been noted many times, as has the potential availability of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but we might suggest another target for the Nets: Amar'e Stoudamire. Still one of the most explosive players in the league after microfracture surgery on his knee, Stoudamire's stock has dropped considerably as Phoenix has gotten progressively worse, and observers have realized that experience is not helping him become a good rebounder or defender. Those strengths and weaknesses would seem to make him a great fit for the Nets: with Lopez controlling the paint, he wouldn't have to guard the other team's best big man; with Harris driving the lane, he'd be opened up for the kind of spot-up fifteen-footers and barreling finishes in which he specializes.
We don't have any idea, of course, whether Amar'e has an interest in playing here. And there's plenty of time before the free-agency period for the Nets' current players to get injured or cop bad attitudes or just have disappointing seasons. But — and we say this as a perennial Knicks optimist whose top New York sports wish is just seeing a second-round playoff series at the Garden — the Nets certainly seem like they're on their way to having a better sales pitch for impact players than the Knicks, who can only point to David Lee, Danilo Gallinari (if-his-back-doesn't-ruin-his-career-and-for-God's-sake-what-kind-of-20-year-old-has-BACK-problems), and Mike D'Antoni's record (with the Suns). If they land a better big name than the Knicks the year before moving to Brooklyn, the city's basketball fans might finally have a real decision to make.