The Nets also have salary-cap space to work with—approximately $23 million, enough to sign a player like James (or, more likely, Phoenix’s Amar’e Stoudemire, who has expressed interest, or Utah’s Carlos Boozer) to a max contract and still have enough cash lying around for another mid-level free agent, someone like Raja Bell. Or the Nets can save that space and wait a year, when bigger names like Carmelo Anthony and Tony Parker hit the market and the team will be a year into Newark and a year away from Brooklyn. And despite the record this year, the Nets do have some talent on the roster now: Brook Lopez and Devin Harris are young, burgeoning stars that anyone in the NBA would love to have on their team.
But those are all just roster machinations, the front-office push-pull that every team goes through; change, sure, but not metamorphosis. The real Nets transformation is on the executive and geographical levels. This team is about to get Ivan Drago–ed.
Prepare yourself, New York, for the force of nature that is Mikhail Prokhorov: The next-generation George Steinbrenner is a six-foot-nine Russian bachelor billionaire with a taste for the nightlife, metal music, and $19,000 lunches on the Upper East Side. His purchase of the Nets has been approved by the NBA owners and could run him, if a SportsBusiness Journal estimate is accurate, about $700 million once the NBA officially transfers ownership to him, from Bruce Ratner, next month. (Most consider that a high estimate, but when you factor in the $200 million in cash he’s committed, along with Forest City Enterprises’ franchise debt and all the junk bonds required for the Atlantic Yards project, it might not be far off.) Prokhorov is loud, obscenely rich (Forbes puts him as the 39th-richest man in the world, just sixteen spots behind our mayor), dangerous (he’s an accomplished kickboxer), ribald (his response to once being detained in the French Alps for transporting Russian escorts in for a wild party was that “to stay young, you have to be surrounded with youth and beauty”), and desperate to take over American sports, particularly basketball, the sport he played as a youth. In a post on his website (the 39th-richest man in the world uses Live Journal, by the way), Prokhorov said the main reason he wanted the Nets was to improve the quality of basketball in Russia—trading coaches, players, and techniques back and forth across the ocean. The Nets are his side project, but they are his passion project. Everyone notices when a six-foot-nine Russian billionaire is in town.
And he and the Nets are going to be in town soon. Although it’s far from certain that the Barclays Center will be ready by the 2011–12 season, ground on the Atlantic Yards site was broken earlier this month, the shovels and bulldozers indifferently gliding past the waning protesters. Bruce Ratner might have only wanted the Nets as a residential-zoning bargaining chip, but he’s set Prokhorov up for an easy alley-oop. Prokhorov is buying into a perfect situation, and he doesn’t even have to be seen as the bad guy: Ratner was the one on all the protest signs, not him. The Nets are coming, and Prokhorov is going to be huge here, immediately.
Don’t think the Knicks, and the rest of the NBA, aren’t worried. While unseating the Knicks as the top dog in town will require more than a Brooklyn Zip Code, the Nets could enter the borough with a couple of established superstars, an extravagant, motivated owner, a dashing new arena, and the brashness of the new kids in school. (Jay-Z never hurts either.) Enjoy these dreary final nine games in the East Rutherford Nets’ history. In two years, you won’t recognize them.