The Miracle Nets

Illustration by Tomasz Walenta

Last week, a Middletown, New Jersey, man named Chris Lisi paid his presumably hard-earned money to sit in the second row at the Izod Center in East Rutherford to watch the New Jersey Nets lose to the Miami Heat. He did this while wearing a paper bag over his head. This is a fairly standard way for a fan to protest a lousy team, and the Nets are certainly lousy: That night, they would lose their fourteenth consecutive home game en route to a season that could end with the team posting the worst record in NBA history. Lisi’s bag was understandable.

Nets CEO Brett Yormark, however, was not amused. The executive, who has earned some of the Nets’ few positive notices this season for his inventive marketing strategies (the highlight was giving out free tax-return vouchers as a promotion to all Jersey residents in attendance earlier this month), stood up from his seat and confronted Lisi; their conversation then devolved into a screaming match, with Yormark jabbing his finger at the fan. A media micro-storm was born. The next day, Yormark said he was just “standing up for our players.” With the team’s win-loss tally at 7-63 at the end of the night, few doubted they needed the support.

As much agita as the Knicks have caused their fans this season, it’s nothing compared to the pain in East Rutherford. The team lost its first eighteen games (a league record), has employed four different coaches, is last in the NBA in attendance by a substantial margin (the Nets barely outdraw the WNBA’s New York Liberty), and needs two wins in its final eleven games to avoid the 1972–73 Philadelphia 76ers’ mark of 9-73. For a franchise as traditionally inept as the Nets, this, at last, is the nadir. “We’re in a dark tunnel,” interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe has said.

If this were any other time in the franchise’s history, there would be no reason for hope. Even when they’ve been successful, winning two Eastern Conference championships in the last decade behind point guard Jason Kidd, they’ve been the second team in town, an afterthought in an unloved arena that’s difficult to get to, a must-grab ticket only if a superstar is visiting and Garden tickets are too expensive. (The Nets have begun promoting the opposition; this year, for a LeBron James visit, the team sold a reversible LeBron jersey that only when turned inside out became one of Nets forward Jarvis Hayes.)

But this bottoming out of the Nets just happens to be occurring at the very moment a dramatic reversal is at hand. Riddled with injuries, middling talent, and plain bad luck, this year’s Nets may be as wretched a team as the NBA has ever had. But it is losing with an upside: The Nets are about to shed their East Rutherford skin and emerge, in the next two-plus years, as an entirely different entity. You’ll like this new one a lot more.

Kevin Pelton, an NBA analyst for Basketball Prospectus, sat down earlier this month to analyze the eight teams with enough salary-cap space this summer to make a run at top-tier free agents like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. He broke down the teams—Chicago, Cleveland, Miami, L.A.’s Clippers, New Jersey, New York, Toronto, and Washington—and decided that the most desirable destination for a player who wanted the best opportunity to win multiple championships in the coming years was … New Jersey. Really. “If I was a free agent and was primarily concerned with winning,” Pelton wrote, “the team that has won just [eight] games all season would (however improbably) be my choice.”

Now, partial Jay-Z ownership notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that a LeBron James is going to decide to spend the next two years idling just off the path train. (The Nets are leaving East Rutherford for a two-year hiatus in Newark’s Prudential Center while their new digs in Brooklyn are being constructed.) But the Nets, almost in spite of themselves, are actually further along in the rebuilding process than the Knicks, who have spent the last two years tearing down the wreckage of Isiah Thomas’s reign. The Nets have everything working in their favor.

First off, their nightmare season is happening at the exact right time. If they end up with the worst record in the NBA, as is almost certain, they’ll have a 25 percent chance of securing the top overall pick in the stacked NBA draft this June and a 50 percent chance at one of the top two. That gives them a better shot than any team in the league at either Kentucky’s John Wall, considered the next evolutionary rung of point-guard talent, or Ohio State’s Evan Turner, the breakout swingman who has been compared favorably to Grant Hill. Even if the Ping-Pong balls don’t fall the Nets’ way, they can’t draft lower than fourth, making Georgia Tech power forward Derrick Favors, Kentucky monster big man DeMarcus Cousins, or Syracuse forward Wes Johnson more than adequate consolation prizes. The Nets will have their best draft pick in more than ten years during one of the most top-heavy drafts in recent memory.

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.

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The Miracle Nets