The pursuit of stars that fell to earth

Maddie Meyer

With everyone trying to figure out what went wrong --and keeps going wrong-- with the Nets, we decided to reprise something we wrote up a few weeks back, providing a bit of an update and a little more detail ... including a visitor from Moscow,.

At the end of the day, Christmas Day, it's all so depressing and frustrating. Nothing is working. The prospect of a championship seems laughable, at least with this roster. The prospect of the playoffs looks like a mirage. The Nets record is the sixth worst in the league. A daunting road trip lies ahead. And it gets worse.

The draft pick bin is bare. They can't be sure of having their own first round pick until 2019 and have only one second rounder, heavily protected in 2016, through 2017. The two picks they do have, both protected, can't be traded unless they get another first rounder ... and both must be swapped if they're high. They have no cap space and without a draconian, almost unimaginable overhaul of the roster, they aren't likely to have any anytime soon.

So what went wrong? Short term, it's pretty simple: each of their off-season moves were smart or at least defensible, but combined they were risky. Add injuries and mix. Voila

From a longer term aspect, it's more complicated: the Nets decided early on in the Mikhail Prokhorov era that they would need to acquire a superstar or two or three if they were going to make a big splash in the biggest pond in sports: the New York market, and of course, win. They were willing to sacrifice the future for a shot at the present. You know the line: You can't rebuild in New York, particularly if you're just walking in the door. And they chose to work closely with one agent who helped them big time but now is seen by some in the organization as too powerful.

From day one, the message from Moscow to Billy King et al was find a superstar to build a franchise around. Money was no object. After losing out on John Wall in the 2010 Draft Lottery, they went for Derrick Favors at No. 3, believing in him as a player, but also as a trade asset. DeMarcus Cousins may have been a better prospect, but DMC's reputation as a knucklehead diminished his trade value. (Paul George went No. 10.)

Their first choice in the superstar sweepstakes was Carmelo Anthony and for months, the Nets engaged in the MeloDrama, an off-again, on-again pursuit of the Nuggets star, offering Favors, pieces and picks, only to lose out to their competitor, the Knicks. By a stroke of good fortune and King's contacts, the Nets were able to grab Williams the next day and all seemed right with the world. They gave up Favors, their own first round pick, another one they had acquired from Golden State and a player they had already given up on: Devin Harris There was one key difference between Melo and D-Will. Melo had committed to an extension with New York. D-Will still had to be wooed, and keeping Williams became the Nets' defining goal their last year and a half in New Jersey.

The Nets who hadn't traded one of their own first round picks in a decade began offering them around to improve their roster to the point where Williams wanted to stay when his contract came up. Dwight Howard said he wanted to play for the Nets, even demanded a trade. Then he reneged at the trade deadline in March 2012, turning the Dwightmare into a real nightmare.

The Nets, with a roster that was clearly not going to entice Williams, spent the deadline trying to find a veteran who could be a building block in Brooklyn. They talked to Boston about Paul Pierce but that deal went nowhere. He didn't want to play in New Jersey and Danny Ainge may have gotten cold feet.

They then turned to Portland and Gerald Wallace. They traded away their 2012 draft pick, with minimal protections for the former All-Star. They argued privately that Wallace was the kind of veteran they needed to keep D-Will and besides, they weren't that enamored of anyone in the draft beyond Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Thomas Robinson. They didn't like Harrison Barnes. Damian Lillard really wasn't on their radar. The trade turned into a disaster. Lillard was taken with the Nets pick and became Rookie of the Year. Barnes finished sixth. Even if they wouldn't have taken Lillard --they didn't really need a point guard-- or Barnes, Andre Drummond and John Henson, who they did like, were still on the board. (They also liked Tyler Zeller ... a lot.)

Still, they had no commitment from D-Will. They became aggressive in ways few expected. They made a big offer to Wallace. He got $40 million over four years. They traded another first round pick, but not one of their own, and agreed to swap two others --something not disclosed for six months-- for Joe Johnson, taking on his enormous contract in the process. The players they gave up were surplus. Atlanta bought out Jordan Farmar and Jordan Williams, traded Anthony Morrow, keeping only Johan Petro and DeShawn Stevenson. Johnson served several purposes: He was another enticement for Williams and another superstar for Brooklyn. If D-Will signed with Dallas, they still had a marquee player in Johnson to market in Brooklyn. Big contract? Nets ownership was a fan's dream: they were willing to spend to win.

They took a chance on Brook Lopez's foot and maxed him out, fearing the Bobcats were closing in. And they worked closely with Jeff Schwartz, D-Will's agent ... very closely ... to get D-Will's signature. They paid Portland two million dollars to buy a second round pick so they could take Schwartz client Tyshawn Taylor, who in fairness, they did think would go higher. Later in the second round, they took another Schwartz client, Ilkan Karaman, a Turkish power forward. They offered Mirza Teletovic, one more Schwartz client, the MLE, then got him to take a discount so they wouldn't be hard-capped. They tried to make a deal with Jason Kidd, D-Will's friend and yes, a Schwartz client, but he signed across the river.

D-Will agreed to stay and got $100 million over five years. They filled in the roster with Kris Humphries, overpaying him at $12 million a year for two, but believing (correctly as it turned out) that he could be a valuable asset as an expiring contract in 2013. They took a chance on Andray Blatche, when no one else would. At each turn, Dmitry Razumov, Prokhorov's No. 2 and King's main contact in Moscow, signed off. As Prokhorov became more of a politician in Moscow, Razumov became more of a player in Brooklyn.

Sure, they had dumped their pick -- but at that point no one expected Lillard to be such a big star. Moreover, the Nets were moving into Brooklyn with a competitive team and two big stars in D-Will and J.J. They were so excited by the possibilities that they trademarked the term, "Brooklyn's Backcourt" and held a pep rally for the two of them. Prokhorov agreed to pay out $12 million in luxury taxes, the first such payment in eight years. The promise of having the world's richest sports owner was being fulfilled.

The first year in Brooklyn had both pluses and minuses. They dumped Avery Johnson and did for a short while pursue Phil Jackson, who politely declined to head East. They lived with P.J. Carlesimo whose unwillingness to play Teletovic and to a lesser extent MarShon Brooks caused a lot of friction. D-Will went on a post-All Star break tear, setting records and looking like the superstar they thought they had traded for. For the first time, they made the playoffs. Then, there was the missed dunk by C.J. Watson, Nate Robinson's devastating performance and ultimately a gutless Game 7 that angered everyone up to and including Prokhorov. Mikhail was not pleased, not pleased at all.

After a season review, the Nets started looking for a coach and a plan. There were plenty of candidates for head coach, but the possibility of Kidd was enticing to ownership. He had been the franchise when it achieved its only real success in New Jersey. He would give the organization instant respect among players, especially free agents. He had convinced Lawrence Frank to help guide him. Ownership also saw Kidd as a a long-term solution, preferring the risk of a 40-year-old rookie coach to "retreads" who had been fired by their last team or an assistant who had never gotten the big job. It didn't hurt that he was a star ... and again a Schwartz client.

King has publicly said he "resisted" when ownership suggested Kidd. It was clear he preferred Brian Shaw, the only other candidate who got an interview, which truth be told, was all for show. Prokhorov has said he too resisted the idea ... initially. So who pushed it?

The Kidd hire was greeted mostly with praise. Nostalgia, it could be argued, overwhelmed skepticism. Kidd talked at his June press conference of how he intended to use the current roster, specifically mentioning a bigger role for Wallace, who had played well in the post-season ... after complaining he had no role in Carlesimo's system.

Then, in late June, came The Trade. Danny Ainge was in a bit of a fix. By June 30, three days after the Draft, he had to make a decision that he knew would not be easy. He could opt to keep Paul Pierce one more season at $15.3 million or waive him and buy him out at $5 million. Boston was in the throes of losing Doc Rivers. Rajon Rondo's return was uncertain. A deal to send Kevin Garnett to the Clippers with Rivers rights was frowned upon by the league. KG was thinking of retiring, but was still owed $12.3 million in 2013-14 and a $6 million guarantee on $12 million the following season.

So Ainge and King got together. Pierce who had resisted the idea of becoming a New Jersey Net, was willing to become a Brooklyn Net. Schwartz, his agent, had helped him through that decision. The day before the draft, the Nets and Celtics had agreed to a basic deal that would send Pierce to Brooklyn for Humphries and the Nets 2016 pick. There were rumors that if things went well in Brooklyn, Pierce could get an extension.

Then, they decided to expand the trade ... and therein lies the rub. All day Draft Day, the two sides worked on a complicated arrangement, so complicated it's hard to call it a trade. Names were tossed about. The Nets wanted Garnett, who would be the biggest star ever to wear a Nets uniform and along with Pierce, would bring Boston's championship culture to a team who had choked in Game 7 weeks before. Reggie Evans was in and out. MarShon Brooks was out and in. Toko Shengelia was in and out. Jason Terry or Courtney Lee had to be included or no deal. Terry's contract was less onerous. Ainge reluctantly was willing to accept Wallace's contract but wanted more in terms of picks. Keith Bogans made out like a bandit. .And KG had to be be compensated. The Nets agreed to fully guarantee the last year on his contract. Text messages may have helped, but it's usually about the money.

The Celtics took on the remainder of Wallace's bad deal: $30 million over three years and agreed to a sign-and-trade for Bogans. Each concession required additional compensation from the Nets.

On Wednesday, June 26, the Nets had all their first round picks from 2014 through 2019. They had agreed to swap their 2014 and 2015 picks to the Hawks. By the time sun rose on June 28, the picture had changed dramatically. The had sent their 2014, 2016 and 2018 picks to the Celtics, agreed to swap their 2015 pick with the Hawks and their 2017 pick ot the Celtics. Because of the rule that prohibits teams from trading their first round picks two years in a row, they couldn't trade a pick until 2020. They had acquired two stars ... and Terry. They would all be 35+ by the time the season opened but had missed only 20 games to injury in 2012-13.

Everyone was happy: the Nets, the Celtics, the fans, the Russians, Brett Yormark ... and Schwartz. And why not? The Celtics had shortened their road to rebuilding The Nets had gotten three players with championship bona fides, giving up only the picks and Humphries, Wallace, Brooks, Bogans and Kris Joseph. None had averaged 8 points a game. Dumping Wallace meant they would avoid the repeater tax and give them a shot at getting under the luxury tax threshold in 2015, permitting to do sign-and-trades, sign players to the full MLE and the $2.6 million BAE.

Losing the picks was tough, but King and the front office had completed their mission: They believed they had built a championship contender with enough stars to light the Brooklyn sky. Besides, the picks were likely to be in the high 20's. Right?

Everything went right, it seemed. After Bojan Bogdanovic couldn't get a good deal on his buyout, the Nets moved to Plan B, which quickly became Plan A+ when Andrei Kirilenko and later Alan Anderson signed in his place.

As for Schwartz, he represented the head coach in Kidd; two of the team's biggest stars in Pierce and Williams plus Teletovic and Taylor. After Shaun Livingston signed, he switched agents and signed with Schwartz. Schwartz was as big a part of the Nets Brooklyn re-build as anyone. Some may have thought he had too much influence, but he had shepherded Williams, Pierce and Kidd to the Nets. Ownership was grateful, but some worried --and still do-- that the Nets are too tied to a single agent.

Then slowly, it went to schmutz. D-Will was injured while working out with his old personal trainer in Utah, hurting his balky ankle and keeping him out of training camp and preseason. With the seven new players the team had added, they needed time for chemistry to develop, particularly with Pierce and Garnett's transition; Kidd's relationship with Frank began to crumble; Terry's recovery from off-season surgery took longer. Kirilenko's back gave out. The vaunted depth chart was tested day in, day out by injuries that limited the starters with 35 All-Star appearances to 78 minutes in their first 18 games. A perfect storm that got worse.

Then, Lopez went down.

As losses mounted, Kidd became the subject of fans' ire and pundits' criticism. He was the "worst coach" in the NBA, said a scout, not ready for the job, etc. etc. He got hit with a $50,000 fine and ridicule over CupGate, followed days later by the "reassignment" of his old friend ... and more recriminations. Finally, there was the Knicks game. 'Nuff said.

Kidd has his defenders, mostly from the coaching fraternity. "No one is a great coach when they first start," said Stan Van Gundy. "Jason Kidd was expected to be great right away. He didn't have the freedom to make mistakes, sort out the scrutiny."

Was there a way out? The team and front office said there was. Wait till we get healthy. It's a process, they say. The lost picks are a problem, of course, but we have more flexibility than you think ... and we still have Mikhail Prokhorov and Dmitry Razumov to support us.

Then Lopez went down.

So now the question is suppose history is right? Suppose they don't make the playoffs. It will be a long re-build. In that scenario, 2015 becomes a tough year ... and if that's the case, they may not even have the benefit of a lottery pick. The Nets have to swap their 2015 first rounder with the Hawks. Not a pretty picture.

Would it have worked out better if they hadn't dumped all those picks that turned into Lillard, Enes Kanter, Shane Larkin and Gorgiu Dieng plus whoever the Celtics wind up with? Would Brooklyn have been happy with a young, rebuilding team like the one in Orlando? It can be argued, but never proven. It's a parlor game or a subject for numerous comments on numerous forums. And really, the goal was worthy. The owner wanted to win. He put his money where his mouth is. It may turn out to have been mismanaged or misspent, but he's not to be ridiculed, not by Nets fans whose previous owners were weighed down with debt and hamstrung by delays in building the arena.

And what of the Russians' patience? They will pay out close to $200 million on salary, luxury taxes ... and Travis Outlaw's amnesty payment this year. They're still spending money, getting ready to announce the move of the Nets' training facility from East Rutherford to Brooklyn, which will cost them $50 million or so. There have also been vague rumors they want to buy a D-League team, perhaps move it to Nassau Coliseum, where they are invested in the rehab. It's hard to imagine Prokhorov giving up. It's not in his makeup. He is a patient, if very frustrated and, we're told, angry man.

Two weeks ago, using the pretext of a Nets board meeting, Sergei Kushchenko came to New York. He was there to ask some questions and report back. The 52-year old is Prokhorov's chief sports adviser. Kushchenko knows about professional basketball. He served as GM of CSKA Moscow for seven years, winning two Euroleague titles and getting to the Finals two other times. He made the Final Four every year he ran the club. In 2006, he was Euroleague Executive of the Year and in 2008, TIME Magazine named him one of the world's top sports executives. In 2011, Prokhorov named him to the Nets board of directors. His main job now is Executive Director of the Russian Biathlon Union, which Prokhorov heads. But that job will have fewer responsibilities after the Sochi Olympics which end February 23. Don't be surprised to see him with a larger role.

Bottom line: Is it a mess? Yep. Is it heart-breaking for fans? Yep. Are the Nets the laughingstock of the NBA? Yep. Will there be "personnel changes?" Almost certainly. Can they turn it around? Short-term, it looks daunting as we've said. Long-term, unless there are some master strokes or great fortune, it's going to be a long haul. But they do play in New York, their owner has deep pockets and they play in what is the most modern and most striking arena in the league. That's not going away.

For nearly a decade, despite setbacks large and small, the arc of the franchise has been upward: the promise of leaving IZOD for Brooklyn, Prokhorov's purchase, D-Will's arrival, the opening of Barclays Center. It was all so positive that even 12-70 and some boneheaded moves could be shunted aside. It was all going to work out. Now?

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