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Six Months Into "The Prokhorov Era", He and Nets Rebuilding...Patiently

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Onexim Group
Onexim Group

It's been six months (and nine losses in 13 games) since Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets from Bruce Ratner after what seemed to be an interminable wait. 

Prokhorov has invested or committed about a half billion in the Nets, when the amounts he paid for pieces of the team and arena ($200 million), agreed to pay off in corporate debt ($175 million), accepted in future losses ($60 million) and invested in arena infrastructure ($77 million) are tallied up.  Then, there's the $4 million he's  committed to break the lease at the IZOD Center and the millions he's invested in basketball operations.

Most of that money, say team insiders, has long been transferred or spent.

Is he getting his moneys' worth? In terms of product on the court, no, not yet. In terms of positive publicity for his worldwide businesses, oh yes. It's inconceivable that "60 Minutes", the New York Times Sunday Magazine or Bloomberg TV would have spent so much time on him if he was still just the gold and aluminum baron of Siberia.  As he has said, it's the best business card in the world.

So how goes "The Prokhorov Era" for Nets fans?  Tighten the straps on your hard hat.  Lots of work left to do.

The bottom line, and that's what counts for mega-billionaires, is that the team is still deep in rebuilding mode...but moving forward.  You don't go from 12-70 and playing in the NBA's worst venue to a championship in six months or a year.  Those close to Prokhorov will tell you that this is a work in progress, that you have to trust his innovative mind, his "good ideas".

Of course, he did raise expectations, in his initial message to fans "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."  Of course, it didn't go as planned.

Indeed, there have been some memorable highlights: the jaw-dropping "60 Minutes" profile; the classic interview with Mike Francesa; the audacious, in-your-face-Dolan "Blueprint for Greatness" billboard which let the Knicks know there will be a war for New York fans; the introductory press conference topped off with the famous response to a CNN reporter, "Please tell America, I come in peace"; the round-the-world preseason campaign that featured team photos in Red Square and on the Great Wall of China; the transatlantic jaunts in the Gulfstream V, and the 8,000-word New York Times profile that dropped just as he arrived in New Jersey for the season opener. We're also fond of the NJ Transit ride to the Kings game. All brilliant public relations and smart introduction.

Less publicized but more important for the team's future have been the hiring of Avery Johnson and Billy King; the upgrade in basketball operations staff, from 22 to 30 people, in a refurbished and technologically improved practice facility; the partnership with the Springfield Armor; the upgrade in "centers" from the Izod to the Prudential and the steady progress in the construction of a third, the Barclays. There's been a willingness to spend money in ways Ratner never spent it: adding $3 million to the Yi Jianlian salary dump to increase cap space for the pursuit of free agents, and the partial guarantees, totalling $635,000, given out to secure potential talent, $610,000 more than Ratner gave out in six years. 2,800 new season ticket packages sold! Jay-Z is back!! All good.

BUT the Nets finished third in the Draft Lottery, losing out on a franchise player in John Wall (although we're happy with the NBA's youngest player); failed to attract any top players in free agency; gave inflated contracts to lesser lights, which they admit was required to make even the smallest splash; and finally, have nothing to show for their long-running, public pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, which is now entering its third big month with no end in sight.  And while "The Rock" is a dramatic improvement over the Izod, the Nets rank 28th in raw attendance and 24th in percentage of seats filled...in spite of big discount deals with ticket re-sellers. Jay-Z has only been to one game.  To make matters worse, the Knicks just had their most successful West Coast swing ever while the Nets had a frustrating, mediocre run in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. So much for the "Blueprint for Greatness".

What to make of it all? Money, even smartly spent, isn't going to produce immediate results. Prokhorov has already had to step back from his playoff prediction (promise?) and simply say, the team "will be better with time".  He talks instead of Plans A through D.

Disconcerting? Maybe. Realistic? Yep. 

We recently took a look at the history of the 76ers, whose 1972-73 season was the touchstone for the Nets last season.  That team, as everyone knows, won nine games, three fewer than the 2000-10 Nets. The next year, with four rookies, they won 25, then 34 before returning to the playoffs in 1975-76, winning 46. Over the next seven years, the 76ers went to the finals four times, winning it in 1982-83, the tenth anniversary of their season of historic inepitude. 

Prokhorov's own record with CSKA Moscow was similar. When he bought the team in 1997, it was nearly bankrupt. By 2001, CSKA was in the Euroleague Final Four, returning EVERY year but one through 2008, when he was forced to sell it. Twice, in 2006 and 2008, CSKA won it all. Since he left, they've been back to the Final Four twice more, relying mainly on the players his people signed.

In the case of the 76ers and CSKA, the owners hired smart managers and coaches, spent money on talent and were very patient. Of course, the Nets don't play in Philadelphia or Moscow. They play in the New York market, where patience is not exactly a virtue...and in two years,  they'll need to fill a new arena in Brooklyn.

Still, Andrei Kirilenko, who played for CSKA Moscow, thinks his old boss has the right idea, as long as everyone is as patient as he is: "If he’s got the time, like three, four years, he’s really going to wait. He is going to work hard every year to get those free agents but he is really patient. I mean REALLY patient."

It would be wise for fans to be just as patient.