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NetsDaily Off-Season Report #6

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It's Prokhopalooza 2010!  It seemed longer than 48 hours to us...but that's all the time Mikhail Prokhorov spent in New York (but not New Jersey unless you count Teterboro).  There's really very little left to say or write or link to.  Everyone's had a go at him.  The new Nets owner and former Soviet Army soldier didn't need his AK-47 to advance through the city. He just wooed it to death.  We take a look at how he did, where he may have overpromised as well as other Nets news--about Kris Humphries' player option, Chris Douglas-Roberts' sense of humor and of course the latest in our series of draft sleepers. Speaking of sleep, we could use some after this week.

Every Sunday, we’ll be updating the Nets’ off-season with bits and pieces of information, gossip, etc. to help take the edge off missing the playoffs, relying on the Nets’ beat reporters and others who have slipped interesting stuff into larger stories and blogs.

Prokhopalooza 2010

As Gary Sussman mentioned, we were at the press conference (should have been at the brunch) and asked a question about when the new ownership will replace all those jobs lost under the old ownership.  Summertime, said the new boss. Okay, we're cool.  Otherwise, we were there for the show, and it was quite the show. Mikhail Prokhorov, as almost everyone wrote, handled things deftly with a disarming, sometimes self-deprecating humor.  He mastered the American idiom and subtly used Cold War rhetoric to his advantage, effortlessly going from "America, I come in peace" to "I could tell you but I would have to kill you."  But if you listened closely, you could hear his mind at work. He knew where to go with each answer...looking for maximum effect. He'd make a joke, then turn serious, then smile or smirk, go stone-faced. 

He's a very shrewd man. Playful? Yes. Charming? Oh yes. Open? Mostly.  But more than anything else, he's very shrewd. Look at the way his 48 hours in New York played out. Everything he did had a purpose.  The video message promising a championship "for sure" setting the stage and making some news; then the lunch at 40-40 to cement ties with homeboy Jay-Z; the grand entrance at the Draft Lottery; the breakfast with the Mayor and Jay-Z at Gracie Mansion to remind people he loves New York; the brunch with the beat reporters where he actually provided them with some news: the tour de force of the Manhattan press conference to introduce himself: the Mike Francesa interview to parry with the local sports guru; the unpublicized Brooklyn tea time with a journalism student showing his humble accessible side; the visit to Yankee Stadium--can you say home of champions, then back on the Gulfstream V and home, all of it captured in some way for posterity.  We counted SIX stories in Thursday's New York Times, either in the paper or online, another four in the Post, plus the entire back page headlined "A Czar is Born". Wish we had said that. Even the loss at the lottery couldn't deter the P.R. machine.  The lottery, of course, "is random", he noted the next day, implying, What I do next will not be.

Nothing topped the press confereence. If he had been a Russian disarmament negotiator and reporters the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America would be defenseless.  Expecting Ivan Drago from SIberia, they got Shecky Green from Vegas.  All that uncertainty about him, about Brooklyn, were washed away as he took New York and the NBA by storm.  Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley, forever skeptical of the Nets, were head over heels. "How can you not love him," said Sir Charles, barely containing himself. "It's New York or New Jersey" for LeBron, said Kenny.  Michael Wilbon couldn't control himself on PTI or in the Washington Post. "Prokhorov is going to seduce LeBron to New Jersey/Brooklyn; just watch."   Jim Rome: the Nets are "coolest team in the league!" (our Nets? Cool? Really?)  Bill Simmons wrote 5,000 WORDS on the Nets and Prokhorov!  "There's so much to love," Simmons gushed in explaining his excess. Seventy losses? An 18-game losing streak? Never heard of 'em. Does anyone believe any of this would have been said or written a week ago?

Yes, Dave D'Alessandro made some good points Saturday as his colleague Steve Politi did on Thursday...and Norman Oder tried to bring everyone down a notch with a blizzard of links.  Not working. 

We Are the World?

No theme was more prevalent at Prokhopalooza than "The Nets...the World's Team". We need a lot of convincing that this is an attainable goal anytime soon.

"I think we will be the first really global team in the NBA. For me being the first foreign owner I want to do my best to invite all the fans for the team all over the world. I think the NBA is worldwide. But other teams are more local mentality. In these terms, as a team all the teams are a little behind soccer teams for example like Manchester United, like Real Madrid. When you are the first foreigner in the league you have the best chance to receive support from other foreigners. We need all our fans from New Jersey to Brooklyn and what is good is Brooklyn is home for everyone from everywhere. There are 35 million people living outside the greater metropolitan of New York. If we have the fortune they have passed through Brooklyn. We are going to create and to build a global franchise to sell all around the world. I think I have a competitive advantage compared to other owners."

At various points during the press conference, his interviews with Mike Francesa and Vinnie Rotondaro, the Columbia Journalism School student, Prokhorov talked about the Nets as the world's team, from "New Jersey to Brooklyn to Moscow to Europe to China" was his mantra. 

In his interview with Rotondaro, he put the diversity of Brooklyn at the center of his plans. 

"Before it was a small global world. [Immigrants] came to the United States, to live in Brooklyn. And as far as I know, more than 30 million people have passed through Brooklyn, and now they live all around the United States. It’s the same with the Nets fan base. We are creating this franchise with fans all over the world. We need all our fans from New Jersey to Brooklyn, to Moscow to Europe to China. Brooklyn is a home for everyone from everywhere. And this is a part of the global world."

But details about how the globalization would manifest itself remain foggy. Of course, the Nets now have the NBA's first foreign owner who is also the first European owner of a major US sports franchise and the first Russian owner.  They have one foreign player, Yi Jianlian a Chinese citizen; one foreign executive, Irina Pavlova, a Russian; and are likely to add another, Andrei Vatutin, also a Russian, in a few weeks.  True, more than 50 Nets games are beamed live to China during the season and four Chinese reporters cover the team as beat writers, even living in New Jersey.  Among the team's sponsors, there's five Chinese companies.  And as Prokhorov noted, it will be Yi vs. Yao Ming in the NBA's China Games this October.  But the Nets' popularity in China is all about Yi Jianlian.  Without him, that goes away. Yes, there's Barclays Bank, whose name will adorn the arena, but basketball in Britain is less popular than cricket. Just sayin'.

So how do you make the Nets a global brand?  We'll start with Russia. Prokhorov did say his Russian heritage is going to help at least back home, but admitted it'll be difficult turning fans from soccer and hockey to basketball. He told the press conference: "For the time being, it’s not very popular. You need the players in order to attract people. In the NBA, there are great players. So the NBA players and my knowledge can attract Russian people to great results."

Is that the strategy, bringing BIG names to the Nets?  Even he has had to admit the Lakers are currently the most popular team in Russia and although they had a Ukrainian a few years back, their popularity is not based on passport color.  It's based on winning and yes, star power, both off and on the court. You want a model for a global team, it's the Lakers.  It's easy to say we're going global and we're getting star power, but it's more than that.  It's winning. Without those banners hanging in the rafters, forget it.  Chinese players and Russian owners aren't going to get you very far in the world. You need to win. As a result, no matter what else the team does, we can't imagine the world beating down the Nets' door for a long, long time.  Certainly, it's possible Nets games will be broadcast on the NBA's Russian channel next season and we'd be surprised if there wasn't a Russian player on the Nets roster, or at least in traing camp come September. But that ain't going global.

A Dose of Vatutin?

After Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Vatutin was headed to the US in a few weeks, Vatutin and CSKA Moscow both issued statements declining comment.  When the Russian press first reported the news more than a month ago, Vatutin said he had no offer from the Nets and he was focused on the Euroleague Final Four.  Sounds like things have changed.  CSKA is currently in the Russian Superleague playoffs, which should be done by the second week in June.  At that point, before the draft, expect more word on Vatutin's arrival and specific duties.  In his brucnh with beat reporters, he didn't discuss Vatutin specifically, but said a Russian would become an assistant general manager.  With the front office being reorganized after the firing of Kiki Vandeweghe, we would expect Rod Thorn to be at the top of the totem pole and Vatutin and Bobby Marks just below him.  How many others, Russians or Americans, will be added to the front office has yet to be determined. Beyond the visible hierarchy of the team, we also wonder what role Prokhorov's top sports aide will play in the team's rebuilding.  Sergei Kushchenko was president of CSKA til he followed Prokhorov to the Biathlon Union. Already, his role is being scrutinized. 

On May 11, Richard Boudreaux wrote this about Kushchenko in a Wall Street Journal profile:

"Associates of the two men say their close relationship could make Mr. Kushchenko an influential behind-the-scenes figure in the Nets' future, a low-key consigliere to the flamboyant oligarch owner.

"Although Mr. Kushchenko says he will have neither a financial stake nor a formal role in the Nets' organization, he speaks with a proprietary air about his colleague's venture and what he calls their frequent "joint reflections" on it. Both men say their interest in the deal stems from a desire to improve Russian basketball by widening its exposure to the NBA...

"He and his staff are putting their NBA knowledge at Mr. Prokhorov's disposal. "As a future owner, he's analyzing the NBA talent market, and we're helping him," Mr. Kushchenko says. "He's looking for the best in the market. That's how he leads. I assure you that in the shortest time, the best coaches, the best managers will be working for Mr. Prokhorov."

On Saturday, Dave D'Alessandro wrote as well of Prokhorov's reliance on Kushchenko and Vatutin:

"He’s bringing in Andrei Vatutin to be GM, and everyone expects it to happen this summer. If he’s the brains behind Prokhorov’s basketball knowledge – and everything we hear suggests Mikky gets all his advice from Vatutin and Sergey Kushchenko, who some regard as a true visionary in Russia – this could be a fiasco.  Or, it could be fine. We're open to the second possibility. We just wouldn't bet the farm on it."

We find all the concern about the Russian connection just a tad sinister.  We don't recall such high concern when the Raptors brought in Maurizio Gherardini to be assistant GM three years ago.  Maybe it's because Gherardini isn't Russian, but while Gherardini got raves for his role with Benetton Treviso, the Kushchenko-Vatutin combination at CSKA is being viewed as some sort of Russian basketball mafia.  Yet, they have been far more successful: eight straight trips to the Euroleague Final Four, four visits to the Finals, two championships.

Maybe the Nets could use some new blood.  Thorn, Vandeweghe and Frank were paid $11 million last season...and they produced 12 wins, after two seasons of 34 wins.  

Draft Sleeper of the Week

By now, everyone knows that the Nets, while still hoping Evan Turner drops to them, are likely to be faced with a choice of Derrick Favors and DeMarcus Cousins.  It makes for a spirited debate, as evidenced daily on this board. But the debate is not only about Favors, Cousins, and if he drops, Turner.

Don't forget Wesley Johnson, the 6'7" swingman out of Syracuse.  Johnson said Friday he expects to be drafted by the Nets or the Timberwolves.  His skillset is a lot like Turner's...or Terrence Williams

Draft Express says of him:

"Extremely unselfish and seemingly an outstanding teammate (on and off the court reportedly), the ball rarely gets stuck in his hands for more than a few seconds. He’s a terror in transition and a force on the offensive glass, averaging over 10 rebounds per-40 minutes pace adjusted. His scoring efficiency is impressive considering the load he carries for Syracuse, as he shoots 59% from 2-point range and 46% from beyond the arc."

There are some downsides, not the least of which is the Nets seem loaded at the swingman position.  He's also nearly 23 and played zone his entire career at 'Cuse.  Still, every time we see names listed for the #3 position, there he is.


Getting Over the Hump

We were intrigued the other day by comments Kris Humphries made about his player option...not so much by what he said, but what it could mean.  He's not sure what he's going to do come June 30 and that got us thinking.  This may not be a binary decision: yes he stays or no he goes.

It's entirely possible, maybe even smart, for the Nets and Humphries' agent, the ubiquitous Dan Fegan, to try work out a new deal, one that gives Humphries some job security and the Nets some flexibility on the cap.  The Nets will have to pay Humphries $3.2 million next year, the last year of his deal signed with the Raptors, as long as he doesn't opt out.  In this free agent market, he's not likely to get more.  Nor is he likely to get much of a long term deal.  He told the Minneapolis radio stations he likes the Nets potential under Prokhorov.  So why not give him a three year deal with a third year option, starting at $2.2 million or $2.5 million?  He gets his security and the Nets get between $700,000 and $1 million more in salary room.

The Nets also picked up another $840,000 in cap space this week.  They had figured their payroll based on getting the #1 pick.  The #3 pick, however, is paid less, $840,000 less. 

So if the Nets get Humphries to re-sign a longer term but cheaper deal, which he can do before July 1, and decide against keeping Chris Douglas-Roberts who would make $854,000 they would wind up with an additional $2+ million in cap space (CDR's salary plus the reduction in Humphries salary plus the slightly reduced salary for the top pick.)  If the Nets did that, they would be close to the two maxed out contract level the Knicks are at...with the loss of only one player.

CDR's Inner Comedian

Earlier this year, Twitter cost CDR some money.  As Humphries told WCCO Radio Thursday, "You can be fined for what you write on Twitter.  Chris Douglas-Roberts definitely knows you can be fined for what you write on Twitter."

Maybe now, he could start to recoup some of that lost income.  He's a funny guy and at least one member of SB Nation, editor Andrew Sharp, thinks he's hilarious, pointing particularly to CDR tweets about the girl with the world's longest chin. 

"Reading these jokes made my morning commute about 1,000 times more hilarious," writes Sharp.

Speaking of Twitter, not one of the four Nets players with an account--CDR, Humphries, Williams or Devin Harris-- commented on the new owner's sweep through New York.  Kris Humphries did comment on Minneapolis radio, saying he "hopefully we can go above the cap, hopefully we can get the best coach."

Final Note

As noted earlier, one thing the Prokhorov tour did was end the doubts about the Nets move to Brooklyn.  It wasn't just about the billionaire owner dropping by from Moscow, a point driven home by the interview granted to Rotondaro. A lot has been made about all the Brooklyn blogs leading the way against Atlantic Yards. So how subtle was it that a blogger from BrooklynInk, run by Columbia Journalism School, got the exclusive.  Unlike a lot of the blogs, BrooklynInk didn't spill a lot of broadband on interminable rants against the project.  Instead, it tried to instill some objectivity in the emotional mix.

It's almost as if the interview was meant to be a coda.  Considering how the rest of the campaign was engineered, we're not going to say it wasn't.