With the announcement of the Nets' round-the-world preseason tour, we take a look back at the long, strange trip the team and its fans have taken over the past year. From just before Mikhail Prokhorov agreed to buy the team to now, so much has happened...and we admit we were oh so wrong last September. We also do some roster math; continue the Prokhorov Money Watch; talk about Avery Johnson's Super Bowl ring; relay what our spies at the Worlds are telling us about who from the front office is in Turkey; repeat what we hear about Milton Lee; give an insight into the "other" Prokhorov; and examine the change in Nets' marketing slogans.
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, blogs, tweets...plus our own reporting.
Long and Winding Road
It will be the longest road trip in NBA history, from Newark to Moscow to Beijing to Guangzhou to New York. That's about 17,000 miles in 10 days. The Nets might need to lug along a suitcase full of Ambien to help players, coaches and front office personnel get some sleep as they cross all 24 time zones. The Nets want to be a global brand so we guess they have to span it.
It would have been hard to imagine that a year ago. Of course, a year ago, imagining anything good would have been nearly impossible.
The Nets were coming off a summer of hurt: The team had traded its lone superstar, Vince Carter, for a trio of players who had little interest in playing for a rebuilding team. They had cut costs in every imaginable way to help facilitate a sale: 25% of the team's staff had been laid off, the rest having been forced to take "Friday furloughs"--a nice way of demanding employees to take a day without pay; assistant coaches were given a choice: either take pay cuts or lose one of their own; scouts were dumped; lawyers were prepping for a make-or-break state court appeal on the team's plan to move to a new arena Brooklyn; for the first time in a decade, the team had failed to use any part of their MLE or LLE, losing out on players like Glen Davis and Linas Kleiza. Not to mention the replacement jerseys! To be a Net fan was to be sad.
Of course, it got worse.
There was one sign of hope: persistent rumors out of Moscow (of all places!) that one of the world's richest men was interested in rescuing the Nets from the clutches of Bruce Ratner. It was, we wrote in these very pages, too good to be true. To go from penny pinching to the lap of luxury, from a guy who cared more about real estate to a basketball nut who played power forward (nonetheless) in Russia? RUSSIA?! Come on, we wrote, get real.
Specifically, here's what we told you last September 19:
Imagine, if you will, a secret plan to make the Nets the single wealthiest team in the NBA, vaulting them from their current penury. Now add in the possibility that this secret plan was hatched in Moscow! Sounds too good to be true, and we have to agree. Indeed, Mikhail Prokhorov has a net worth that’s been estimated at anywhere between $10 and $15 billion (with a "b"). That makes him considerably wealthier than Mark Cuban and maybe even wealthier than Paul Allen. But it’s a long way from hope to reality.
We were conditioned to expect the worst.
Well, four days after we wrote those words, Mikhail Prokhorov agreed to buy the Nets. We remember the moment the Nets press release popped in our email...sucked the air right out of our lungs. Now, there's probably no more popular owner in the NBA than a former Communist Party member and Soviet Army soldier...think about that! His riches weren't enough to get the Nets LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade or even Carlos Boozer. They have been enough to give fans hope.
Yeah, the rock is still moving up the hill and it may take a long time to get to the top, but chances of it rolling back down again are small. In Netsland, that's progress.
By the way, Prokhorov's people are being close-mouthed about whether the boss will accompany the team from Moscow to Beijing and Guangzhou...or even whether he will fly into London in March for the back-to-back series against the Raptors. We can't imagine he won't. The Moscow stopover, the China preseason games, the London regular season games were all things he pushed for. And if you're worried about the Moscow open practice being the only one, fear not. The team will have their traditional open practice.
As for global branding, it's not just a slogan. It's smart business. Read this from ESPN's True Hoop.
Prokhorov Money Watch
The Nets made two roster moves this week that cost them about a million dollars. Not a lot by NBA standards, but they showed again how times have changed. The Nets decided to eat Sean May's $100,000 guarantee rather than wait four to eight weeks to see if he could make the team. Then, they quickly signed Joe Smith to an (apparently) vets minimum for one year. The contract is fully guaranteed. That's a minimum cost of $854,000 to the payroll. Again, not a big deal, but something that was unlikely last season. There was no delay, no hand-wringing over money. Bang, done. The front office and coaching staff decided the team needed a veteran presence upfront and it got done.
The team also hired a "director of basketball operations" to beef up its statistical and analytical work. From what we can tell, that leaves two other front office jobs unfilled: an assistant trainer to handle rehabilitation in-house and a director of player programs who will work with young players to help them adjust to the NBA. Those jobs are expected to be filled in the next two weeks.
John Reid of the New Orleans Times-Picayune tweets that Avery Johnson was "moved emotionally last week when the Saints presented him with a Super Bowl ring." He quotes Johnson as saying, "He (Sean Payton) gave me a real one, not a replica. I was moved. I was touched.'' Payton awarded Johnson the ring because of motivational talks he gave the team. Johnson is a New Orleans native.
The Nets now have 15 players under contract and are just under the salary cap...maybe $2.5 million under if you don't count Jarvis Hayes' Bird Rights, which the Nets have yet to renounce; $400,000 if you count Hayes' rights. Fifteen, of course, is the maximum a team can carry, but for the sake of flexibility, we wouldn't be surprised to see the Nets go with 14. With Joe Smith's addition, there are 13 players with guarantees, including two one-year vets minimum deals: Smith and Quinton Ross.
We don't automatically assume the 14th spot will be a battle between Brian Zoubek and Ben Uzoh. The Nets intend to bring in "a couple" of training camp invites, says a team insider. They may or may not have guarantees like Zoubek ($50,000) or Uzoh ($35,000) but Billy King says they will have a "a shot" at making the team. There are still a lot of players out there without contracts, several of them former lottery picks who qualify as "fallen angels". If the Nets were willing to eat Sean May's $100,000 guarantee, there's no reason to believe they won't eat Zoubek's or Uzoh's if someone better comes along.
Finally, as people in the front office will tell you, King is very aggressive and if there's an opportunity to improve the roster, he'll go for it. If in the unlikely event the Nets do go over the cap, there are benefits. They will automatically qualify for exceptions including a trade exception from the Yi Jianlian salary dump ($2.9 million). In fact, at the moment, with Hayes' rights unrenounced, they are technically over the cap and can use the exception.
Seen At the Worlds
Billy King, you might recall, was spotted at Team USA's first game in the World Championships. King, who has worked with USA Basketball, came home not long afterwards and was around this week for the decisions to waive Sean May and sign Joe Smith. But our spies in Istanbul tell us the Nets continue to be represented in Istanbul. Gregg Polinsky has been seen at a number of the games. Polinsky directs Nets scouting, primarily for the draft. It's presumed that the team's new international scout, Danko Cvjeticanin, has also been working the championships. He played for Yugoslavia and Croatia in world championships during the 1990's.
Do we know who Polinsky is focusing on? Nope. And the Nets aren't likely to tell. It's not something you want the competition to know about.
Seen On "Entourage"
Jordan Farmar will make cameo appearance on HBO's "Entourage" Sunday night. The season seven finale will also feature appearances from stars like Minka Kelly (Derek Jeter's main squeeze) and John Cleese, as well as fellow professional athletes Drew Brees, Ryan Howard and Kevin Love. We hope it comes off better than Chris Bosh's appearance. The minor member of the "Three Kings" was shown at a cocaine-laced party. As for the show itself, we offer some advice to the producers: More Ari, less Turtle.
Meanwhile, Farmar has released an online commercial for his foundation.
Positive Vibes About Milton Lee
Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress gives the Nets a lot of credit for hiring Milton Lee as director of basketball operations. Lee will focus mainly on stats and analytical work.
In a series of tweets Friday, here's what Givony wrote:
"Great move by the N.J. Nets, hiring Milton Lee as Director of Basketball Operations: http://bit.ly/cFLILe -- VERY smart, resourceful guy...
"Milt not only knows NBA inside & out from personnel standpoint, but also worked extensively training NBA players & developing relationships...
"He's a great communicator who knows the game on the court and behind the scenes, which gives him a very interesting perspective on players."
Givony presumably knows Lee from his role as a consultant to the NBA at the past five Pre-Draft Combines.
Lee was one of the first consultants hired by Mikhail Prokhorov after the Russian agreed to buy the team, working on a variety of issues. He has been a well-known figure in New York hoop circuits for years and worked with a number of players like Troy Murphy (and a host of former Nets, including Josh Boone, Richard Jefferson, Marcus Williams and Jay Williams). His first job, back in 1992, was as the sole intern on the Dream Team. He talked about it in an interview with NBA TV in 2008.
One thing we thought particularly encouraging in the announcement was this line: "Lee will oversee the Nets statistical and analytical efforts." That would seem to indicate he will have people to oversee. As one team insider noted last when when talking about the front office changes: every aspect of basketball operations has been upgraded "big time".
The Other Prokhorov
The Moscow News, an English language online publication, did a feature on Irina Prokhorov this week. She's Mikhail's only sibling and the head of his foundation. As such, she's one of the country's leading cultural advocates, financing art and dramatic performances in both Moscow and the Russian hinterlands. Unlike her brother, she is low-profile.
We noticed the Nets have changed their marketing slogan from "It's All New" to "Experience It". The team has sold upwards of 2,400 new season ticket packages using "It's All New". In addition to being successful, the program had the added benefit of being truthful. "It's All New" certainly summed up the off-season. "Experience It?" Okay, so it's time to get beyond the newness of it all and deal with the reality. Problem is neither "It's All New" or "Experience It" promises any success. Maybe there's a new slogan ready to go if the Nets start winning.