The billboard went up on July 1, 2010, nearly six years ago now. It was the first punch in what Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets tried to turn into a turf war. The message was obvious and clear. On that billboard, Prokhorov, the new Russian owner of a middling franchise still in New Jersey, and Jay-Z, the face of this new ownership group, towered over the basketball ennui that inhabited Madison Square Garden. This was all about optics, and the Nets wanted to show that they were the basketball franchise looming over New York.
These days, things are not much different. After a half-decade of stilted moves, haphazard trades and bungled team-building, the Nets are still trying to gain their foothold in New York. The Knicks don't necessarily have an iron-fisted grasp on the zeitgeist, but the Nets continue to be a rudderless mess. This will be readily apparent when the two teams meet Wednesday night at the Barclays Center.
The Knicks will have Carmelo and Kristaps Porzingis, while the Nets have only regrets. In trying to own New York, to bring pizzazz to Brooklyn, to rebrand themselves from the tirelessly sadsack tenants of East Rutherford to the hip new neighbors over the Manhattan Bridge, they seemed more artifice than authentic. In trying to appeal to Millennials, they brought in a score of Gen-Xers. They chose pedigree over promise and forewent the future. In trying to beat the Knicks, they became, well, the Knicks.
And when that happens, there are consequences. Heads roll. Sunday, it was general manager Billy King and coach Lionel Hollins, the architect and the pawn, both fired after the Nets' unsavory start to the season.
"For me, maybe the biggest lesson is to be in New York," Prokhorov said Monday. "And it's a little bit another animal. It's, like, another emotion. So, I live in Moscow, like here, I feel like home. So we need big leadership. This is maybe the most important lesson."
He delivered this line during a nearly 20-minute-long press conference. Prokhorov was stoic at times and glib at others. It was time for a change, he insisted and something new will arise of out of these ashes. But what, he could not say.
King was fired because of the hole the Nets now sit in. No team in the NBA—not even the Sixers—is worse off than Brooklyn. Only a few meaningless wins separate them from the same public ignominy. At 10-28, the Nets have the third-worst record in the league and no first round pick to profit off that misery. Their future looks like a hellscape. They have few young assets, little draft capital, and cap space at a time when cap space is as plentiful as ever before as NBA revenues rise.
This happened as a result of the personnel policy that King put into place. The Nets acquired Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from Boston at a time when both were closer to AARP memberships than the start of their careers. Joe Johnson came aboard too. All to surround Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. In the era of the super-team, the Nets built one that was born past its prime.
"I take full responsibility for the state of the team and I think Billy King did his best," Prokhorov said. "We need a fresh look. We should be able to take courage to turn down the opportunities, which maybe don't fit to our strategy. Maybe this is the second lesson from the last six years."
If the state of the Nets is Prokhorov's folly, now he is the one in town trying to make amends. He will spend more time around the organization, he says, while devising the new strategy going forward and picking the people that will run it.
Already, Kentucky coach John Calipari has been a rumored possible hire—a glamorous name for a muddy situation. But Prokhorov steadfastly denied that he would bring over Andrey Vatutin, the current president of CSKA Moscow, a team Prokhorov used to own, as his new general manager, although he did not eliminate the idea of Calipari in the new structure.
"Frankly speaking, I deserve a championship now much more than six years ago," Prokhorov said. "I think we have been really bold and we did our best in order to reach a championship. And I still believe with some luck our results might have been more promising."
They likely won't be very good the rest of this season. The Nets have Lopez, one of the better frontcourt players in the NBA, and Thaddeus Young, still just 27 but in his 9th season...and what else? It's not worthwhile to tank because the Celtics own their first round pick. They could try to trade Lopez for future assets but then there would really be nothing separating them from the Sixers at all. Heck, Prokhorov had to ensure reporters on Monday that there was someone in the organization who could return phone calls in case another team called with a trade offer.
So these are the Nets now, not much different in substance than the Nets then. They tried to out-race the Knicks—older, more starry, more expensive—and landed right back in their shadow. Wednesday, the rivalry that isn't quite that will have its latest fracas.
"It is still a big deal for us, obviously," Lopez said, "playing in New York."
At least someone thinks so.