By Steve Lichtenstein
I have been prepping for the last couple of years to despise all things Brooklyn Nets. How much teeth-kicking can a fan take? The franchise that I have loved for nearly 40 years was skipping a state and a town with a modern building that would support a competitive team just so it could act as an accessory to a real estate deal?
Here we have a franchise that has been snake-bitten since its entry into the NBA, starting with the sale of my favorite player, Dr. J, to the Philadelphia 76ers to help raise the cash it needed to continue to exist. Sure there were a few enjoyable periods, but they were always short-lived and overshadowed by some of the most dreadful teams ever to adorn the League.
Even Mikhail Prohkorov's purchase of the team in 2010, which was promised to signal a return to winning basketball, proved to be false hope for New Jersey residents. At least his record as owner topped the percentage in Russia that cast votes for him to be President.
It seemed the recent losing in New Jersey was all orchestrated so that Brooklyn would receive a fresh payroll slate. After all, Prohkorov handed the keys to the castle to Billy King, who previously, as chief architect of the 76ers, managed to turn them into the least relevant professional sports franchise in the city with god-awful player personnel decisions. Upon his hiring, I thought, "Welcome to Major League, the NBA version." King's mission seemed to be to create a team so bad that the state of New Jersey would never miss it when it bolted. Screw the fans.
As Nets GM, King struck out "attempting" to land every superstar who wanted out of his situation, from LeBron James to Dwight Howard to Carmelo Anthony. King then paid a huge dowry to acquire Deron Williams, a genuine star, but one whose contract would expire after the 2011-12 season. He shipped off the equivalent of three first-round draft choices (if you count Derrick Favors, the 19-year old whom the Nets just drafted third overall) plus Devin Harris, their starting point guard. Williams' body language as a Net gave strong signals that he could not take all the losing and he could not wait to hop on the first plane to Dallas on July 1.
Then, in a move that had to make Net fans wonder,"Whatever happened to the Ted Stepien rule?", King dumped what he had to know was another lottery pick for 16 games of Gerald Wallace before he would also become an unrestricted free agent. (The traded pick was only top-three protected, because King comically said at the time that there were only three players he liked in the whole draft. And this was for Gerald Wallace, a nice player who accumulated stats for losing teams.). New Jersey fans could not accuse the Nets of draft-pick tanking, because there was a good chance that any extra ping pong balls with the Nets logo on it on Lottery Day would belong to someone else.
By the end of the 2011-12 season, the Nets were a team with an ignominious past, present and future. Brooklyn wants these guys? Good riddance. No way am I driving over two bridges to watch that team. Let's Go Knicks!
Fast forward a few months.
In a two-week period, the Nets suddenly have become one of the NBA's most interesting franchises, and it's not because of the new Jay-Z designed logo. First King took spare parts plus another first-round pick (this time lottery-protected) to bring in Joe Johnson, a proven scorer. This allegedly impressed Williams, who defied the smart money (and any tarot card reader/psychic-types he may have engaged) and opted to re-sign. So did Wallace, who now can be the role player for which his skills are tailored.
Which brings us to the final act of this made-for-Hollywood plot—the possible acquisition of Howard, the mountain of a man to patrol the brand-new paint in the Barclay's Center.
If King can finagle his way through this one, he will have earned Executive of the Year no matter where the Nets finish. The holdup in the deal is that it may take a while to find a partner who wants what the Nets have left in their cupboard from last year, no matter how many first-round draft picks the Nets pony up.
Brook Lopez has excellent post skills, but has never been able to explain why, as a 7-footer, he has never been able to average double-digit rebounds for a season. And now there will be questions about his feet after last season's 5-game attendance record. MarShon Brooks rookie season sometimes brought back memories of an 18-year old Kobe Bryant, if you can forget that Brooks just turned 23. His head is so screwed up right now that he struggled in his first Summer League game. Kris Humphries did the best he could as a Net, but he does not have the same value to other teams who see him as a hustling reserve but wants starter's money. And who knows if Orlando is looking at how it can justify programming Humphries' off-court romantic decisions from over a year ago to its Disney audience. Damion James, Sheldon Williams, Armon Johnson and Sundiata Gaines are just filler.
For this the Nets would get Howard, who, for all his immaturity issues, would transform the Nets previously atrocious defense similar to the way Tyson Chandler took charge of the Knicks last season. With the exception of his free throw shooting, Howard's offensive game has improved every year. If he learns to be unselfish, the triangle with Williams at the point, Howard in the post and Johnson on the wing would be lethal. And don't forget Wallace if the ball swings to the other side—in his brief audition as a Net he showed he can still slash to the basket and he even knocked down a career-best 38.5% of his threes. For power forward, King is hoping that his free agent combination of Bosnian Mirza Teletovic (a three-point shooting specialist) and Reggie Evans (a strong rebounder/defender) will serve as complements.
Whether or not the Nets are able to pry Howard loose once and for all, King still has plenty of work to do. The Nets need to figure out their bench and could use more pure shooters to spread the floor when defenses pack it in on the guards' penetrations and their dump-ins to Howard (or Lopez if the deal falls through). It would be nice if they could retain free agent Gerald Green, who was one of the few positive stories from last season's misery. Green has the size and athleticism to spell either Wallace or Johnson and dramatically improved his three-point efficiency.
For King, an offseason that could easily have turned into another Nets horror story now has the potential for a thrilling denouement. If the Nets can land Howard, they will have transformed themselves like no other team in NBA history, with the 2008 Boston Celtics a close second.
I'm now refreshing my internet every 10 minutes trying to get the scoop on the latest Howard news. I know I said my farewell back in May. But hey, it's not like the Nets moved to another time zone like the Seattle Supersonics.
How much is that toll over the Verrazano Bridge?
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