By Steve Lichtenstein
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Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov generated a ton of buzz across the NBA universe when he had general manager Billy King commit about $102.6 million in salary (not including luxury taxes) for just the 2013-14 season.
But for all the dollars Prokhorov tossed at a roster full of stars, it was one of the last he spent, on a league-minimum contract no less, that has given the Nets a chance at salvaging the season.
I mean, where would the Nets be if they hadn't signed 28-year old free agent Shaun Livingston back in July?
Livingston has been a steal in so many ways. Just last night, he helped the Nets steal a 108-102 home win over the Sixers, punctuated by the last of his career-high seven steals with five seconds remaining. The ensuing two free throws gave Livingston 13 points to go along with his six rebounds and eight assists.
Not bad for someone who was expected to back up $98 million point guard Deron Williams for maybe 12-15 minutes a game.
But this Nets' season has had nothing go as expected, and Williams' chronic ankle woes have forced the Nets to depend more and more on the 6-foot-7 Livingston.
It started in the preseason, which Williams missed most of thanks to an ankle sprain and bone bruise incurred during offseason workouts. Livingston was so impressive running the show that he earned time playing alongside D-Will for some stretches when the games began to count.
Williams has since had several stints on the shelf caused by ankle pains, but it was during the last one, when he missed five games in early January while getting platelet-rich plasma and cortisone injections, that Livingston really began to assert himself.
That 4-1 Nets' run was highlighted by a 104-95 double-overtime thriller over the defending champion Heat. In that game, Livingston played 51 of the 58 minutes and had a full stat line of 19 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and a steal.
Oh, and he drew the charge that knocked LeBron James out of the game with his sixth foul at the end of the first overtime and then sealed the win with a wicked spin move past Norris Cole for the final points.
The Nets desperately needed a big game from Livingston last night as they were on a three-game losing streak and have San Antonio coming to town on Thursday. The Nets were also shorthanded, with Joe Johnson, Andray Blatche and Andrei Kirilenko all in street clothes.
The Sixers may be one of the tankers, but the Nets let them hang around by playing listless basketball whenever, it seemed, Livingston took a breather. The Nets were plus-23 in the 37 minutes Livingston was on the court.
Since the New Year, Livingston has been averaging a little over 30 minutes a game. Though a poor perimeter shooter, Livingston has been shooting 47 percent from the floor by using his height advantage over opposing point guards to score off post moves and pull-ups in the lane, with occasional vicious throw-downs when he gets to the rim.
Hi size has also been a factor on the defensive end. His average of 6 rebounds per 48 minutes ranks him sixth among all point guards in the League, which has been kind of key for a squad that has been having difficulties in that department.
With his wingspan and active hands, Livingston can be assigned opponents at multiple positions, allowing the Nets to switch on certain screens. Last night, Livingston and the Nets hounded Philadelphia star rookie Michael Carter-Williams into a 6-for-17 shooting night and forced 26 Sixers turnovers.
The victory improved the Nets to 21-25 and solidified their hold on seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
Not exactly where the Nets wanted to be at this point, but with the bevy of injuries blockading their path every time they start to feel any sense of continuity, it could be worse.
But when they return to full strength (except for center Brook Lopez, who is out for the season with a broken bone in his foot), count on Livingston still being part of the core instead of a spare part.
Unfortunately, Livingston's run in Brooklyn will be limited by the collective bargaining agreement. Similar to the C.J. Watson situation after last season, the Nets can only offer Livingston a 20 percent raise over the league minimum (about $1.5 million) after this season unless they use their mini-mid-level exception. If Livingston continues to play at this level and stays healthy, he will surely get higher offers.
Livingston has come a long way from his horrific 2007 knee injury that sidelined him for the next two years. This coming offseason could be his best chance to earn a decent fraction of the money he was projected to make when he was chosen fourth overall in the 2004 NBA draft.
For this season, the Nets only have to pay Livingston $884,293 (the NBA pays him an additional $387,986 under the minimum salary rules for certain veterans). It's a steal of Lufthansa proportions, if you ask me.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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