Thursday January 20th, 2011

Mikhail Prokhorov is an owner for these times, as his fellow owners see it. He is the NBA's new-millennium version of George Steinbrenner. The new Boss.

Prokhorov has been away on business, expecting his NBA household to be run to certain standards, in a respectable way, and when he gets home what does he hear? Some guy named Carmelo has been ruining everything. Is he coming to New Jersey? We don't know. Does he want to be a Net? We don't know.

So Prokhorov puts his foot down, because where he comes, from this is how it's done. Uprisings like this are made to vanish in a way that sets an intimidating example. In Russia, no league of any reputable sport is known as a "players' league." There is no conceit of a "players' coach."

In European soccer and basketball, the structure is built from the top down. An absence of authority -- of strength -- reflects badly on the leader of the club or, in the Nets' case, the oligarch Russian owner. Where Prokhorov comes from he -- not Carmelo Anthony -- is The Man.

"I am not happy with the way the deal has gone until now," Prokhorov on Wednesday, shortly after his arrival on American soil. How much do you think his fellow NBA owners were laughing in their own boardrooms and arena suites? How much would they love to be able to tell some star to stuff it? We're tired of coddling you. We aren't going to beg you to take tens of millions of dollars off our hands as if you think you're doing us a favor.

How many times has an NBA owner been told by his GM that he must swallow his machismo and accept the supply-and-demand reality that a few star players control the league? Prokhorov probably feels as if he showed extraordinary patience as month after month of Anthony trade rumors passed by without consummation. Enough. He told his basketball people he was finished. Maybe this is how NBA people do business, but Prokhorov will not be pushed around.

I would imagine the eyes of many NBA owners lit up when they heard of Prokhorov's gambit. Because here are these rival owners, all highly successful in their fields, all worth hundreds of millions of dollars or more, and yet they've felt bullied by the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade deciding where and when they'll be playing with the owners' money while the owners thank them reverently. Not so long ago Kobe Bryant wanted out of Los Angeles because the owner paying him more than $20 million per year wasn't winning quite enough to make him happy. Anthony has yet to explain why he wants the Nuggets to trade him even as the Denver owner offers him $65 million over the next three years.

The ongoing negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement are being driven almost entirely by the owners. The players want to maintain everything as is. The owners want to give them less money with lesser -- or no -- guarantees for their contracts. What the owners really want is to retrieve control of the league they claim to own.

To this point, most of them haven't done what Prokhorov did Wednesday, because they've understood it is bad business. This is a league of limited star power -- very few who actually sell tickets, fewer still who can win a championship -- and the success of an owner's investment depends entirely on acquiring one star and then another and then another. This morning the Nets wake up with no stars in uniform. And how, after their owner's outburst, are they going to attract one or two or three big names before they move into their empty new Brooklyn arena after next season?

Are we supposed to believe Prokhorov all of a sudden realized they were offering too much for Anthony before he called off the trade Wednesday? Of course he was on board all of the way. But then it lingered, festering, until he could stomach neither Anthony nor the advice from his American basketball advisers. So he did what most NBA owners can't afford to do under the current rules of the game: From a position of weakness, he expressed strength.

In the short term, Prokhorov may have helped drive a star player to the Knicks, the franchise with whom the Nets will be competing head-to-head from Brooklyn in two years. For the long term, however, I wonder if Prokhorov has electrified the nerve that makes an extended lockout worthwhile for so many downtrodden NBA owners who dream of reversing the 30-year trend of player power. Anyone who thinks a work stoppage can be averted is mistakenly ignoring the view of these owners. They want to be like Mikhail.

Now let's move onto some of your questions from the mailbag (and Facebook) ...

After your time in Denver, what's your assessment of Masai Ujiri? Few, if any, heard of him before he was named the Nuggets' GM, and with all this Carmelo trade speculation (and now-defunct deal), it seems he's taken more heat than anyone in his first season. What do you think? Has he handled it well? What should he being doing differently? Will he be beneficial to the Nuggets long term? -- Peter, Boulder, Colo.

It's easy to criticize Ujiri and team president Josh Kroenke, who took over the Nuggets just as their star player was asking for a trade to two teams -- New York or Chicago -- neither of whom was able or willing to offer anything close to equal value in return. How many management teams have ever looked good in these situations?

The Nets have let it be known that the Nuggets kept changing the terms of the trade; the Nuggets counter that with the Nets leaked those details during fluid negotiations that were never close to being finalized. I'm sure each side is convinced that it has been wronged in the deal.

I view it as a promising sign for Denver that the Nuggets didn't cave under the pressure to unload Anthony before they were ready. I also think it's worthwhile for Kroenke that he was a former AAU star who played on All-Star teams with current NBA players and, therefore, understands the new era of players better than any other owner -- that has to help him. But the fairest of all things that can be said of Kroenke and Ujiri is that they began under impossible circumstances.

If no Carmelo trade happens during the season, would a sign-and-trade under the current labor agreement still be on the table? -- Brian, Atlanta

Yes, Denver could move him in a sign-and-trade around the time of the draft in June. The Nuggets had not been considering such a move, but the breakdown of their talks with New Jersey brings into play the possibility that Anthony will finish the season with Denver and then be dealt in June.

This dynamic plays to the strengths of Knicks president Donnie Walsh, who was out of his element last summer when New York was never in play for James, Wade and Bosh. He was schooled by Pat Riley in those circumstances, but the peculiar case of Anthony is set up perfectly for Walsh. He is the most patient grinder of all league executives, and he will sit and wait for the tides to bring Anthony his way.

Did you notice a couple of weeks ago that Walsh declared he would be re-signing Wilson Chandler to big money this summer? Why would he make so public a commitment? The answer is he was trying to raise Chandler's value in case he may be packaged into a trade for Anthony. Everyone knows the Knicks probably would have to renounce Chandler (under the current CBA rules) in order to clear space to sign Anthony as a free agent. It's going to be interesting to follow Walsh's stealthy moves over the weeks and months ahead.

Any chance Philly joins the 'Melo-stakes by offering Andre Iguodala? -- Jerry, via Facebook

I haven't heard anything about Anthony signing long term with Philadelphia. Would the Sixers be willing to unload Iguodala's contract to the Nuggets and gamble on re-signing Anthony? As I understand it, here's the bottom line for the Nuggets: If they're going to surrender the best player in a trade, they don't want to take on money as a result. They want to avoid the luxury tax this season, and they want to set themselves up with draft picks, prospects and a lean payroll that can enable them to exploit the new rules of the next CBA.

Is Iguodala worthy of them changing their stance? Doubtful.

What do you make of these reports about John Kuester benching Rip Hamilton, not because of the potential trade, which is now dead, but because he wanted to change up the Pistons' rotation? -- Larry, Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Pistons insist they weren't protecting Hamilton from injury in order to keep him in play for a trade. I feel naive believing it, but at the same time they've played better without him on the floor over the last week, which is surprising to me. There is a disconnect (that's the nicest way of putting it) between Hamilton and Kuester, while the enhanced role for Tracy McGrady is bringing out the best in him and Rodney Stuckey -- it gives Detroit two playmakers in the backcourt.

Hamilton undoubtedly needs a fresh start. He's only 32 and is one of the best in the league at moving without the ball. He could help a contender, but the $21.5 million he's owed over the next two years is going to be hard for any team to absorb.

What can we realistically expect to come of the labor talks over the All-Star break in February? Seriously, what goes on at those negotiation meetings? -- Sid, Detroit

They'll be testing each other. You know how football teams use the opening quarter to see how the opponent defends against certain plays? That's what will happen here. I expect each side to express strength in its position, and to view compromise as a sign of weakness. If there's going to be any compromising, it will happen in the 11th hour. The most important month is November, because that's when the first paycheck of the season is delivered to the players.

Should the Mavs take on Stephen Jackson? -- Carl, Dallas

If they surrendered Caron Butler's expiring salary to the Bobcats for Jackson, it would cost the Mavericks an additional $19.3 million in extended salary to Jackson over the next two years (though they may not have to pay much -- if any -- of that salary next season, should there be a lockout). When your team is going in the right direction, Jackson can be a terrific addition as a shooter and defender who doesn't need to be treated like a star. He helped the Spurs win a championship, and the 2006-07 Warriors couldn't have upset the Mavs without him.

Here's something we don't know: How much can the Mavs expect from Rodrigue Beaubois going into the playoffs? He has yet to play this season, but if he regains his explosiveness then the Mavs will happily shift some of Butler's minutes to Beaubois as a scorer who can beat his man off the dribble -- which is something this team lacks. So could they afford to give Jackson the minutes he needs?

My initial reaction is that Jackson would help a contender like Dallas, but issues like minutes and salary will work against making a major investment in him.

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