EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For most of the 2009 free-agent class, New Jersey ranked at the bottom of preferred destinations.
Why sign there? To play for a lame duck? Lawrence Frank is dedicated and reputed as a players' coach, but be real: Eric Mangini stands a better chance of having Bill Belichick accept his Facebook friend request than Frank had of coaching beyond this season. As it turned out, Frank didn't even make it to Christmas.
To play in this arena? The Nets rank 26th in attendance, averaging 13,712 per game at cavernous Izod Center.
To play with these players? The Nets have won three of their first 38 games. On Wednesday, New Jersey fell behind by 36 in a 111-87 loss to a Celtics team that played without Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace.
Next summer, however, the class of 2010 will yield one of the deepest free-agent crops in history. And those players would be wise to put New Jersey at the top of their list.
While New Jersey is on pace to challenge the 1972-73 Sixers' record low of nine victories, its plight isn't nearly as bad as the numbers indicate. Because sometime in the next two months ownership of the team is expected to transfer from Bruce Ratner to Mikhail Prokhorov. And Prokhorov brings something to the table that the Nets haven't had in a long time.
Money. Oodles of it.
The Russian billionaire is widely considered the wealthiest man in his country, and since news of the pending sale became public, word quickly spread throughout the league that Prokhorov is in it to win it. That means the Nets can take full advantage of their salary-cap space (an estimated $26 million) as early as this summer, or wait until 2011 when the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire (if he doesn't opt out of his contract this summer) and Al Horford could be on the market.
Prokhorov's wallet also means the Nets won't have to look for a coach on the sale rack. Ettore Messina, Europe's Larry Brown who coached Prokhorov's CSKA Moscow club for four years, has been linked to the Nets. And Prokhorov wouldn't flinch at writing a $4 million-plus annual check to bring in a Jeff Van Gundy or Avery Johnson to run the show.
Prokhorov already has an excellent asset running things upstairs. Despite this season's struggles, Nets president Rod Thorn is considered one of the shrewdest talent evaluators in basketball. Thorn has had his first-round whiffs (Sean Williams, Antoine Wright), but his hits have included parlaying Eddie Griffin into Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins in 2001 and drafting franchise center Brook Lopez in '08. Mistakes were made in free agency (not re-signing Mikki Moore is one Thorn will cop to), but when the back-to-back Finals team Thorn assembled began to decline, he dumped Jefferson's salary for a young forward prospect (Yi Jianlian) and shorter contracts and he swapped Jason Kidd for an All-Star replacement (Devin Harris).
Even though glittering Barclay Center in Brooklyn is still two seasons away from being a reality, free agents won't have to worry about calling the Izod Center home. Newark's Prudential Center is expected to house the Nets next season, an easily accessible arena that packed in more than 27,000 people for two exhibition games this season. In the second quarter of both games, fans were still waiting in lines to buy tickets; by halftime on some nights in East Rutherford, fans are already headed out the door.
And while the roster is bad -- OK, really bad -- it doesn't require plastic surgery to be molded into a winner. Harris and Lopez already occupy the two toughest positions to fill, and Thorn installed Kiki Vandeweghe as Frank's temporary successor with a mandate to see if any of the young talent (specifically Yi) is good enough to be part of the team's future. Factor in a high draft pick like Kentucky's John Wall -- who could either team with Harris in the backcourt or turn the 26-year-old Harris into a trade chip -- and another first-rounder (the Nets have Dallas' pick from the Kidd deal), and answer this: How many payroll-slashing teams look that much better?
Even as the Nets sink deeper into basketball oblivion, with a swoop of a pen (which Prokhorov will use to buy 80 percent of the team) and the flip of a draft-lottery envelope (which ideally for the Nets yields the right to select Wall), New Jersey could be back in business.
"Free agents look at, in no particular order, the team, the contract and the prospects," Thorn said. "We feel we can be a good fit."
• The NBA fined Celtics coach Doc Rivers $25,000 for his actions on Monday night in Atlanta, where Rivers was ejected in the third quarter after referees called a flagrant foul on Glen Davis. The league later informed the Celtics that the call was incorrect. "Of all the fines I have ever had, this is by far the most disappointing," Rivers said. "I just don't get this one. I watched a couple of coaches charge onto the floor last week and get no fine. I get fined for being right. I wish I did a break dance or something on the floor. Get my money's worth. Then they can [fine me] for being a bad dancer."
• The Magic's current skid of six losses in 10 games has not put coach Stan Van Gundy's job in jeopardy. League sources said Van Gundy is on solid ground. The same cannot be said about most of the roster. An NBA source described Orlando GM Otis Smith as "active" in trade talks and said the Magic could look to reshape their roster before the Feb. 18 trade deadline.
• Larry Brown's long-term future in Charlotte -- he has one year remaining on his contract after this season -- is tied to Michael Jordan's. The Bobcats are expected to be sold sometime before the start of next season, and a new owner could elect to replace Jordan, the team's top basketball executive. If that happens, don't expect Brown to stick around much longer.