BROOKLYN -- From a courtside seat Nets general manager Billy King watched fans spill into the Barclays Center by the thousands and, perhaps for a moment, was able to take some satisfaction in his work. Since 2010 it has been one phone call, one email, one text message after another, as King and his rising young assistant general manager, Bobby Marks, attempted to resurrect a moribund franchise. They failed to land the big fish, the dogged pursuit of Dwight Howard ending in August when the Magic shipped Howard out west. But after pushing the payroll to $85 million this season and committing billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov to more than $200 million more long term, King has positioned the Nets as legitimate contenders for the first time since Jason Kidd wore the jersey.
"As a G.M., you're never relaxed," King told SI.com. "Jerry Krause never relaxed when he had Michael Jordan. When you are expected to win there is pressure and when you are not expected to win there is pressure because you want to win so bad. But it's a better feeling than I have had before. There was so much turmoil going into other seasons, whether it was because of a trade or an injury. Now we have a group we believe we can win with now."
For so many years the Nets were a what-if team. What if they get Carmelo? What if they get Dwight? What if they move to Brooklyn? The Barclays Center, a $1 billion masterpiece at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush, is finished, more or less. The most high tech stadium in sports, or so it is being billed, offers free wifi and an app for fans to order food from their seats with a three-story sized scoreboard hanging from the rafters. The sponsorship of, well, everything gives the building a bit of a goofy, Roger Dorn-owns-the-Indians feel but a team that for decades played in front of swaths of empty seats won't have any trouble selling tickets. Consider: the 14,219 in attendance for Monday's preseason game against the Wizards was more than the team averaged last season.
The Nets don't have 'Melo or Dwight but they do line up an All-NBA point guard in Deron Williams and a six-time All-Star shooting guard in Joe Johnson, who King pilfered from Atlanta because Prokhorov was willing to foot the bill. King had to go get Johnson, knowing that if he didn't, Williams wasn't coming back.
"I had to present Deron with a team that he felt he could win with," King said. "By presenting him with veteran guys like Joe and Gerald [Wallace], he could envision himself winning, and having some young guys who can grow with him."
For the most part, the Nets future is now out of King's hands. They are not a super team, not on par with Miami, Oklahoma City and the Lakers yet. But with a few breaks, they can compete with any of them. One of those breaks is Brook Lopez, a 20-point per game scorer in 2010-2011 who missed all but five games last season with a foot injury. Lopez scored 19-points in 28 minutes in the Nets preseason opener on Saturday. Matched up against an elite defender in Emeka Okafor on Monday, Lopez pumped in 18 more. The Nets need Lopez to score, need Kris Humphries to rebound and defend, need Wallace to be the dynamic, versatile forward he was in 2010, his lone All-Star season, to close the gap.
King isn't ruling out another deal, but if there is, it won't be a seismic one. The roster is locked and, at the moment, there isn't a franchise altering player available anyway. For now, he must do what he has rarely done: Sit back and watch. It has been five years since the Nets were a playoff team and the years since have been unbearable. The front office has made the deals, doled out the money; it's on the players now.
Inside a spacious Nets locker room on Monday, a positive vibe was palpable. Players talked about Andray Blatche's performance (16 points), about another strong game from C.J. Watson, about Joe Johnson's uncanny ability to score. But mostly they talked about Brooklyn, about how a once far away fantasy has become real.
"I remember Josh Boone telling me during my rookie year, 'Oh Brooklyn, they have been talking about that as long as I have been there.'" Lopez said. "Just walking out there, I had to hold back a smile as long as possible. It's so cool to finally be here."