The Nets’ fundamental problem—the one that has the potential to plague the franchise for years—is simple: Mikhail Prokhorov hasn’t evolved past his “Crazy Russian Billionaire” caricature into a real NBA owner.
Prokhorov, who fired coach Lionel Hollins and “reassigned” GM Billy King on Sunday, isn’t a complete failure. He has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on his roster and on luxury taxes since taking over in 2010. He has bankrolled the club’s much-ballyhooed relocation to Brooklyn and a successful rebranding effort. After decades spent in dumps, his Nets now play in a palace. He’s overseen a stretch of three trips to the playoffs and, in 2014, the franchise’s first series victory since 2007.
Many NBA owners wouldn’t have the stomach, or the wallet, to spend like Prokhorov has spent. To his credit, 10 teams have a worse record than the Nets since he's taken over. But while his commitment to spending can’t be questioned, his overall commitment to the Nets is lacking in critical ways.
That starts with his presence or, more accurately, his absence. Prokhorov, the NBA’s first owner from outside North America, has had many other irons in the fire. He ran for Russia’s presidency, he started his own political party, he runs the ONEXIM private investment fund, and he weathered financial instability in his own country. Along the way, he’s relied on Russian lieutenants, like Dmitry Razumov and Irina Pavlova, to help guide a muddled front office that also has a CEO, a COO and, until recently, a GM. That setup has worked about as well as one would expect.
Prokhorov doesn’t need to be dog-piling after buzzer-beaters, like Mark Cuban, or dancing like a maniac in courtside seats every night, like Steve Ballmer. But an owner’s under-involvement can ruin an organization just as easily as over-involvement. If the boss isn’t around—personally soliciting feedback, setting expectations, enacting changes and explaining decisions—accountability dwindles at every level. That’s especially true when that same owner cycles through coaches like third-string point guards. Assistant Tony Brown will take over from Hollins on an interim basis, becoming Brooklyn’s fifth coach since 2012 and continuing a cycle of change that leaves everyone else in the organization fearing the worst instead of doing their best.
Two years ago, Jason Kidd attempted to usurp authority from King in a power play that ultimately saw Kidd eject for Milwaukee. Last year, former Nets forward Paul Piercesaid his time with the Nets was “horrible” due to the team’s collective attitude problems, while noting that Deron Williams, Brooklyn’s max-salaried point guard, “just didn’t want to” be an MVP type player. This year, Hollins suggested that he didn’t need to stay up late game-planning because his roster wasn’t sufficiently talented to compete on many nights. Then, just this weekend, Yahoo Sports reported that King will be asked to consult on the hiring of his replacement.
Do all of those situations play out in such blatantly dysfunctional fashion if Prokhorov is more actively involved? Doubtful. Do those situations unfold if an engaged Prokhorov was truly, personally revered by those within his organization? No way.
The physical disconnect created by Prokhorov’s absence fostered an emotional disconnect too. Upon his arrival, Prokhorov, in his goofy and fun-loving bachelor character, loudly proclaimed that the Nets would win a title within five years, or he would settle down and get married. For downtrodden Nets fans, Prokhorov’s bluster sounded like a vow to the franchise and its fans.
When the deadline passed, Prokhorov offered only a weak cop-out and, sadly, he couldn’t even muster the courage to move the goalposts. To those same fans, Prokhorov’s seemingly sincere interest in transforming the franchise into a winner now appeared to be just another fling. The mining baron’s headline gold now looked like pyrite. What’s the value of his word, or his next round of promises, after such a spectacular failure and capitulation?
The most painful disconnect for Prokhorov’s Nets, though, was his approach to risk management when building his roster. There really wasn’t much management, per se, because few gambles were labeled too risky. Here, Prokhorov was the yin to Sam Hinkie’s yang. During the Sixers’ ongoing rebuilding effort, dubbed “The Process,” every decision has been filtered through the long-term lens. This Nets era, then, might as well be called “The Indulgence.” Only one question ever really mattered: “Does this move make us better today?” Other important questions—“How much will it cost?” and “What will we look like two or three years from now?”—fell by the wayside.
Hence, the Nets traded Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two first round picks for Deron Williams, who made the 2012 All-Star team and secured a five-year max contract before promptly falling off the face of the Earth. Hence, the Nets traded the rights to draft Damian Lillard for 85 games worth of a declining Gerald Wallace. Hence, the Nets gave up five players and multiple draft assets for the rights to pay Joe Johnson, who is now the only player who can give Kobe Bryant a run for his money in the “Worst contract in the NBA” conversation. Hence, the Nets traded five players and too many draft assets to count for the right to rent Paul Pierce for one season and Kevin Garnett for 94 games.
Each of those moves had its own rationalization. The Williams trade was similar in style to the Clippers’ later deal for Chris Paul, which worked out perfectly. Johnson was a dependable scorer and perennial All-Star. The Wallace swap was cap-motivated and undertaken right in the middle of Brooklyn’s initial win-now blitz. The Pierce/Garnett blockbuster was just one year removed from Boston’s deep run in the 2012 playoffs, and Brooklyn could justify its overpay with a truly star-studded starting lineup. Much like in Philadelphia, the individual decisions are at least somewhat defensible while the aggregate is a messy train wreck. Unlike in Philadelphia, however, these moves cost Brooklyn its long-term hope, in the form of all those outgoing picks.
Not only is Prokhorov left picking through the pieces of a depleted roster, he’s stuck deep in an asset deficit. He has a few veterans to sell off—Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young should be worth something—but then he risks fielding the least-talented roster in the league, without the blow-cushioning carrot of a franchise-changer like Ben Simmons.
So, let’s recap.
The “Crazy Russian Billionaire” pops in and out of the country seemingly at random, delegating many of his duties and keeping everyone guessing. His latest firings came in the middle of another forgettable season, and the Washington Post reported that “the vast majority of the Nets organization” found out about the moves from the public press release, rather than through internal means.
A real owner would be a regular presence who can monitor the success of his management team in person, lay out long-term plans and communicate with key members of his organization, including players.
The “Crazy Russian Billionaire” delivered a signature, hope-boosting boast that wound up being all talk, and then left the fans hanging and hanging while blowing up coach after coach. To no one’s great surprise, the Nets have fallen to No. 28 in average home attendance this year, despite a shiny new arena.
A real owner would foster a more stable and sustainable strategy, properly weighing the long-term implications of any short-term investments so as to encourage trust from both the organization’s main players and the fan base.
The “Crazy Russian Billionaire” expected every roster hole to be filled with a big name who was ready to contribute immediately, he assumed that there would be a direct relationship between payroll and team success, and he mortgaged his organization’s future to improve its short-term outlook. Those repeated attempts to shortcut a natural development process has left Prokhorov stuck between a rock and a hard place, and it’s likely starting to dawn on him that he can’t buy his way out of this.
A real owner understands that money is only one element of a title team, and an element that happens to be available to most aspiring contenders. A real owner invests his time and energy in harder-to-quantify endeavors, like building a resilient and like-minded internal culture, exploring cutting-edge technologies, analytics, scouting and developing talent.
If the Nets are to avoid repeating these mistakes and to move through what is sure to be a painful three-to-five-year stretch, they desperately need a second act from Prokhorov. All those great one-liners have produced one postseason series victory. The jet ski goofs really aren’t that funny at 10-27. Brooklyn is staring down at least four more years of draft-related depression and there’s a decent chance they’ll supplant Philadelphia as the league’s biggest laughingstock next season. This situation is dire, and the Nets’ housecleaning puts Prokhorov at a crossroads. It’s time to get real or to cash out.