In a city that includes Rex Ryan among its sports
personalities, preseason prognostications in New York should be taken with one
of those big grains of salt that flavors the soft pretzels sold on Manhattan
street corners. Joe Namath once shocked the world by guaranteeing a Jets
victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III. Now a New York franchise seems remiss
if some member of the organization does not start off the year with a promise of
In that context, Mikhail Prokhorov‘s bold announcements have
been relatively conservative. The Brooklyn Nets owner merely predicted a
championship “within five years” as of 2010, a mamby-pamby attitude
that he could only have learned in the communist Soviet Union. (I kid.
Prokhorov is a staunch capitalist and is an active pro-business figure in Russian
The first season of this five-year plan was awful, of
course, and the second season was nearly as bad, but the Nets got aggressive
this offseason by resigning point guard Deron Williams, forward Gerald Wallace
and center Brook Lopez, and trading for shooting guard Joe Johnson. The moves
prompted Prokhorov to reaffirm his dedication to the five-year window,
declaring last week that he expects the Nets to win a title within three years.
Considering the Nets have not won more than 34 games in a
season since 2007 — and yes, last year’s 66-game season qualifies, since the
Nets’ 22 wins would translate to fewer than 28 wins in a normal, 82-game
schedule — that prediction might seem completely crazy. But it is not
completely crazy. It is only mostly crazy.
As Prokhorov is no doubt aware, swift turnarounds by
atrocious teams into championship contenders are not unprecedented, and the
past decade is filled with such one- or two-year swings. There was that time
the Celtics won their 17th NBA Championship one year after limping to a
last-place finish in 2006 — perhaps you remember it. The Oklahoma City Thunder
won 23 games in 2008-09, fired their head coach 13 games into the season and now
are perennial threats to win 50 games. The Nets themselves doubled their
previous season’s win total in making it to the NBA Finals in 2002.
All those cases involved their teams making key offseason
acquisitions before unproven youngsters suddenly blossomed into vital role
players or, in some cases, stars. Those improvements would not have happened
without Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo,
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson.
foresees Williams retaining his lead role and Johnson filling out arguably the
league’s top backcourt, while Lopez and MarShon Brooks fulfill their own respective
potentials. If that possibility seems utterly absurd, ask yourself how you
would have reacted in the summer of 2007 if someone had told you that Rondo
would one day become a Most Valuable Player candidate. If you believe you would
have said anything other than, “Yeah, right,” then you are either the
world’s greatest evaluator of basketball talent or a big fat liar.
Every ingredient is on the counter for the Nets. Yet those
ingredients have still not been mixed, and the cooking needs to be just right
to fix a championship meal. The Knicks are the cautionary tale (as they always
are) that acquiring a bunch of big-name players and getting a startling
breakout season from an undrafted point guard does not always translate into
championship contention. Not to stretch the cooking metaphor here, but even
though Carmelo Anthony was a fine filet mignon, Amare Stoudemire was fresh-cut
asparagus and Jeremy Lin was some surprisingly succulent mashed potatoes found
on sale at Costco, the Knicks tossed a potentially gourmet meal in the
microwave and came out with something that resembled a Hungry Man dinner.
As with the Knicks, there is much for the Nets to worry
about. There is reasonable concern as to how well Johnson will mesh with his
new teammates, whether Wallace will end up being worth the first-round draft
pick he was traded for, whether Lopez will ever be any good and whether
Williams can re-emerge as the elite leader he was five years ago for the Utah
Jazz. The Nets are almost guaranteed not to be terrible, and they probably can
be penciled in with the Sixers, Hawks and Bulls (depending on Derrick Rose‘s
availability) in the tier just below the Heat, Celtics and Pacers in the
There is a wide berth between the fifth or sixth seed in the
East, however, and title contention. The Nets still appear far from such a
level for now, but thinking that they can get to that point within the next
three years is not — entirely — crazy.