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John Schuhmann

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With a new owner on the horizon, things may be looking up for the Nets.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Russian billionaire should help fortune shine upon Nets

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Sep 24 2009 10:53AM

In the space of a day, the fortunes of the New Jersey Nets changed dramatically.

With an agreement for Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov to purchase controlling interest of the team, the Nets have gone from the franchise with the biggest debt in the league to the franchise with the richest owner (or second richest, depending on how Paul Allen's investments are doing these days).

And with that, the team's chances of finally getting to Brooklyn have increased. The move to New York has faced two obstacles: financing and an eminent domain hearing set for Oct. 14. The financing was the bigger obstacle of the two, and that doesn't seem to be an issue anymore, with Prokhorov agreeing to acquire 45 percent of the new Barclays Center.

The new owner also should help the Nets on the court. The team has been hemorrhaging money both from playing in the outdated (and out-of-the-way) Izod Center and from the impasse in Brooklyn, which in turn has hindered the efforts of general manager Kiki Vandeweghe and president Rod Thorn to improve the team.

New Jersey has a promising young core with All-Star Devin Harris and big man Brook Lopez, but could have put itself in a better position this summer by trimming some roster fat with a buyout or two and acquiring additional building blocks. That, of course, would have required a willingness to spend. Given the Nets' financial situation, they didn't sign a single free agent.

If you ask those who follow the team, that points out the real problem with the Nets, something begins higher up than Thorn or Vandeweghe.

Nets fans have never liked current owner Bruce Ratner. From Day 1, many have believed that Ratner's reasons for buying the team in 2004 had little to do with basketball. His main reason for owning a team, according to his detractors, was so he had a reason to develop 22 acres in Brooklyn with an arena as the centerpiece.

In his first few months as owner, Ratner both tore apart a championship contender and caused irreparable damage to his reputation. In the summer of 2004, the Nets traded fan-favorites Kerry Kittles and Kenyon Martin for draft picks and sold their 2004 first round pick to Portland, beginning the team's fall from grace.

Still, Ratner can't take all the blame for the Nets' fall. The Nets weren't going to stay at the top of the East forever, especially with former Nets star Jason Kidd on the wrong side of 30. Martin was injury-prone and overpaid, and Kittles played only 11 more games after his trade before retiring.

With Prokhorov in charge, close to $30 million in cap space (and perhaps the Barclays Center under construction), New Jersey's future should be brighter. The young core needs another star, and the Nets should have the means to bring one (or two) to Brooklyn.

Of course, the Nets aren't going to turn into the NBA's version of the Yankees. While there are ways to exceed the NBA salary cap, it's not nearly as simple as signing big-name free agents every year. Plus, the Nets need look no further than to its future Empire State neighbors, the Knicks. New York's moves of the last decade are proof that a big payroll doesn't equal success. The key to team improvement -- more so than a wealthy owner -- is a skilled executive who spends wisely and makes intelligent moves.

The Nets are in good shape with Thorn at the helm, but he's in the last year of his contract, and he's made his mark with trades, not free-agent signings. Vandeweghe could be Thorn's successor, but he has a spotty record as an executive.

Even if the financial handcuffs were immediately taken off, it's too late to add an impact player for this season without sacrificing future cap space. Which means this season's focus likely will be developing the youngsters and proving to future free agents that they can contend for a championship in Brooklyn with the Nets' supporting cast.

With Prokhorov, the Nets will have an owner who cares about hoops and should allow Thorn, Vandeweghe (or whoever makes roster decisions) to do what it takes to fully rebuild the team. The move to Brooklyn will help, too, as the new arena should increase team exposure and revenue.

In New Jersey and in Brooklyn, things are looking up again for the Nets.

If you have a question or comment for NBA.com's John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

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