Posted Dec 14 2011 11:28AM
As the NBA continues to struggle with the whole concept of A-list free agents making demands and changing places, the wild card in the whole equation is an unlikely franchise.
In this landscape, the Nets are a major player. Have those words ever been typed or spoken before?
You mean the same franchise forced to sell Julius Erving because they couldn't afford him, is now in position to buy its way to respectability and maybe a championship run?
Actually, it could swing either way for them. They have Deron Williams and could add Dwight Howard this season or next. Or maybe they end up with neither and watch those guys go to Dallas, which is clearing cap space, or some other destination. Such is the curious case of the Nets, the large-market team with historically small-market issues.
The pluses for the Nets are obvious. They're moving from New Jersey, their home since fleeing Long Island three decades ago, to Brooklyn, which isn't Manhattan but you can see it from Bed-Stuy. Their owner is the richest man in American team sports and anxious to make a $plash. Their new digs are currently getting the finishing touches applied. And because the Nets will be competing with the Knicks for affections of New Yorkers, which admittedly is next-to-impossible, they must do whatever necessary to at least sell the folks in Brooklyn on the idea of having its first team since the Dodgers.
For a big-time free agent like Williams and Howard, the potential rewards are also obvious. They can enjoy the big-city benefits without actually being in the big city. Their sneaker sponsors will be thrilled. They can also be part of history. And if the Nets hit the floor running in Brooklyn, all the doubts about this transition from Jersey might vaporize for good, which will reflect well on the stars.
At least we do know the Nets are doing whatever it takes to create buzz. They did so last spring by dealing with the Jazz for a distressed Williams, who told Utah it had no shot at re-signing him in 2012. And now the Nets must show Williams they're serious about winning, and the best way is by getting Howard either through a trade or next summer as a free agent. Without Howard, Williams could bolt (with the home-town Mavericks waiting) and the Nets could turn into, well, the same old Nets. That's not a tradition they'd want to bring to Brooklyn.
And if the Nets were to somehow sign both? The shock waves would be felt from here to Madison Square Garden.
"You're looking to build a team that can be successful now," said general manager Billy King. "I've been in situations where you have a three-year plan, four-year plan, and then you're not there to finish it out."
Right now, the organization is desperately trying to overcome its stigma. Even in the best of times, when Jason Kidd was directing the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, there wasn't much of a ripple felt in the shadow of Manhattan. Big whoop-d-damn-do, to quote an ex-Net. They've been the weak stepsisters of the larger, more traditional, more colossal team across the Hudson. The presence of the Knicks is so powerful and suffocating, even their lost decade with Isiah Thomas and Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry wasn't wretched enough to make basketball fans flee to Jersey for their fix.
The Nets endured apathy, a temporary move to Newark and lately, a rebuilding project, to position themselves for better times ahead. Mikhail Prokorov, the Russian billionaire and perhaps next Russian czar, bought the team on the cheap as part of a larger and more complex transaction involving the new Barclays Center and surrounding real estate in Brooklyn.
The Nets will have millions to spend next summer on two and possibly three free agents, depending on how they clear remaining cap space. And if necessary, Prokorov said he'd be willing to flirt with luxury tax issues, if only because he can.
But is all this enough to sway players to a franchise with image issues that run deep?
It all starts now and it starts with Williams, because he's currently in uniform. And then it extends to Howard, the best big man in basketball by far, a logical complement to an All-Star guard and someone who cited the Nets as a team he'd be open to joining.
Of all teams, the Nets are in position to make this happen, to enter Brooklyn with plenty of swag, to change a culture of futility and anonymity. If they pull that off, Jay-Z, one of the owners, would suddenly have only 98 problems.
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