For the Nets, It’s Personal

Respect isn’t something the Nets haven’t exactly grown accustomed to over the last season and half, finding themselves at the bottom of standings and at the butt of jokes. Really, though, who could blame the pundits and critics? The Nets lost 70 games in 2009-2010. Why should a team that toes the line between laughingstock and lost cause garner any respect from anyone?

Last summer certainly didn’t help. After sketching out the figurative Blueprint for Greatness to take over New York, the free-agency plans fizzled. LeBron James and the rest had no respect for the Nets. Travis Outlaw only respected the $35 million contract he signed. Jordan Farmar only respected getting out of the shadow of a franchise that didn’t need him. Johan Petro respected playing time. Acquiring Anthony Morrow was probably just a stroke of luck.

As a result, the consensus surfaced that the New Jersey Nets were beholden to mediocrity, with no chance to lure even the most insignificant of NBA stars to play in Newark even if it meant rekindling things in a shiny billion-dollar arena in Brooklyn just two years later. Then the season started, and the Carmelo Anthony talk reared its ugly head. But as close as the two teams reportedly got to making a deal, no one outside of the Nets’ fan base really believed anything would go through. ’Melo won’t want to play in New Jersey. It’s a pit. He’ll never sign the extension. He’s bound for the Knicks, the others said.

So the talks subsided, and those Knicks fans, fresh off the overconfidence of signing Amare Stoudemire, took solace in the fact that their cross-river rivals were still merely an exercise in failure. It didn’t help things for the Nets when the Knicks darted out beyond expectations, Stoudemire was in the middle of MVP talks, and the Nets were laying an egg — yet again.

The song remained the same throughout late December and January, when rumblings came about again that Carmelo Anthony might be on the move. In this case, the Nets lost either way: if they couldn’t strike a deal, they were the same unattractive losers; if they did, they gave up way too much for him. It was a no-win proposition. Mikhail Prokhorov figured that out, and so he put the kibosh on the negotiations.

Immediately, it was fodder for the overzealous Knicks fans to write off acquiring Anthony as a foregone conclusion with any other possible suitors out of the way. Prokhorov looked like a fool who couldn’t close, and the Nets were still terrible.

Things lay dormant for awhile, and the trade talk died down, but no matter what speculation there was, the Nets weren’t a part of it — until shortly before All-Star Weekend, when, once more, it was reported that the Nets were flirting with Anthony. The Nets and Nuggets talked, and the Knicks and Nuggets talked. Anthony and Prokhorov met. A deal was this close. But late Monday night, James Dolan and Donnie Walsh won the “prize.”

There wasn’t much discussion of the embarrassment of riches that the Knicks had to send to Denver in return or how historically bad the Knicks’ defense might be; it was a sensationalized moment of glory for New York and Carmelo Anthony. For Mikhail Prokhorov it was more of a sensationalized moment of ridicule.

Even with all his “cool,” it was clear that Prokhorov had no basketball sense, that he was just an all-talk playboy, and that his five-year plan for greatness was an unmitigated, overblown facade. But it wasn’t his fault at all — he foolishly got involved with a doomed franchise that had no hope for the future. The Knicks had set themselves apart from their future city companions.

On Wednesday morning, things changed just a bit. The sports world was categorically stunned by a trade that sent Deron Williams, one of the league’s top point guards, to the Nets in exchange for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, and two first-round picks. Immediately, the masses’ perspective on the weekend’s transgressions changed a bit.

Suddenly, Prokhorov was no longer the weak-kneed, out-witted idiot he was two days earlier. He was now the understated mastermind of acquiring the star that everyone knew someone of his personality and glamor needed. Even the Nets’ once-apparent failure was reconsidered as a success: Prokhorov, in a moment of quick-thinking, had simply driven up the price for his Manhattan neighbors to acquire their star.

In a far different state of affairs, the egg (yolk and all) was on the Knicks’ face. It has no doubt been a day of vindication for the Russian owner, but what has become most ostensible is that, between the Nets and Knicks, it’s definitely personal. The second the Nets threw up the Blueprint for Greatness billboard, it became a competition.

Up until today, though, it was a fairly one-sided; in fact, the Knicks didn’t even recognize the Nets are suitable challengers. Goliath didn’t concern himself with David. The hare wasn’t too worried about the tortoise. Michigan didn’t break a sweat before its game against Appalachian State.

By no means are the Knicks done for, and the Nets still don’t have a chance at a title for a few years. And the Nets still face an unjust shortage of recognition. In fact, analysts today even implied that the Nets had given up too much for Williams, and reports already have come up that Deron Williams is going to hate playing for the Nets so much that he’s sure to dip after next season.

But what is clear is that the long-term vision for this team does not simply blow in the wind, and Mikhail Prokhorov has proven himself much more savvy an owner than anyone could have anticipated. Furthermore, this deal puts the Knicks on notice: the Nets aren’t going to submit without a fight. Completely overshadowing the six-month-long Anthony discussions with a sudden deal for a player even better than Anthony wasn’t a bad first step in making the climb out of obscurity and demanding respect from the rest of the league.

Take heed: the New Jersey Nets aren’t just losers anymore.