Speaking with reporters at Barclays Center shortly after firing head coach Lionel Hollins and re-assigning general manager Billy King, Nets principal owner Mikhail Prokhorov said that while he’d learned hard lessons about being an NBA owner, he also expected the team to compete for a championship next season.
“I’m sure next season, we’ll be, I hope, championship contender,” Prokhorov said to the media Monday morning, citing the team’s upcoming cap space, new arena, new practice facility in Sunset Park, and relationship with a D-League team that begins next year.
Prokhorov, known for his wisecracks and one-liners in press conferences, was much more subdued with the media. His jokes, few and far between, fell flat as he was peppered about questions regarding his commitment and strategy to get the Nets out of their crater, and he tried to stay focused on the bigger picture.
“Frankly speaking, I deserve a championship now much more than six years ago,” Prokhorov said. “I think we have been really bold, and we did our best in order to reach a championship. And I still believe with some luck our results might have been more promising. But, I’ll do my best to make us a championship team.
“If we compare now and six years ago, we have a state-of-the-art arena in New York, we’ll have a fascinating training facility and it will open I think next month. We’ll have a D-League team. We’ll have a big amount of money under the cap next season. We have everything the best. I’m really optimistic. Now I’m 100 percent owner of the team and the arena and I’m very committed to be championship and I’m all in.”
At 10-27, without draft picks, and only armed with cap space that around 20 other teams possess, the Nets might be as far from a championship as any team in the league. And though Prokhorov mentioned the need for firmer strategy, he was unclear on which strategy he thought the Nets should take next.
“I think we need to have a sense of identity and style of play,” Prokhorov said. “Are we building a team around franchise player, or are we balancing with younger athletes without superstar system, or are we about 3-point shooting or defense or speed? Of course we can’t be anything at the same time, so it will be very important conversation with the future GM and future coach.”
Tearing down this front office was a process that quietly began for Prokhorov in November. This past Sunday, the owner let Hollins go outright, while King will remain in the organization in an undetermined capacity. Prokhorov added that King could offer his opinion on decisions “as a friend” only. He is in no rush to hire either replacement, and assistant GM Frank Zanin will handle managing duties in the interim
“You know my business approach,” Prokhorov said. “I try to invite the best people I can find in the market, and give them some amount of time to make decisions. I don’t interfere in the day-to-day routine. But after some amount of time, I have to look at the reality and make a change if things are not going in the right direction. That’s what we have done. It was just very easy. And of course, if we look for the team for the time being, it’s clear that we’re doing not the best way.”
In a not-so-thinly veiled message to former players and management, Prokhorov said his biggest lesson from the first four years was to find people who can deal with the pressure of New York.
“We are playing in the best market in the world, and of course there is a market which make a great pressure, a lot of attention, a very active press … that is why we need a players and a coach who can resist with this pressure and survive,” Prokhorov said. “So we need not only players who want to play for us but they can play for us. So for me it is a very important lesson.”
He added that an additional lesson was the courage to turn down moves. “I take full responsibility for the state of the team and I think Billy King did his best. We need a fresh look. We should be able to take courage to turn down the opportunities, which maybe don’t fit to our strategy. Maybe this is the second lesson from the last six years.”
Despite early rumors that the Nets would throw the world at Kentucky head coach and former Nets coach John Calipari to run the team as a coach & executive Prokhorov firmly stated he’d want to hire two separate people, citing a “friendly contradiction” between the day-to-day nature of coaching and the long-term vision of a general manager.
The Nets entered Brooklyn with an enormous marketing splash, touting an All-Star backcourt in Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, as well as a deep starting lineup featuring Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, and Brook Lopez. That team won 49 regular-season games, but a first-round playoff loss to the Chicago Bulls kick-started a franchise-changing trade, sending three future first-round draft picks & a fourth in a swap to the Boston Celtics for future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They also hired Jason Kidd, fresh off his last games with the New York Knicks, as their head coach.
But a tumultuous 44-win regular season led to just one playoff series victory, and the Nets began their teardown. Only Johnson and Lopez remain from that era of Nets basketball.
Despite Prokhorov’s plans for next season, the Nets have no delusions of grandeur about their chances this year.
“Listen, we’re a 10-27 team,” Nets new interim head coach, Tony Brown, said following his first shootaround as a head coach. “Obviously we haven’t played well. We’ve had some key injuries. Our goal is to up our energy level. We want to play freer. We want to have a little bit more fun. But I’m not going in there and telling them ‘Hey, we need to make the playoffs.’ Our job is to play a little bit harder, a little bit smarter.”
Prior to the shootaround, Prokhorov met with the team personally with two messages.
The first? To stay focused, said Thaddeus Young. “Just to throughout all the changes and everything that’s going on just to remain focused, to continue to follow the task at hand which is winning basketball games, to just play, to have fun and try to just going out there and just focus in.”
The second? Per Brook Lopez, That he wasn’t lying down on the job, and wouldn’t work as an absentee owner during this process. “He wanted us to know he was obviously going about his job figuring things out and talking to his cabal to see what they want to do next.”