Reflection on Russian Billionaires and Ownership

As a Nets fan, there hasn’t always been a lot to be excited about. There were back-to-back trips to the Finals a few years ago. There was the trade for Vince Carter a few years after that. Otherwise, I haven’t been truly, honestly excited as a Nets fan since the team was up 1-0 on the Miami Heat during the 2006 Playoffs. Since that game, the Nets have made the playoffs, and played some great games, and have now laid the foundation for a good, young team that could be competitive in the near-future, but I can’t say I have been excited. I was rooting for the Nets, of course, because I rooted for them when Butch Beard was the coach and Shawn Bradley was the center. But rooting and excitement are not always one and the same.

The announcement that Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has purchased a majority stake in the Nets has me excited. Yes, the deal still needs to be approved by the NBA. Prokhorov has a questionable past and has been compared by some to be the Russian version of Mark Cuban because of his outspokeness, which will irk many. I must also keep in mind that while bringing the Nets to Brooklyn is a priority for Prokhorov, and a move to Brooklyn would give the Nets significantly better odds to land a top free agent next summer, his taking ownership of the team guarantees neither of these things. All it does is provide hope.

As Tom Ziller writes at NBA Fanhouse, Prokhorov is not going to be shy about spending his billions on the Nets. By all accounts, the guy is a passionate businessman, who wants to make money, but also wants to make a splash. I’ve never pulled for a team that had a George Steinbrenner or Mark Cuban type at the helm – someone who may drive people crazy, but also becomes a god to fans for his desire to win. As a fan of teams who have always played it conservatively, or have been good citizens in the league, I’ve publicly said I’ve hated teams like the Yankees or the Mavs, but I’ve always envied the desire of their ownership.

I think it’s safe to say that when Bruce Ratner bought the Nets, his priority was the Atlantic Yards Development first, and the product on the court a distant second. The acquisition of Vince Carter was a sort of mea culpa for giving away Kenyon Martin, but Ratner never showed interest in building a winner. Between the Nets cap space next summer and Prokhorov’s reputation as a free-spender, I have no doubt that an effort will be made to acquire every big name that’s out there. Prokhorov is not going to be the NBA’s first foreign owner to fail – he wants to win.

There are things about this deal that certainly make me uneasy. As Dave D’Alessandro implies, the current front office of Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe could be shown the door under a new ownership. It’s a common casualty of ownership changes like that, but that doesn’t make it right. Thorn had the vision to make this team a contender in the first place when he acquired Jason Kidd before 2001. Losing someone with his experience and saavy would hurt.

But I think the good far outweighs the bad here, and that’s before we bring Brooklyn into the equation. Opponents of the move will say it’s never going to happen – they’re going to throw more lawsuits out there to delay the process and upend the development. They might succeed. But again, Prokhorov isn’t looking to come into the NBA to be a second class citizen. If the NBA approves Prokhorov as many expect, it will be a clear signal that David Stern and others want basketball in Brooklyn more than anything – even if that means bringing in a Russian oligarch with a questionable past who might become a headache a la Mark Cuban.