NBA Daily: The Boston Celtics’ In-Flux Future

“We’re going to turn Knicks fans into Nets fans… I expect us to be in the playoffs next season and [win a] championship in one-year minimum, and maximum in five years,” said Mikhail Prokhorov, introducing himself at a press conference on May 19, 2010 while announcing his purchase of the New Jersey Nets.

With that statement alone, Prokhorov put the association on notice that, for better or worse, he was going to be aggressively pursuing championships. Despite his bravado, Prokhorov led the Nets to a purgatory of mediocrity for the majority of his tenure. His legacy as an owner will be defined by lopsided trades that handicapped the growth of the Nets until he gave up decision-making control of the roster.

Few in the NBA world knew about Prokhorov beyond his reputation as a Russian billionaire with a crew cut-like haircut and a cunning smirk. In his first interview on 60 Minutes, he was portrayed as a martial arts enthusiast, an aggressive businessman and a man so wealthy that he could casually lose a 50-foot yacht.

Prokhorov claimed to have a deep passion for Russian politics and once ran for president against Vladimir Putin as a pro-western, free trade candidate. Later, information surfaced revealing Prokhorov’s deep ties to the Kremlin and the substantial benefits he received through dealings with Putin. He has been quoted about his connection to the Kremlin saying, “Yes, of course, I participated in them. What, don’t I live in this country?”

Then-NBA commissioner David Stern dismissed concerns about Prokhorov.

“We hire firms that have people like the former head of global operations for the CIA… [they do] investigations, and… there was nothing that we had learned from any of these relatively detailed investigations that would preclude Mr. Prokhorov from being approved as an owner in the NBA,” Stern said.

This statement was made despite rumors that Renaissance Capital, one of Prokhorov’s businesses, did business in Zimbabwe in defiance of U.S. sanctions. Notwithstanding all of these red flags about Prokhorov, Stern showed more concern for the state of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets.

In 2003, former owner of the New Jersey Nets, Bruce Ratner, bought the team for $300 million. His goal was to move the Nets to Brooklyn and build a world-class arena. Ratner pushed this project by lobbying New York City government and exercising eminent domain to remove hundreds of people out of their homes for the arena to be built.

But, after an ugly decade of lawsuits, delays, street protests and the Great Recession, Ratner couldn’t come up with the required $100 million lump-sum payment to finish the project. Prokhorov realized Ratner was in a weak position and saw an opportunity to strike a deal.

For $200 million, Prokhorov acquired 80 percent of the New Jersey Nets and 45 percent of the project to build a new club stadium from Bruce Ratner. In May 2010, the board of governors of the NBA approved the purchase of the Nets by Prokhorov, a move meant for the NBA to save face and allow the Nets to move to Brooklyn. Despite the red flags stemming from political corruption, backdoor dealings and skeptical ownership ability, the Prokhorov era began.

Prokhorov’s “win now” attitude meant going for superstars, regardless of physical condition or age, at the expense of the team’s future. The Nets had no long-term plan. The result was a string of offers to high caliber talent in the offseason, followed by rejection and ultimately settling for less talented players for almost the same price.

This pattern was clearest during the Summer of LeBron, a.k.a the 2010 free agency period. Prokhorov tried to persuade Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James to bring their talents to the Nets and start a new era of basketball in Brooklyn. Prokhorov’s fatal mistake was trying to lure these three superstars without a solidified general manager.

Despite his efforts, the Nets struck out on the superstar sweepstakes and settled on signing role players like Travis Outlaw, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro and traded for Troy Murphy. After free agency, Prokhorov hired Billy King to be the general manager of the Nets, but the new owner still had significant say in roster decisions.

Still trying to find that missing superstar to lead the Nets into Brooklyn, Prokhorov tried to broker a three-team deal with the Nuggets and the Pistons that would send Carmelo Anthony, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups to the Nets. That deal broke down twice and, instead, the Nets traded for a declining Deron Williams by giving up Derrick Favors, Devin Harris and two first-round picks. The Nets finished the 2010-2011 season with a 24-58 record, and yet, worse moves were still to come.

The next summer Prokhorov decided Williams was not enough to get the Nets to the next level, so he targeted the most dominant center in the league at that time, Dwight Howard. The Nets went all in, offering the Magic a three-team deal in which the Nets would send three unprotected first-round picks (2011, 2013 and 2015) to the Trail Blazers for Gerald Wallace. Wallace would have been packaged along with Brook Lopez and two other Nets picks – their own in 2017 and the Rockets 2011 pick – for Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Chris Duhon. The Magic rejected the offer.

Desperate to make a move that summer, the Nets settled on sending Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams and a first-round pick to the Trail Blazers for an injury-prone Gerald Wallace, who only played 16 games that season. The pick sent to the Trail Blazers turned into Damian Lillard. In the 2011-2012 season, the Nets finished 22-44 in the lockout-shortened season.

Three years after Prokhorov purchased the Nets, they finally made the playoffs in their new home at the Barclays Center. The Nets won 49 games, the most in seven years, but ultimately fell to the Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs.

This led to Prokhorov’s defining moment as an owner. Despite making the playoffs, Prokhorov knew that the players he settled for could not deliver a championship win for the Nets. On July 12, 2013, desperate to have a championship team, Prokhorov made the riskiest trade in Nets – and possibly NBA – history.

The Nets traded Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Gerald Wallace, a 2014 first-round pick, a 2016 first-round pick, a swap of 2017 first-round picks and a 2018 first-round pick for an aging Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry (respectively 37, 36, and 36 years old).

Prokhorov thought he could claim some of the Celtics brilliance from their previous seasons of dominance, but the aging Celtics core failed to live up to expectations. The Nets did win 44 games, but ultimately lost to the Heat in the second round of the playoffs. Garnett and Terry played less than half of the 2013-2014 season. Pierce and Terry left the following summer. Garnett lasted only a half-season after that.

Billy King was ultimately fired and Sean Marks was hired as general manager to pick up the pieces. Without owning their draft pick until 2018, the Nets had traded away most of their future for a failed one-year experiment of trying to claim the glory of the Celtics.

Prokhorov gave the reins to Marks, who came with an actual strategy for a rebuild. He focused on absorbing other team’s salary in exchange for future draft picks and building through the draft.

In that time, Marks was able to acquire D’Angelo Russell, Caris LaVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris, a foundation that ultimately led to Brooklyn’s acquisitions of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan during the 2019 offseason. These were the superstars that Prokhorov yearned for, making the Nets a championship contender once Durant becomes healthy again.

The Nets announced earlier this month that Prokhorov agreed to sell the Nets to Joseph Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of Alibaba. Tsai bought 49 percent of the team two years ago for $1 billion. He’ll get the rest for an additional $1.35 billion, bringing the purchase price to $2.35 billion. Despite all of Prokhorov’s personnel mistakes, he did make $2.15 billion off of his $200 million investment nine years ago, making the Nets’ team sale the largest in NBA history.

The Prokhorov era never delivered a championship to Brooklyn. It failed to land a superstar before this past offseason, and it failed to steal the heart of Knicks fans. This failure was due to a lack of basketball strategy and patience, where each offseason focused on getting the next best available player after striking out on a superstar.

It is no surprise that, as Prokhorov leaves the Nets, the future of the franchise has a renewed sense of championship potential.

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