Bernucca: In Trying to Overtake Knicks, Nets Have Become Them

ProkhorovIn his stated effort to upstage Knicks owner James Dolan, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has become him.

Like Dolan, Prokhorov desperately wants an NBA championship. Like Dolan, he has pursued that desperation with financial abandon, giving his GM an open checkbook. Like Dolan, he has overspent on overvalued big names. Like Dolan, he has mortgaged his team’s future by giving away multiple draft picks.

And like Dolan, he appears headed down the abyss.

In two months, the Nets have gone from contenders with star power, maximum depth and championship pedigree on and off the court to pretenders with age issues, no speed or athleticism and a lack of direction from a clearly underqualified coach.

In the first third of their season, the Nets already have lost twice to the Pistons and Wizards and once to the Cavaliers, Magic, Bobcats, Lakers, Kings, Knicks and 76ers, none of whom are above .500 and collectively are 55 games below break-even.

The Nets have one winning streak longer than one game. In a conference begging teams to occupy a playoff spot, they are somehow 11th. They somehow allow opponents to shoot 40 percent from 3-point range. They are fourth in average size but somehow are 28th in rebounds, 24th in rebound differential and 27th in blocks.

After Friday’s loss to the Sixers – a team the Nets had beaten by 36 just four days earlier – Paul Pierce may have summed it up best.

“We’re bottom feeders, just like Philadelphia,” he said.

All of this took place before this weekend’s news that center Brook Lopez – by far the team’s youngest star and most efficient offensive player – will miss the rest of the season after breaking his right foot for the third time in just over two years.

So it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Brooklyn’s next six games are vs. Indiana, vs. Chicago, vs. BrookLopezSH1Milwaukee, at Indiana, at San Antonio and at Oklahoma City. That sounds like one win to me.

But that’s just the next two weeks. What about the next two years? The Nets are committed to $64 million in salaries – for the 2015-16 season. Their first-round picks for the next five years have been swapped or dealt – with no protection. Their coach just got rid of his right-hand man, Scarface style.

Knicks fans who endured their own decade in the abyss have seen this movie before. This is just a bad remake – like Walking Tall or Assault on Precinct 13  – with different actors playing the same roles. Pierce and Kevin Garnett are Jalen Rose and Antonio Davis. Deron Williams is Stephon Marbury. Lopez could be Allan Houston. Coach Jason Kidd is Larry Brown. GM Billy King is Isiah Thomas.

And Prokhorov is Dolan, solving problems the only way he has ever known: By throwing money at them.

There are ways out of the abyss. None of them include the panic moves of swapping Pierce for Pau Gasol or Lopez for Carlos Boozer as some have suggested. And using a Disabled Player Exception on another slow, big body would be a waste of money.

Kidd hasn’t been right about much this season, but he was speaking the truth this weekend when he said “this team was built for depth.” In Lopez’s absence, the Nets can give more burn to rookie Mason Plumlee and find out if his 16.7 PER is not a fluke. Andray Blatche certainly can play more than 22 minutes per game.

Garnett’s defense, rebounding and leadership remain valuable. Versatile Andrei Kirilenko returned to practice Sunday and may be in uniform soon. Even the underutilized Reggie Evans could provide occasional shot in the arm with his energy.

As bad as the Nets have been, they are still tied in the loss column for the final playoff spot in the East, and 36 wins may be enough to get it done. That will prevent a sputtering step backwards, provide a trickle of postseason revenue and avoid the public embarrassment of having traded a lottery pick in the deepest draft in a decade.

This summer, Pierce will depart via free agency (the guess here is his hometown Lakers) and Garnett may call it 644342_10151857421588999_1634011836_nquits, which amounts to $28 million in payroll reduction. But Brooklyn’s best move may be finding a taker for Williams, whose inflated value has created much of this mess.

Just under three years ago, Williams cost the Nets Derrick Favors and two first-round picks that became Enes Kanter and Gorgui Dieng. He held the franchise’s feet to the fire with a $100 million max contract, the pursuit of Dwight Howard and the approval of the trade for financial albatross Joe Johnson and two more first-round picks. That’s an awful lot for someone with an 80 percent attendance record who has provided one All-Star berth and one first-round playoff exit.

No team will even consider taking Johnson’s contract until 2015, and no GM is going to take Lopez until he sees a prolonged healthy stretch from the unlucky big man. But in a point guard league, Williams still has value. He could bring in return cap relief, draft picks and young players.

Those are three things the Nets desperately need to avoid the abyss.

TRIVIA: Which player holds the NBA record for most points scored in a Christmas game? Answer below.

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