Mikhail Prokhorov, Brooklyn Nets waging cold war with Miami Heat

With the two-time defending NBA champion Heat in his sights, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov chooses to outspend all others to ‘capture’ a title.

07/14/2013 12:01 AM

09/23/2013 6:52 PM

The pants pocket of Nets rookie coach Jason Kidd started vibrating during one of his team’s summer-league games last week. Naturally, Kidd did what normal people do in that situation. He stepped outside the noisy gymnasium to take his phone call.

This, of course, made big news in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Is Kidd taking his job seriously?” screamed the collective cry of Twitter. Doesn’t he understand the importance of observing every second of a summer-league game? As Pat Riley likes to say, there are “diamonds in the rough” to be mined in Orlando and Las Vegas this time of year, especially with the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement kicking in to high gear next season.

Tax penalties galore are in place to socialize the NBA like the 1970s Soviet Union, and here was Kidd stepping outside the machine to answer a call about who knows what — dry cleaning, or a tee time or, as the New York Daily News surmised, Andrei Kirilenko. Mere minutes after the Nets’ summer-league game ended that day, Thursday, news broke of the team’s latest coup. Kirilenko, who passed on a $10million player option with the Minnesota Timberwolves, had agreed to take about $7 million less to join the Nets.

“And now with the strongest Russian player in the NBA we will capture the title together,” said Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian multibillionaire who presumably understands the not-so-subtle differences between the English words “win” and “capture.”

His own rules

Prokhorov knows a thing or two about mining — that’s how he made his first fortune — and, as the story goes, it’s apparently best done without any interference from institutional regulators, and certainly it has nothing to do with summer-league games in the American play lands of Orlando and Las Vegas.

No, in his bid to “capture” the NBA championship from the Heat, Prokhorov is playing the game by his own set of rules. Rule 1: Laugh at the gentlemen’s agreement, otherwise known as the CBA, set in place by the NBA’s rich-guy club to de-tooth its league. Rule 2: Outspend the Americans. Rule 3: There are no other rules.

Put simply, Prokhorov is trying to buy an NBA championship. On Friday in a conference call, Riley called it the “unintended consequences” of the new CBA.

“Economics and basketball … that’s what this is all about,” Riley said. “I have to make decisions based on that.”

But not the Nets.

While Riley and Heat owner Micky Arison are trying to figure out ways to somehow save money in the months before their team’s bid for a three-peat, the Nets are working with a blank check to overthrow the back-to-back defending champions. Never mind Brooklyn’s payroll, which likely will be more than $100 million when the 2013-14 season begins, the team’s estimated luxury tax bill is more than $80 million.

Forget basketball. That’s approaching the kind of sum the Yankees spend on payroll.

Already, NBA executives are crying foul. After word leaked that Kirilenko had agreed to take the Nets’ luxury-tax exception ($3.1 million) — or about three times less than his player option with Minnesota — rumors around the league implied under-the-table spending. One unnamed general manager told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, “There should be a probe. How obvious is it?”

On Friday, in a question about Prokhorov’s spending framed with the figure of speech “playing by his own rules,” Riley addressed the unintended implication rather than the freewheeling nature of the Russian’s economic philosophy.

“I think he’s playing within the rules,” Riley said. “He’s taking on contracts and star players and, so, obviously they’re doing a job and they’re committed to winning.”

Murderers’ row?

The Nets’ projected opening-night starting lineup reads like an exhibition all-star team: point guard Deron Williams, shooting guard Joe Johnson, small forward Paul Pierce, power forward Kevin Garnett and center Brook Lopez. The second unit, on paper, is arguably the best in the league and includes point guard Shaun Livingston, shooting guard Jason Terry and forwards Kirilenko, Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche.

Exactly how the Nets are going to fit all those pieces together falls to Kidd and his top assistant, Lawrence Frank, who has had head coaching stints with the New Jersey Nets and, most recently, the Detroit Pistons. With such a veteran team, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

“Our owner wants to win, so my job is whatever pieces he gives me, I have to coach them,” Kidd said. “So I’m excited about it.”

Of course, recent history suggests mega-teams run into trouble in their first seasons — such as the 2011 Heat and 2013 Los Angeles Lakers — but Kidd isn’t worried about the increased scrutiny that comes with melding a team of superstars on the fly in a major media market. Pressure? That’s just a word for reporters.

“Y’all use the word pressure,” Kidd said. “It’s a game of challenges, of ups and downs and runs, so I’m not looking at it as a pressure situation. I’m embracing the challenge, and that’s what it is.”

The challenge is clear — defeat and conquer the Heat and, as he owner likes to say, “capture the title” — and whether Kidd wants to admit it or not, the pressure is already building.

“Our roster isn’t set yet, so for us, we have to worry about ourselves and not the Heat,” Kidd said a few minutes before the Kirilenko signing was made public. “They’re the defending champs, and the road to trying to win an NBA championship goes through them, but we have to worry about ourselves.

“We’ll worry about the Heat if we face them in, like, the conference finals or anytime during the playoffs, but right now we’ve got to get ready for a lot of new guys to understand the new system.”

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