In the days after two lucky winners in Arizona and Missouri split a $600 million Powerball jackpot last month, I found myself enviously pondering, as I tore up two lunches’ worth of my own losing tickets, what I might do if I woke up one morning with an extra $300 million.
I’m fairly certain I would not have poured it into the construction of a starting lineup for a professional basketball team — my first order of business might have been finding a New York City apartment with a bedroom, and maybe buying a monthly MetroCard — but if I did choose to invest in my own personal fantasy hoops team, I sure as hell would have expected that team to win.
So in that way, and only in that way, I can almost sympathize with Brooklyn Nets owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who watched his $300 million starting lineup go down in flames again Wednesday night against the rival New York Knicks in a 100-86 loss at Madison Square Garden.
In anticipation of his team’s long-awaited move to Brooklyn, Prokhorov committed the better part of a half-billion dollars to his starting lineup alone over the next four years. The goal was to make the Nets as cool as their new digs as they competed with the Heat, Thunder and Lakers on multiple fronts — both as NBA title contenders and as the league’s “it” franchise during the 2012-13 season.
Things started off well enough, with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries leading Brooklyn to an 11-4 start and garnering praise from scribes all over the city — myself included. But after three straight losses and eight defeats in their last 10 games, the Nets (13-12) are so far removed from the 11-4 squad they used to be that it’s hard to believe they’re even the same team.
And that $300 million? It’s hard to make the argument, right now anyway, that it’s being well spent.
Once hyped as the next big thing, Brooklyn has been pedestrian since November became December, and all of the buildup and hype that followed the Nets into the season has evaporated. That much was clear when 19,033 Knicks fans sporting road-cone-orange hats mockingly whisked the visitors out the door with a drawn-out “Brooklyn” chant that was once the call of a flashy Nets team with a bright future.
“The hype was deserved,” Nets coach Avery Johnson contended after the loss, before attempting to explain his team’s struggles. “Sometimes when you get the hype, there is a greater level of responsibility, at home and on the road, because you’re not coming in through the backdoor against anybody. With that greater level of responsibility, pressure, we’ve got to be able to function in those situations.”
If you’re going to start pointing fingers when it comes to Brooklyn’s functional shortcomings, you might as well start at the top, with Williams, who signed a five-year, $99 million contract to return to the Nets and run the point for this cavalcade of stars. Across the board, Williams has failed to live up to the superstar standard he set for himself in Utah before a trade sent him east midway through the 2010-11 season.
Wednesday’s 16-point, 10-assist performance was one of Williams’ better ones of late, but his numbers, by and large, have been down from his Jazz days. Earlier this week, Williams went as far as to use the Nets’ system as a crutch for his struggles, saying he’s still adapting to not playing for Jerry Sloan. He’d backed off that claim to a degree by Wednesday, citing effort and familiarity as the reason for the latest setback.
“Our fight, our energy, our intensity, (and) how we come out and approach the game (need to change),” Williams said. “I think as a group we have to come out more focused mentally, ready to compete for a full 48 minutes — not 24 minutes, not 36 minutes, but for a full 48 minutes. … It’s not time to panic. We’re still figuring things out.”
There’s certainly something to be said for Williams still adjusting to a new set of teammates, and, to a greater point, not having to carry the Nets’ load all the time, but that excuse will only fly for so long, especially as long as his new sidekicks continue to underwhelm alongside him.
Joe Johnson, a heralded shooting guard with a top-notch isolation game who came over via a trade from Atlanta, is making $19.7 million dollars this season to shoot the ball worse than he has in a decade. After a 5-of-14 performance Wednesday, Johnson’s shooting dropped to 42.7 percent, his lowest since 2002-03, when he scored 9.8 points per game as a part-time starter in Phoenix.
Meanwhile, Wallace, the Nets’ $40 million swingman, scored six points on 2-of-7 shooting in 37 minutes Wednesday, a comparable output to reserve guard C.J. Watson (seven points, 3 of 9), who is making less than $1 million this season. Wallace has reached his scoring average over the last nine years (15.9) only five times in 18 games while posting his worst rebounding numbers since his first season in Charlotte, in 2004-05.
Meanwhile, the struggles of Brooklyn’s big-money assets have only underlined how good Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony has been this season. Just a week after dropping 45 points on the Nets in a win at the Barclays Center, Anthony returned after missing two games to an ankle injury with 31 points and four 3s.
Even on just one good leg, Anthony clearly was the only superstar on the court Wednesday, a somber reminder of how good Brooklyn’s starting backcourt was supposed to be. But the guards aren’t the only ones struggling for the Nets. Their big men aren’t earning their keep either.
Lopez signed a $60 million extension this summer after not being traded for Dwight Howard, and he’s been good when healthy, and had 16 points and 10 rebounds Wednesday. But he’s missed significant time to injury already, and it’s fair to wonder if he’s really put his brittle, injury-riddled past behind him.
And Humphries, at a price tag of $12 million per season for the next two, has struggled to match the outputs of forwards Reggie Evans, Jerry Stackhouse and Andray Blatche, viewed as afterthoughts and, in the case of Stackhouse and Blatche, playing on one-year deals at the veteran’s minimum.
Brooklyn actually has gotten great play out of its low-dollar reserves. And reserve depth is all well and good when it’s coming alongside an acceptable level of production from the superstars, but it doesn’t quite have the same effect when the studs are playing like they belong on the bench, too, as is the case in Brooklyn.
The difference between a team that is carried by quality backup-level talent and one that is bolstered by it is what separates the Suns and the Magic from the Heat and the Thunder — and right now, the Nets are looking a lot more like the former than the latter.
Sure, there still is plenty of time for Brooklyn to prove its worth, but if it continues on much longer, this skid is going to take on a permanence that the Nets won’t be able to brush aside. After three days off, Brooklyn returns to the court Sunday against Philadelphia, and the Nets need to be better — much better — than they have been lately.
“Just as easily as we’ve lost eight out of 10, we’re capable of winning 10 out of 10, we’re capable of putting together five- or six-game winning streaks,” Wallace said, sounding almost indignant about Brooklyn’s current state of affairs. “We’ve just got to get ourselves together and keep playing hard.”
Otherwise, they’re going to have to deal with a very angry owner who has every right to be irked by how little bang he’s getting for his 300 million bucks.