Nets go from hapless to happening

Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and general manager Billy King knew all too well the expectations that had been placed on their team as it made the transition from Newark to Brooklyn this summer.

With precious little time to work with, the Nets had to find a way to give skeptical fans in a fickle new market a product worth cheering for without one-time target Dwight Howard being a part of the hard sell.

Three days and about $230 million later, the gutsy executive and the spendthrift Russian billionaire have done just that.

The Nets may not have reeled in the free-agent haul that many originally wanted or anticipated, but through a handful of shrewd moves during the infant stages of the 2012 free-agency period, they’ve already transformed one of the NBA’s most hapless rosters into one of the most intriguing lineups in the league.

Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace all will be on board when the Nets open the Barclays Center this fall, finally giving new fans in Brooklyn and old Newark carryovers a team to be proud of and something to look forward to for a change.

The first step to building that capable roster and establishing a higher set of expectations for one of the league’s most beleaguered franchises came Sunday. It was then, just hours after the free-agency period opened, that the Nets struck a four-year, $40 million accord to keep small forward Wallace in town.

The price for the former Bobcats All-Star was steep — so steep, in fact, that you couldn’t help but wonder whether the Nets could have acquired him this summer without trading a lottery pick to Portland to get him in March — but it had to be done in order to make the series of moves that followed possible.

The next move came Monday, when King cut a deal with the salary-shredding Atlanta Hawks to bring shooting guard Johnson — and the four years and $90 million left on his deal — into the fold. The Nets sent four expiring contracts, DeShawn Stevenson and a lottery-protected first-round pick to Atlanta in exchange for the understated six-time All-Star.

The Wallace and Johnson moves — and all of the overspending they represented — were part of a larger effort to keep All-Star point guard Williams from fleeing for Dallas. On Tuesday, those gutsy plays paid dividends.

After meeting with the Nets and Mavericks the day before, Williams announced on Twitter that he had agreed to stay in town, turning down a reported four-year, $75 million offer to play for his hometown team in favor of a five-year, $98 million deal with Brooklyn.

Williams was the most important piece of the puzzle for the Nets this summer, and with him in tow, Brooklyn now has a trio of All-Stars representing the team’s nucleus for the foreseeable future.

Sure, the Nets’ big three isn’t exactly the Big Three, but they’re also not that far off. Williams, Johnson and Wallace alone are reason enough to think the Nets could be among the most competitive teams in the top-heavy Eastern Conference.

But if there is anything to be learned from the efforts of other hastily assembled, star-studded rosters, it’s that a team needs a bench to win, and the Nets, as it stands, are severely lacking in that area.

All of Brooklyn’s newly acquired firepower didn’t come cheap, and as a result of their spending binge the past three days, the Nets find themselves left with very little to spend on filling out the rest of their roster.

On Tuesday, before the Williams news came down, Brooklyn also agreed to a three-year, $15 million deal with Bosnian power forward Mirza Teletovic — who may well start for the Nets this fall — and also agreed to a sign-and-trade deal for former Clippers power forward Reggie Evans.

But beyond those two, their big three and second-year guard MarShon Brooks, whom the team somehow retained through all its wheeling and dealing, there’s no one else locked in and only $20 million left to create some depth. The Nets also still have to re-sign restricted free-agent center Brook Lopez; once you put his near-max deal on the books, there will be even less cap room left to build with.

While they figure out that mess, the Nets still will be pursuing Orlando’s All-Star center Howard, who seemingly closed the door on an opportunity to join the Nets when he waived his right to free agency in March. Howard has rehashed his request of a trade to the Nets in recent days, but with little leverage on his side, he’s completely at the mercy of Magic GM Rob Hennigan, who doesn’t seem particularly inclined to appease his flip-flopping big man.

But still, a deal centered on Brooks, Lopez, Kris Humphries (who they’d have to sign and trade) and future draft picks is on the table for the Magic, and if they can’t get a better offer from someone else before it’s too late, they may do the unthinkable and give Howard what he wants, sending him to the Nets and the Nets to the top of the Eastern Conference — while also putting them way, way into luxury-tax territory.

Fortunately, the Nets have an owner with some of the deepest pockets in the league. Prokhorov is one of the world’s richest men, with money on his money, and if a chance to build a dynasty better presents itself — and a foursome of Williams, Howard, Johnson and Wallace certainly would constitute one — he won’t let a little thing like a few million bucks get in the way.

As it stands, however, there’s no promise of a championship from these Nets. But even without Howard, they’ll be competitive and they’ll be a lot of fun to watch. And given that the current incarnation of the Brooklyn roster is the result of a hastily assembled Plan B, that’s about the most anyone could have hoped for.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner