Are the Nets Done Branding and Making Splashes?

From the moment Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets, it was clear that the Nets were dead set on entering Brooklyn with a bang, for better or worse.  The moment they drafted Derrick Favors, they looked to trade him because he wasn’t John Wall. The moment they got Deron Williams, they did anything they could to make the face of Brooklyn (don’t watch Blazers games this year).

The fateful Boston trade?  On one hand, it’s easy to throw all the blame on Deron Williams and say that if he performed, the 2013-2014 Nets could have contended.  On the other, looking at his physical decline since that season in light of the Nets’ superb medical staff begs the question: did the Nets make that trade, while fully aware Deron’s body was destroyed, just to brand Brooklyn, build buzz, sell tickets, and steal Knick fans? (As I have stated, if you have Utah’s Deron, the Boston trade is defensible, but with the current iteration, the trade is an atrocity)

Just look at Prokhorov’s retroactive justification of the trade: “I think we did a very good deal, and it was a great investment in the Brooklyn brand . . . it was very important to invest some money . . .  in Brooklyn Nets brand . . . I think my investment’s minimum five, six times now more than I spent. So I have a nice get.”

That quote is clear – the Nets made the big Boston trade to brand Brooklyn in year 2. They did not worry about collateral fall out. And for all the murmurs that marketing and winning are not mutually exclusive because marketing is eased by winning, that is not the case. Sometimes, the pursuit of building a winner necessitates unpopular moves, nondescript moves, and taking what the fanbase wants and saying “too bad. We won’t do that.”  And that is why there must be a distinct split between an organization’s basketball side and business side.

The Nets have moved past the Boston trade, and now say that they are done making splashes.  On a superficial review, you can make a case for that.  Just three of their 17 players are 30 or above; four when Bargnani turns 30 tomorrow.  They did not make any further dips into the future to maximize the present.  They say they are not worried about where the pick they send to Boston falls.  There were no glitzy Borough Hall pressers, standing room only conferences for hires of former franchise greats, or the like.

The Nets, on the surface, appeared to operate with one goal: positioning themselves for the future when they cannot compete in the present.

But have they truly left behind their philosophy of making a splash to sell people on Brooklyn?  After all, it’s easy to proclaim that you did not make a splash and behaved normally in the offseason, when you had no options to do otherwise.  The Nets had no cap space this summer, and could not trade any first round draft pick before 2020 given the Stepien Rule.  It’s difficult to make a splash when, quite literally, you do not have the assets (money to spend or future assets to trade) to make one.

And while their offseason is being spun as the end of splash making, to what extent was the Nets cutting back a product of that, as opposed to Prokhorov simply saying, “I’m tired of spending all of this money to be a running joke, all for a mediocre product.”

After all, the Nets former head coach, Avery Johnson, used to say that for the Nets, it was about winning an NBA championship, not a local championship (over the Knicks).  But after barely making the playoffs, the Nets triumphantly made a point of noting that they were the only New York team standing. They also implied that they look to time their success such that they win when the Knicks are losing.

Yes, the Nets can say they’re no longer about splashes and PR. But, paradoxically, to what extent is saying “we are done making splashes” a splash in and of itself — the Nets know that their eye popping moves of 2012-2014 put them in their hole, and that the public wants to hear that they are prepared to act rationally.  Is that why they are feeding them that the days of indulgence are over?

The Nets also say they are now all about youth, given the amount of under 30’s on the roster.  But the 2011 Nets were young, too, and that changed quickly.  Are the Nets committed to youth and patience, or did they become young because Prokhorov wants to spend less (perhaps to defray his current costs, but also perhaps he is looking to buy Ratner’s share to facilitate a sale as it is easier to sell a whole entity than a piece), and given salaries spike as players age, young means cheap?

The evidence that the Nets are still concerned with marketing endeavors at the expense of their basketball program is out there. And the Zach Lowe line in this piece that the Nets may be more concerned with optics than sound management is damning.

It is true that one can see why NBA teams — not just the Nets — often choose to “make a splash” over building the patient way, and it happens around the league (albeit the Nets are perhaps the worst culprit).  NBA teams are at their cores, businesses, and the goal of any business is to make money.  So teams, frankly, will sometimes make moves that are to a degree, suboptimal, in order to cultivate and maintain fan interest and belief (as opposed to simply deciding what is the best move to make in the pursuit of a title, and making it).

The Toronto Raptors signed Anthony Bennett.  Was he truly the top free agent on their board. Or, with their roster close to full, was this signing them saying, “whatever, this is a bench spot, let’s sign a local kid to get Canadians interested in the team.”  Did the Lakers believe Byron Scott was the best coach out there? Or, with Kobe aging and Dwight Howard leaving and the once great Lakers crumbling, did they hire a former Laker of the glory days to sell the Laker way as alive and well?

You see these types of moves when teams dump players or coaches to resolve “personality conflicts” as well. The Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau: what did he do wrong?  Was the firing as simple as ownership saying “a title is a long shot anyway. I’m not going to work with guys I don’t like? And to what extent was the Kings firing Mike Malone a product of similar logic.

Teams will never say so publicly, but surely will argue that it is necessary to make splashes, and make moves with a marketing basis in mind.  After all, they will argue that if you are oblivious to the business side in making moves, that you will wind up like the Sixers, whose relentless commitment to patience has led to on point criticism like this.  Surely, organizations making a splash will argue that in a league where it is so difficult to win a championship, that it is better to have a 1.7% chance at a title and fans buzzing about your splashes than a 2.4% chance and no fan enthusiasm. They will also argue that all teams, even the good ones, make splashes, but that only those who lose are called out for them. The Warriors firing Mark Jackson and publicly eviscerating him after the fact as impossible to work with — that was a splash. And…crickets.

And when people say things like, “the Spurs don’t make splashes,” the retort will be something along the lines of, “it’s easy to do that when you luck into Tim Duncan.”

But when teams make moves with marketing purposes in mind, what they forget is that no temporary boost off a move rooted in building ticket sales is going to make a franchise persistently popular.  One one thing will cause that — persistent winning.  And in a league where it is so DIFFICULT (emphasis necessary) to win an NBA championship and to build a perennial winner, you only make that job more difficult when you focus on the wrong criteria in making your moves.  If you begin making moves with the logic of “we need to sell tickets,” or “we can’t suck this year because the Knicks will be good” or “we are going to get ripped by the media if we lose this year,” you are only taking this difficulty, and adding to it.  It’s hard enough to win when you do everything right.

So, are the Nets done making splashes and ready to build like a normal franchise? They say they are. And maybe it’s true. But we cannot answer that question right now.  If they strike out on Durant and other elite 2016 targets, will they be deliberate, or overpay just to say “we got somebody to put on a billboard and get season ticket holders”!  If they can mortgage a few youngsters into a decent regular in 2016-2017 to avoid missing the playoffs in a season where the Knicks may project to make them, will they resist the temptation if it’s the wrong move? Will they focus on signing the right names, even if they are not “big” names, or focus their efforts on names with cache for the general public? With the Mets Rangers and Jets thriving, the Islanders and Knicks trending upward, and the Giants and Yankees having established pedigrees, will the Nets feel they have to make a move to be relevant next summer? Time will tell; the Nets are currently saying the right things but healthy skepticism is warranted.

Sadly, the Nets face a season where there is not much to learn.  Can Lopez continue to stay healthy? Can any of their young faces become rotation players? Can Bogdanovic take a developmental leap? Can Lopez and Young defend together when it matters in future seasons? Little else is at issue in what is likely a lottery, or at best “make the playoffs and get torched round 1” type of season on the horizon.

Where we will really learn about the Nets, however, is when Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King get another war chest to play with in eight months.

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