By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Billy King knows a thing or two about what it takes to build a winner, at any level.
The Brooklyn Nets general manager was the senior captain of Duke's 1988 Final Four team under the guidance of legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.
He also helped navigate the Philadelphia 76ers to their last NBA Finals appearance in 2001 during his first full year as a GM after spending several seasons as the team's Vice President of Basketball Operations.
And just this past summer, King, buoyed by the deep pockets and lofty ambitions of billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, enjoyed the best offseason of any NBA executive. He re-signed $100 million point guard Deron Williams, swung a blockbuster deal to acquire six-time All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson, creating arguably the best backcourt in the league, and brought back Kris Humphries, Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace to round out arguably the best starting five in Nets history.
After five consecutive non-playoff seasons, the last two of which have been under King's watch, the Nets finally appear ready to break out of the NBA's annual draft lottery and stake their claim not only as the best team in the Big Apple, but one of the very best in the NBA.
"It was a long road to get to where we are as an organization," King admitted during Tuesday's preseason press conference at the Nets' practice facilty in East Rutherford, N.J. "A lot of plans, lot of talks, lot of discussions, I think we're here. Having all the guys in town, it's exciting to see them workout, to see them play with each other, to see them get excited about teammate[s] they may not have known anything about.
"I think we've really got a group of guys that are focused on playing basketball and trying to win," King added. ''Every player we added was added for a reason. I think we have talent. I think we have a good team, a potential playoff team."
King also alluded to his team's depth, knowing all too well that a talented, but thin roster can oftentimes falls victim to key injuries. He hoped to offset any unforseen problems regarding players' health by stacking the bench with a mix of veterans and young reserves such as Jerry Stackhouse, backup point guard C.J. Watson, rebounding forward Reggie Evans, sharp-shooting European free agent Mirza Teletovic, reserve center Andray Blatche, small forward Josh Childress and first-round draft pick Tyshawn Taylor. Also returning to the team is second-year shooting guard MarShon Brooks.
''I think we have a starting five that can match up with any five in the [Eastern Conference],'' King boasted. ''Most nights, we'll have the advantage in matchups. We have guys who were starters at one point in their careers who will push the starters [off the bench].''
King, who underwent surgery on a nagging knee injury following his busy summer of wheeling, dealing and traveling as far as Russia and Turkey in pursuit of talent, is anxious to get back to winning after watching the Nets go a combined 46-102 under his watch the past two seasons.
That's a lot of losing for a man assigned to turn around one of the more star-crossed franchises in NBA history, one he inherited off a team record-worst 12-70 campaign in 2009.
Aside from the halcyon days of the Jason Kidd-led charge to back-to-back NBA Finals losses in 2002-03, the Nets have primarily been one of the league's sideshows, easy fodder for other teams looking to climb to the top.
Making matters worse, big-time players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and, most recently, Dwight Howard, appeared to use the Nets as leverage on their way to landing in Miami, Manhattan and Los Angeles, respectively.
King made sure this year would be different. He has his starting five, reserves and coaching staff raring to go into the brand new Barclays Center without any off-the-court distractions for this historic inaugural campaign in Brooklyn.
'I really feel like this is my first year with the Nets, because each camp before, there was a distraction,'' King said of the numerous free-agent and trade rumors that left players wondering where they'd be playing once the season began. ''That's the greatest thing. We're preparing for opening night. It's not about the guys who will be here or won't be here. The distractions are gone. All the talk of trades is gone. It is a relief and makes things easier."
Though he won't be mistaken for Hall of Fame Dodgers executive Branch Rickey anytime soon, King understands the role in Brooklyn history this team will play, beginning with the much-anticipated Nov. 1 season opener against the East River rival Knicks.
"We have a responsibility to provide [Brooklyn fans] with a team that they can be proud of, that they can wear our logo and be proud," King said. "And I look forward to meeting any of the widows or players that played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, because I think it's got to be a special moment for them."
As for the ever-budding rivalry with the Knicks, King knows those matters will be settled on the court, not off it.
''We don't concern ourselves with being better than what [the Knicks] do or what the Garden does,'' King said during last Friday's ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Barclays. ''We have a new building and we're excited about being there.''
For the first time in a long time, Nets fans are excited too. Thanks in large part to the GM who would be King.