By John Torenli
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
With the Brooklyn Nets set to host a draft combine over the weekend at their practice facility in East Rutherford, N.J., billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov is busy doing some overseas recruiting of the most important player in the franchise’s imminent move to our fair borough.
According to several published reports, Prokhorov and Nets general manager Billy King met with free-agent-to-be point guard Deron Williams in Istanbul last weekend during the Euroleague Championships, and extended their pow-pow this week in Russia, where Prokhorov recently finished third in the country’s presidential elections.
Williams, who has remained adamant that he will test the free-agent waters this summer after spending the past season-and-a-half with the Nets in Newark, has been plastered on billboards throughout Downtown announcing the team’s November relocation to the state-of-the-art Barclays Center.
King will be back in New Jersey for this weekend’s combine, presumably in the hopes of filling out a roster that has only four players signed from last year’s 22-44 team, which finished last in the Atlantic Division and out of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
But none of the potential draft prospects carries the star power of Williams, who is arguably the best all-around point guard in the sport.
Perhaps more importantly, the 27-year-old playmaker has been cast as the Nets’ pied piper in their quest to bring major pro sports back to Brooklyn for the first time since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1957.
Earlier this month during his end-of-season press conference, King expressed confidence that the Nets not only would be able to lure Williams back to the organization, but would be able to build a winning team around him for what will be an historic first season in their new digs.
"I think [Williams] and I understand what I've got to do and where we've got to get to," King said. "The goal is to win. The goal is to not be talking to you this early in the year in the spring, tobe talking to you later in the spring playing basketball. If we can come back with our core and add to that, I think we have a great shot to be playing postseason basketball next year."
That “shot” relies heavily on King and Prokhorov’s ability to convince Williams that Brooklyn gives him a legitimate opportunity at capturing an elusive NBA title.
Judging from his ongoing “vacation” in Russia, Williams has his ears open and is certainly willing to give his current team the first crack at securing his formidable talents before officially becoming a free agent on July 1.
Williams’ former teammate in Utah, Andrei Kirilenko, is reportedly also on the Nets’ radar after losing the Euroleague title game with CSKA Moscow. Kirilenko has reportedly joined Prokhorov and Williams in Russia for the ongoing courtship of the All-Star playmaker.
During his state-of-the-Nets/Arena address at Barclays Center last month, Prokhorov made it clear that re-signing Williams this summer was the primary goal for an organization that has failed in previous bids to land superstars like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard.
“[Williams] really wants to win and I want to win, maybe even more,” Prokhorov proclaimed. “At this stage, we’re on the same page. I think he wants to win and be part of a great franchise. So we have the same view of this.”
Unfortunately, so do several other owners and GMs throughout the league, most notably Mavericks front man Mark Cuban, who just watched his team get swept out of the first round of the NBA playoffs after capturing the franchise’s first-ever championship last June.
Prokhorov joked that he’d “crush [Cuban] in a kick-boxing throwdown” if the celebrity owner beat him in the race to sign Williams this summer.
Judging from this week’s international recruiting mission, Prokhorov appears to have thrown the first kick in what promises to be a well-publicized, knock-down, drag-out bout.
But will he land the knockout blow that delivers Williams?
Mavs players have already begun their own campaign to bring in Williams, presumably as reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki’s running mate.
“Get your (rear) home,'' Mavs forward Shawn Marion told the Associated Press this week when asked of his recruiting pitch to Williams.
''He's his own man and he's going to make the right decision for what's best for him to try to win a championship,'' noted Dallas point guard and former Net Jason Kidd.
A series of well-placed jabs by King will likely be the key in determining if Prokhorov wins his throw-down with Cuban.
Gerald Wallace, whom the Nets acquired from Portland at last season’s trade deadline after a deal for Howard fell through, is also slated for free agency this summer.
"I told him in his (exit) meeting that he deserves a multi-year deal," King said of Wallace. "When we can we will. I mean obviously he's a big part of it, and his reality being 30 years old, this is probably one of his last chances to get a nice contract."
The Nets have seven players other than Williams and Wallace who are free-agent eligible, and center Brook Lopez, rebounding machine Kris Humphries and mid-season D-League call-up Gerald Green appear to be the most important supporting players on that list.
Anthony Morrow, rookie MarShon Brooks, Jordan Williams and Johan Petro are already on board for Brooklyn, if course, they aren’t used as trade chips between now and the much-anticipated November opener at Barclays.
Prokhorov, Williams, King and Nets coach Avery Johnson all agreed that the Nets would have likely been a playoff team last season if not for a rash of injuries in the lockout-abbreviated 66-game campaign.
If King is able to reload and restock the roster to Williams’ liking, the Nets will be ready to challenge the Hudson River rival Knicks on the court, rather than just in the publicity department.
When asked if he feels pressure to live up to Prokhorov’s high expectations of competing for, and ultimately winning, the franchise’s first NBA title, King welcomed the heat.
"You don't want to be in the position where there's no expectations," he said. "People say, 'Is there pressure because Mikhail said we're gonna win a championship in five years?' No – that's a great goal; I'd rather have an owner saying that than 'Don't lose me money.' You know? There's some guys who own teams, all they care about is that they don't want to lose money; we've got one that wants to win a championship. It's my job to try to help get the pieces and help Avery and try to do it for him."
And it’s no secret that Williams is the biggest piece the Nets must have to realize their lofty goals.