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Russian influence on Nets leaves franchise in disarray

by Sam Smith

The United States is having a lot of problems with Russia.

It apparently helped elect as American president a narcissistic, racist, misogynist pathological liar. But perhaps worse, it may have ruined the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets.

Well, not exactly the country, but one of its most prominent citizens, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov (oligarch sounds so much more mysterious and wealthy). He is the man who purchased the then-New Jersey Nets in 2010 and immediately promised to win a title —and become the dominant New York basketball team — within five years.

Now, seven years later, one of the most woebegone franchises in NBA history, the franchise that sold Julius Erving to get enough money to pay its way into the NBA from the ABA and passed up a chance to draft Kobe Bryant because he said he didn’t care for New Jersey, is worse off than it has ever been.

And that’s because of the unrealistic ambitions and ego of the Russian mogul. Actually, those traits fit a lot of NBA owners; OK, most NBA owners.

And Donald Trump’s good friend Vladimir Putin doesn’t even like Prokhorov, who even ran against Putin one time. That Prokhorov hasn’t been poisoned or shot may be his greatest accomplishment. But I digress. A little, anyway.

Prokhorov probably shouldn’t even have been allowed into the NBA. After all, it’s always a requirement to examine a prospective owner’s finances and sources, and good luck checking that out. But the NBA was so consumed with its globalization and adding all that international money that they looked at Prokhorov like American colleges look at prized recruits. He just borrowed that car, and the drugs and body were already in there, your honor. He couldn’t have known.

Anyway, I sort of digress again.

Not that Prokhorov didn’t act like a lot of new NBA owners. He came in with loads of money, personal ambition and outrage. Mark Cuban wrote a book about that.

He told his general manager Billy King to win now and worry about the future some other time. Who knows how much Prokhorov was involved in the decision making. But King is about to be named executive of the year for building another Boston Celtics dynasty. Too bad he did it while running the Nets.

The Nets currently have the NBA’s worst record by a lot. So they’re in line for the top pick in the NBA Draft, a draft many say with perhaps a half dozen potential franchise players . The lottery could send them to No. 4, but top three is almost certain.

Boston has the right to swap its pick for the Nets’ this season and will get the Nets’ pick next season, both from the trade of close-to-washed up Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in June 2013. The Celtics also got promising rookie Jaylen Brown, No. 3 in the 2016 draft, from that trade. The Celtics also got the No. 17 pick in the 2014 draft, which they used for James Young.

Yes, basically the ability to build a franchise for the last days of Pierce and Garnett. It started OK, actually, as the Nets also had Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez.

After a slow start in 2013-14, the Nets got to the second round of the playoffs, and the following season lost in the first round and then suffered a total collapse, the Nets are now finishing their third straight season of at least 60 losses. With little hope as Boston also gets their 2018 first-round pick from the Pierce/Garnett deal.

Though the Nets do get two picks this season at the bottom of the first round from the swap with Boston and a previous deal with Washington.

Though there was more.

The Nets went full bore into 2010 free agency under Prokhorov to go for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire with the new billions. They came out with Travis Outlaw, Johan Petro and Jordan Farmar.

Then they got in the trade bidding for Carmelo Anthony from Denver, which prompted the Knicks to overreact and trade the Nuggets too many pieces.

Score one, anyway, for winning the city. The Knicks still stink, too.

Failing to get Anthony, the Nets quickly cashed in for Deron Williams from Utah for three No. 1 picks. The Jazz got Derrick Favors in the deal and the No. 3 pick in 2011, which the Jazz used for Enes Kanter and a No. 1 in 2012, No. 21 which was for Gorgui Dieng. Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard also were in that 2011 draft when the Jazz selected Kanter with the Nets’ pick.

OK, there’s more. In 2012, saying they had their point guard in Williams, who was often injured, angry and disruptive, the Nets traded their No. 1 pick to Portland for Gerald Wallace. More veteran expertise.

Portland selected Damian Lillard. Oops. The next year, the Nets traded another No. 1, which was lower and just for Shane Larkin; no big deal. But in getting Joe Johnson and his monstrous salary, the Nets ended up paying the largest luxury tax penalty in NBA history. So, yes, no chance to win and losing the most money of any NBA team.

Hello, Brooklyn.

Then came the crippling Pierce/Garnett deal, and the Nets won’t see the lottery until 2019.

Meanwhile, everyone but Prokhorov is gone. Prokhorov seems like it as well, rarely seen or heard around the Nets anymore. Sean Marks was brought in from the Spurs factory and Kenny Atkinson as coach, two relatively anonymous figures with the new mandate to slowly and quietly build a foundation.

And so it goes now for the Nets. They don’t exactly have a core, patching together a few veterans like holdover Lopez with Jeremy Lin, the latter cleverly effective, and a couple of young, hustling players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and Archie Goodwin. They play hard and have stolen some games late in the season, like back-to-back wins over the Knicks and over the Hawks and Bulls, both trying for the playoffs.

During the last month, the Nets have been one of the league’s better defensive teams, hustling, forcing steals and with a top defensive rating. Sometimes it happens with low-level teams because they have so many players trying to win NBA jobs or save their careers.

It’s difficult to identify a potential All-Star on the Nets roster or how they can get one in the next few years. So it’s still likely to be a long way back. But at least they now appear to have a plan and direction, if not much immediate gratification.

Beware of the Russian promises. Nothing much good seems to come of it.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”