“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” — Murphy’s Law, ignored by the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are what happens when there’s no parachute and the engine blows. They are the audacious experiment whose mission malfunctioned at takeoff and was aborted in midair, leaving behind a trade that is debated as the worst in the history of the NBA.
Four years later, here’s the carnage broken down to its most important parts, about as lopsided a deal for Russian owners as the Alaskan Purchase:
— The Celtics received the No. 17 pick in 2014, the No. 3 pick in 2016, the No. 1 pick in 2017, almost certainly another top pick in 2018.
— The Nets got two over-the-hill Hall of Famers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, neither of whom lasted two seasons in Brooklyn.
But the story of that trade isn’t quite so black-and-white. Reaching this point of disproportion required so much to go horribly wrong for the Nets, so many miscalculations and in-fighting before and after the agreement with Boston.
This is really the story of an ownership that reneged on its monetary pledge, a point guard who was the absolute wrong choice, a season of dysfunction and a pattern of sacrificing draft picks by the GM.
It takes a village to screw up an NBA franchise. That should be the headline Thursday when another team uses Brooklyn’s No. 1 draft pick on Markelle Fultz.
“It’s not like we woke up two years later saying, ‘Oh my God, what just happened?’” Bobby Marks, the former assistant GM of the Nets, said. “We knew what these picks could eventually turn out to be because you really didn’t have much of a safety net here.
“So we needed everything to align right. And then things went wrong, and the plan wasn’t seen through.”
The war room was packed on draft night in 2013, with people at all levels of the organization representing different departments.
Point guard Deron Williams had a seat, having previously labeled himself, “Assistant to the Assistant General Manager.” He arrived at that name as a joke mimicking the character Dwight Schrute from the sitcom, “The Office,” but his influence was very real over personnel decisions. New head coach Jason Kidd, just about two months removed from playing for the Knicks, and team CEO Brett Yormark, the franchise’s marketing machine, were also in the room. The notable absence was owner Mikhail Prokhorov, but that was hardly surprising.
Despite his grand proclamations and heavy financial commitment, Prokhorov was never around and rarely talked to anybody besides the Russian underlings he left behind, namely his liaison in the room, Dmitry Razumov.
Razumov, the chairman of the board of directors, acted in many ways as the owner of the Brooklyn Nets, operating out of the spotlight but very much enjoying the glamorous perks that accompanied the position like courtside seats next to Jay Z. His background was in investment banking and he knew nothing about basketball before joining the Nets. But Razumov wanted the deal for Garnett and Pierce. He wanted it the same way he wanted to trade those same draft picks for Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard.
“Dmitry’s a star chaser,” said a former Nets executive. “And Prokhorov and his people were obsessed with the flashiest things — the biggest yacht, the most expensive champagne, the biggest stars, the Mercedes.”
Nobody in basketball operations dealt directly with Prokhorov, who promised the world in press conferences and quickly retreated elsewhere. One year, Prokhorov showed up at training camp and proceeded to demonstrate a variety of martial arts exercises using volleyballs, tennis balls, boards and sticks. That same season, he went five-plus months without attending a game.
“He had this mystique about him, and then he vanished,” a former staff member said.
A little context: less than three months before the trade on draft night in 2013, the Nets had dropped a Game 7 at home in the first round against the Bulls. It was a gutless performance that ended an otherwise encouraging first year in Brooklyn.
The Nets’ front office then convinced itself the team was ready for a giant step forward. After all, it thought, Williams had been playing like an All-Star again. The Nets nearly won a playoff round despite Joe Johnson being hobbled by plantar fasciitis and Brook Lopez bending the screw in his surgically-repaired foot in the middle of the series. Plus, LeBron James had looked vulnerable that year in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, requiring seven games to squeak by the Pacers.
It felt like a good time to pounce. And the Celtics were in a position to accommodate.
The first deal negotiated with the Celtics was just for Pierce, and the Nets only had to give up one draft pick, Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks. But then Doc Rivers left the Celtics for the Clippers, and Garnett came into focus because there was nothing left for him in Boston. To match salaries, the Nets had to get rid of Gerald Wallace and his ugly contract paying $30 million over the next three years.
Shedding that cost Brooklyn another first-round draft pick, along with the two they were giving up for Garnett and Pierce. For a year in between, the Celtics negotiated the right to swap first-round picks. That turned into the Celtics landing No. 1 overall in 2017, which they’re reportedly close to trading to Philly for even more lottery picks.
“The arrogance in the room was that we were going to roll, we were going to win these next couple of years,” said a former Nets staff member who was in the draft room. “Maybe not the championship, but we were going to win the next couple of years and have sustainable success. We were going to keep signing free agents. We were always going to draft between 20 and 30. So if we’re going to swap with the Celtics, who gives a f–k? That definitely was the thought.”
Overeager negotiating had been a problem of GM Billy King. Even before the Celtics deal, he relinquished four total first-round picks in trades for Williams, Wallace and Joe Johnson. He had offered up many others in proposals for Carmelo and Dwight Howard, all under ownership’s directive that stars were required for the move from New Jersey to Brooklyn.
It was an unreasonable command from ownership and a flawed business model: take a team that won an NBA-worst 70 games and turn it into a contender in two years, then a champion within five. Still, ownership was happy with the returns when it opened Barclays Center in 2012.
“I do believe Billy will be GM of the Year,” Prokhorov exclaimed the day he cut the ribbon.
Building slowly for a new arena wasn’t an option — and it dictated most of the moves by King — but not protecting draft picks and agreeing to unnecessary pick swaps also burned Brooklyn. That part was on the GM.
“Billy’s literally like an addicted gambler when he’s close to doing those trades,” said an opposing executive. “He’ll do anything when it reaches a certain point.
“It’s the same way people think of (Kings owner) Vivek (Ranadive) and (Kings GM) Vlade (Divac), like ‘Damn, they’re running out of assets. We can’t strip them anymore.’ Everyone knew this was Billy’s weakness. …He created this situation where his only way out was to chase stars and hit a grand slam by swinging for the fences. He thought he got step 1 with Deron (Williams). And he was like, ‘I’m so close to getting step 2, I’m going to keep chasing these stars and I have owners that will pay.’ It created this disaster.”
King’s worst deal was for Wallace in 2012, a panic move meant to help convince Williams to re-sign in free agency that summer. The pick given in exchange to the Blazers turned into Dame Lillard, a point guard who is immensely better than Williams today.
But the deal with Boston was different. It was backed by logic — albeit flawed in retrospect — and lauded at the time as pushing the Nets into real contention. King had even gone around the room that evening asking about the proposal. There wasn’t much, if any, dissension. According to a report on Netsdaily.com, Milton Lee, the GM of the franchise’s D-League affiliate, represented the lone vocal opposition.
“Looking back, my one regret — and I know Billy gets a lot of arrows for the swap rights for this year — was that I shouldn’t have done the swap, or that I should’ve put some type of protection on the swap there looking back on everything,” Marks said. “It wasn’t just Billy. This was a group decision here. This was the group in the room.”
While tinkering with the swap was a possibility, the Nets weren’t allowed to place protections on the three draft picks they traded because of a league rule limiting teams from dealing too many in a seven-year window.
It was installed to protect teams against themselves, except in this case it only pushed Brooklyn further to the point of no return.
There would’ve been more resistance to the trade if Avery Johnson were still the head coach, but he was fired less than a year earlier by ownership. Johnson was Prokhorov’s first big hire in 2010, and he took the job under the impression Rod Thorn would be the GM and they’d build slowly.
Only a couple weeks later — while they were working out DeMarcus Cousins for the draft — Johnson was blindsided when Thorn told him about his decision to leave the Nets. Johnson helped pick out King as the replacement, but lost control of the direction as ownership went star-gazing.
Johnson pushed back on the chases for Anthony and Howard, preferring to keep young prospect Derrick Favors and the future draft picks. He didn’t want Deron Williams, whose rise in the organization doomed not only the future of the Nets, but Johnson’s job.
“If Avery was in that room, Avery would’ve said no (to the Celtics deal),” said a former staff member. “I can’t guarantee you that a trade wouldn’t have gotten done, but he would’ve pushed against it.”
Still, the trade nearly fell apart anyway because Garnett resisted waiving his no-trade clause. Although the parameters had beenagreed upon early in the day, Garnett didn’t consent until near the end of the first round of the draft — and only after being convinced by Pierce and Kidd in phone conversations. Garnett’s inclusion turned out to be the killer for the Nets. If it were just for Pierce, they’d have given up one draft pick and spare parts.
But Garnett, who was physically shot at 37 years old, made it a complicated megadeal that required the addition of more players and picks. (Brooklyn sent Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph and Keith Bogans to the Celtics, who gave up Jason Terry with Garnett and Pierce).
It also ballooned Brooklyn’s payroll to record numbers, nearly $200 million when combined with luxury taxes.
“I have done what I can. Now I think it is high time for the team to do the rest,” Prokhorov said at the time.
The immediate reaction was that it was a home run for Brooklyn, and unfair to the owners who couldn’t spend like Prokhorov. In the annual survey of NBA GMs, the Nets finished second in the category of ‘Best offseason moves,’ garnering 25% of the votes (In other words, one-quarter of the NBA GMs thought a deal debated as the worst in NBA history was the best of that year). Over 75% picked the Nets to win the Atlantic Division.
For a franchise battling for relevancy in the land of the Knicks, the trade also boosted marketability and ticket sales. Fred Mangione, the former COO of the Nets, said his department worked through the night and the next morning selling tickets, although they weren’t allowed to promote the trade because it wasn’t official.
“In my 17 years with the Nets, it probably happened only two times, maybe three — we didn’t have to make any calls because the phones just rang,” Mangione said. “They rang all night.
“I remember actually being at the draft and then going back to the offices and being there most of the night. We did a couple shifts. Somebody was there all night and then the next day people kind of picked up at 6 a.m. and tagged out. It kind of took the buzz of Barclays Center to the next level. “
The Nets sold more season tickets for that campaign than any other in team history, according to Mangione. The entire starting lineup was on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with the headline, “Who Wants a Piece of Them?” The buzz was reaching new heights.
And it didn’t take very long for it all to come crashing down.
Prior to their first day at training camp at Duke University, each player, coach and staff member was given a stack of poker chips with a Nets insignia. They were all told to bring one of these chips each day to practice and throw them in a pile, symbolizing that they were, to steal the poker phrase, “All In.”
It became cruel irony only a couple months later when the creator of this motivational gimmick, Lawrence Frank, was the first person booted off Nets Island.
The problems, however, started long before Kidd banished his lead assistant. Williams was the first falling domino when he sprained his ankle working out in Utah and missed both training camp and most of preseason. Somehow, his fragile psyche never recovered. Garnett and Pierce were two of the first to arrive at the Nets’ practice facility for offseason workouts, and, according to sources, were surprised by the lack of attendance and immediately disappointed with the overall attitude of their new organization. Disappointment was an ongoing theme for those two.
“When we came in and implemented our style, you know a lot of people there didn’t understand that,” Garnett said recently on his TNT show. “Everybody is preparing differently. We had to kind of adjust.”
Pierce was also dealing with serious grief about leaving Boston, giving the impression he wanted to be elsewhere.
Former Nets PR vice president Gary Sussman noticed that right away, while prepping Garnett and Pierce for their introductory press conference.
“Before in the locker room, Garnett was engaged, Pierce was not engaged,” Sussman said. “He was wearing sunglasses. And he did not look like a guy who was happy to be there.
“It took him a while to adjust,” Sussman added. “Focusing on the trade and the immediate aftermath, then put him in Brooklyn, and this is where he is. He’s not happy about being there, he’s uncertain about the whole situation, and now you’re trying to work with him. You weren’t really a welcomed member of the crew at that time. You had to fight for every inch of respect and workability.”
While Pierce might’ve lacked enthusiasm for Brooklyn, Garnett’s disappointment was on the court. He anticipated being a complimentary piece to the stars who were already in place, but quickly learned the team needed more than his 37-year-old capabilities.
Just to get through the season, Garnett was placed on a minutes restriction and still missed nearly 30 games. He averaged career lows in minutes (20.5), points (6.5) and field goal percentage (44.1). The dropoff in just one year was startling.
“Honestly, I have no rhythm,” he said during a low point in the season. “I’m trying to establish some confidence and figure this whole, ‘Where I fit into the offense’ thing. Right now I’m just not even a priority.”
Otherwise, Garnett lived up to his reputation as a maniacal worker and maniacal personality. As part of some hazing situation, for instance, he once tied up Nets rookie Tyshawn Taylor with ropes and threw him in the shower.
“(Taylor) knew it was coming. Tyshawn can’t be mad because he brought it on himself,” Mason Plumlee, who was mentored by Garnett that season, explained.
Garnett and Pierce also had little patience for media, which was a conundrum in this ma rket. The Nets were trying to gain inroads in their new home, promoting themselves as the hip alternative to the corporate Knicks. The fanbase was small and lacked the passion of Boston. But Garnett, in particular, had no interest in fighting for that cause, breaking the league’s accessibility rules so often the NBA stopped trying to enforce it.
He was also easily angered and confrontational, as Sussman realized prior to the first preseason game.
“So Pierce is sitting in the trainer’s room. And I go up to him to tell him the new league rules that if you talked to the media at shootaround, you didn’t have to talk pregame. But if you didn’t talk at shootaround, the league would like you to talk pregame. So all I was doing was just telling him about the rules,” Sussman said. “And Garnett ripped me a new one. He went off on me worse than any player has ever done. Worse than any player has ever done. He killed me. Killed me. And I wasn’t even talking to him. And Pierce is just sitting there silent.”
Garnett later apologized.
“He said it wasn’t me he was angry with, he was angry at the league for making rules again without consulting the players.”
For Garnett and Pierce, the biggest disappointment in Brooklyn was Deron Williams — a three-time All-Star whose skills eroded rapidly after putting on a Nets uniform. If you created a tree of all the Nets’ problems, Williams has to sit at the very top because every potential subtree can be traced back to the point guard and that $100 million contract.
Ahead of the 2013-14 season, there was actually chatter of Williams being an MVP candidate. But his fragile ankles became an issue before training camp even started, and the locker room turned on Williams when it became apparent he couldn’t handle pressure.
“That’s the guy the team is built around?” Pierce condescendingly asked his teammates that season, according to a witness.
Pierce eventually took his disappointment public.
“Before I got there, I looked at Deron as an MVP candidate,” he told ESPN. “But I felt once we got there, that’s not what he wanted to be. He just didn’t want that.
“I think a lot of the pressure got to him sometimes.”
Williams completely disappeared in the playoffs, prompting a fan to tape a “MISSING PERSON” poster outside the arena with the point guard’s face. The picture made all the rounds on social media, sending Williams through a cycle of online ridicule. In the six playoff games that followed, Williams averaged just 11.5 points on 37% shooting.
He even went scoreless in 37 minutes during a game against Miami.
“I knew it was over for him after that poster,” said a team executive.
About a year later, Joe Johnson made a plea to two reporters on Williams’ behalf, understanding his teammate’s delicate state of mind.
“Take it easy on D-Will,” Johnson said. “He can’t handle it.”
But Williams’ struggles weren’t the only reason the foundation crumbled. Brook Lopez broke his foot in December. Andrei Kirilenko was either injured or ineffective. Andray Blatche allegedly showed up drunk to practices, according to multiple sources, and briefly was suspended by the team.
This was all dropped on the lap of a rookie head coach, who was suspended for the first two games of the season because of a DUI and quickly lost patience with his lead assistant.
Lawrence Frank, a veteran on the sideline, had been hired to guide Kidd through his first season, but Kidd decided Frank was overstepping his bounds and impeding his own ability to coach. Kidd grew sensitive to the subject, referencing multiple times how the media made a big deal that Frank — not himself — held the clipboard in Summer League.
There was also a profanity-laced outburst during a coaches meeting early in the season.
“Sit the f–k down,” Kidd told Frank. “I’m the coach of this f—king team. When you’re on the bench, don’t f—king move!”
It reached the point that Kidd, according to sources, offered to pay the rest of Frank’s salary just to get rid of him. Instead, Frank was reassigned to writing daily reports on the opponents — a task he completed diligently throughout the season — and never returned to the Nets sideline.
Another divide emerged during the season, this one pitting King and his staff against Kidd and two of the coach’s supporters — D-League GM Milton Lee and Irina Pavlova, the president of Prokhorov’s ONEXIM Sports & Entertainment.
Their philosophical differences culminated with an attempted coup from Kidd, who demanded from ownership to be elevated above King in the front office.
Despite all these dysfunctional happenings, the Nets got their act together in 2013-14. After starting 10-21, they finished as the sixth seed and won a playoff series for the first time since 2007. Kidd grew immensely as a coach. Joe Johnson was reliable and clutch. Pierce played well. Lopez was recovering.
There was real hope the Nets would improve and contend in the East the following season, as LeBron James entered an uncertain summer with Miami.
But then, unexpectedly, the plug was pulled.
The logic behind the trade went exactly like this for the Nets, according to Marks: they’ll be a championship-level team in 2013-14, then a playoff team in both 14-15 and 15-16. Those three years would establish Brooklyn as an attractive free agent destination for the summer of 2016 when the salary cap rose because of the influx of TV money.
Only the plan was abandoned after just one year. It died following three important developments: 1) the team wasn’t as good as advertised; 2) Kidd left for Milwaukee after he failed to usurp King; 3) ownership gave up and closed the wallet.
The latter may have been the most surprising given Prokhorov’s repeated boasts that money will never be an issue. His reversal was never really explained.
So why did ownership decide to reduce the payroll just before the start of free agency in 2014? Was it because the season was so disappointing? Kidd’s departure? The $144 million loss the organization took that season in basketball activities? The collapsing Russian economy? The rumors that Prokhorov wanted to sell the team?
Not long after the fateful 2013-14 season, Prokhorov said the monetary losses were “not a big deal.” He added that the trade for Garnett and Pierce was, “a very good deal, and it was a great investment in the Brooklyn brand. …Because as soon as we moved to New York, it was a great lift for us, from a business point of view.”
As of Saturday morning, a request to talk with Razumov did not get a definitive response.
King, who was fired in 2016, declined to be interviewed for this article but provided a statement.
“We had a plan, and everybody bought into the plan, and then the plan changed the next year,” he said.
From the end of one season to the next, the Nets lost more than half their roster for nothing. Most signed elsewhere in free agency, while two (Kirilenko and Marquis Teague) were traded to cut salary. The biggest losses were Pierce, Shaun Livingston and Blatche (who signed a lucrative contract in China that included a clause stating he doesn’t have to practice, according to a source).
Despite Pierce’s complaints, he was willing to re-sign in Brooklyn for about $5 million. But the luxury tax penalty was too steep and the Nets pulled back the offer. Pierce then left for the Wizards and hit a couple clutch playoff shots, officially killing the “All In” Nets team less than a year after its formation.
“If you’re thinking you’re going to do a deal with Pierce and knew he was going to sign with another team, I don’t think you could justify doing that type of trade,” Marks said. “That was the whole goal when we talked about it. To make it somewhat work, Pierce would have to be brought back in the summer of 2014.”
Kidd had a history of messy divorces, and his departure from Brooklyn rivaled his fake migraine with New Jersey less than seven years prior. Behind King’s back, Kidd went to ownership to ask for the power of a team president. Razumov, the star chaser, was the main reason the Nets hired Kidd despite his lack of experience. But Razumov was also close with King, and ownership denied Kidd’s brazen power move.
“There is an old English proverb,” Prokhorov said about Kidd. “Don’t let the door hit you where the good lord split you.”
UConn coach Kevin Ollie was the first choice to replace Kidd, but he turned down the job. European coach Dusko Ivanovic also emerged as a candidate before King made the wrong choice of Lionel Hollins, who butted heads with nearly everybody and ticked off ownership.
Around the All-Star break of Hollins’ first season, Deron Williams called a meeting to discuss his issues with his coach. It ended with Williams so distraught he had to be restrained from attacking Hollins.
Garnett was traded to Minnesota at the deadline in 2015. Five months later, the Nets set a goal of getting under the luxury tax and waived Williams. By the end of the 2015-16 season, Joe Johnson was also waived and King was fired.
The boldest experiment in the NBA finished as a failure, and the Nets set on a much different course. Their philosophy now under GM Sean Marks is to build slowly and frugally, leading to the worst record in the NBA last season.
It’s a complete 180-degree turn from ownership, with two opposing schools of thought from the outside — either it’s the prudent move to rebuild the franchise’s reputation following the “All-In” shortsightedness, or it’s dumb to tank when you don’t have control of your draft picks.
As executives across the league can attest, everything’s copacetic until ownership isn’t down with the plan. In the case of the Nets in 2013, copacetic meant throwing in all the poker chips for a risky hand that only got worse after the flop cards were revealed.
The repercussions will be felt Thursday when Adam Silver steps to the podium, and perhaps for another two decades depending on how these draft picks play out for Boston.
To quote Paul Pierce, “Look what I leave behind for the Celts on my way out.”