Bruce Ratner remains a minority partner in the New Jersey Nets, so he's not at liberty to question the decisions made by the team's new majority owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. But if there's one consequence of the new regime's attempt to distance itself from last season's nearly historic -- as in historically bad --12-70 record that bothers him, it's how assistant general manager Kiki Vandeweghe was sent packing.
Enough so that Ratner's conscience apparently compelled him to speak out about it. Especially now that team president Rod Thorn is stepping aside as well and the team is in search of new leadership altogether.
"He didn't go out the way he should have," Ratner said now of Vandeweghe. "The team is in a really good position and he was instrumental in putting it there."
The Nets have $30 million in cap space and Vandeweghe, Ratner said, helped create $27 million of it. Ratner credited Vandeweghe for helping secure their existing nucleus of center Brook Lopez and All-Star point guard Devin Harris as well.
"Kiki did a lot of the negotiating," Ratner said.
Vandeweghe, Ratner suggested, hurt himself by agreeing to be "a good soldier" and serve as interim coach after an 0-19 start prompted the firing of Lawrence Frank. With the team's sale already on the horizon, Thorn didn't want to hire a coach for what might be a 63-game stint.
"There was no upside," Ratner says. "Kiki did it because Rod asked him and Kiki thought it was best for the team. A lot of people complained that he wasn't a good coach, but he'd never coached before and the truth is, we were playing better by the end of the season. His decision to coach the team was one of the most selfless things done in sports management. It was courageous. It probably hurt his career."
Thorn, sources say, promised to present the two of them to Prokhorov as a package deal. Whatever happened in the talks between Prokhorov and Thorn, Vandeweghe found out through a newspaper reporter's phone call while on a scouting trip that he wasn't being retained.
Vandeweghe declined to comment on his awkward ouster or Ratner's contention that he was treated unfairly. Ratner stopped short of saying Vandeweghe should have been retained -- especially now that Thorn found Prokhorov's offer to stay unacceptable and also is out -- but gave him ample credit for the team's promising future.
"Creating cap room was very heavily Kiki," Ratner says. "I don't ever want to say the organization is weaker, but Kiki's input will be missed. Having him in an organization is a positive."
That said, Ratner doesn't see the Nets bringing Vandeweghe back. His gratitude for Vandeweghe's work and guilt over how he was dismissed stops short of going to bat for him.
"It's Mikhail's team now and he wants to put his stamp on it," Ratner says. "I can understand that."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.