Nets hold breath as King courts Howard

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Kevin O'Connor, general manager of the Utah Jazz, saw it as a time to offer comfort, and Billy King, general manager of the New Jersey Nets, saw it as an opportunity to make a deal. O'Connor had called his old boss in Philly last winter to say he was sorry.

As in, sorry that you didn't get Carmelo Anthony and that your hostile neighbor across the river did.

But the old friends got to talking, and King got to thinking. Deron Williams had just engaged Jerry Sloan in a heated argument, and Sloan -- the toughest of tough guys, the John Wayne of his profession -- decided it wasn't in him to be an NBA coach anymore, leaving the Jazz in a chaotic state.

"Let me throw something at you to see if it makes sense," King said.

The Nets GM threw a bold proposal at his former aide, and O'Connor said he'd review the offer for Williams and call back. "Well," King told himself, "he didn't say no."

The following morning, O'Connor was on the line to tell King, "We've got a deal," and when word hit that the Nets had landed the league's best pure point guard, Donnie Walsh's New York Knicks weren't quite as giddy that they'd landed Carmelo Anthony instead.

Walsh was kicking himself for failing to do business with Utah, as pairing a visionary playmaker like Williams with Amare Stoudemire made more sense than pairing another defensively challenged scorer in the frontcourt with Stoudemire. If nothing else, Walsh could've leveraged talks with the Jazz against a Denver front office that was dangling Anthony like a carrot above the city slickers and demanding every available Knick except Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed.

Only Walsh never spoke with the Jazz about their point guard's availability, and Billy King did. If King hadn't made his longshot bid for Williams then, he wouldn't even be in the conversation for Dwight Howard now.

But enough on the good news. The bad news? The really, really bad news?

If King can't find a way to beat the Los Angeles Lakers to Howard, the Nets will arrive in Brooklyn as a disaster of Secaucus Seven proportions.

Sooner or later -- and the safe bet is sooner -- Howard will be back on the market, and King positively cannot afford to finish second to the Lakers on this one. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov would be better off losing the race for the presidency in Russia than he would be losing the race for his Excellency -- Howard -- here in the States.

Of course, David Stern did the Nets no favors by playing god in the Chris Paul talks. Had Stern notarized the perfectly acceptable trade New Orleans GM Dell Demps had made with the Lakers and Houston Rockets, the Lakers wouldn't have the necessary pieces to outbid New Jersey on Howard.

But in a staggering display of hubris, Stern redirected Paul to the Clippers and effectively granted the Lakers a better shot at Howard, who happens to be much bigger and at least a little better than Paul.

Now the Lakers have Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to offer to Orlando (Gasol would've been gone in the nixed deal for Paul), and at day's end it's hard to believe the Magic will reject that package for one built around Brook Lopez, a pretty good player from a third team, and a draft pick or picks.

"I can't worry about other people," King said Thursday when asked about the Lakers' supply of assets. "I just worry about what we can do and what I can control. I can't control other organizations or what's out there."

Williams said much the same about the threat the Lakers pose. "That's not really a concern to me," he claimed.

Sure it's a big concern to Williams, and a bigger one to King. Losing Howard to the Lakers almost certainly means losing Williams to free agency, which almost certainly means losing thousands upon thousands of fans who would've otherwise bought tickets to take in one of the league's greatest shows.

Williams and Howard would be Stockton and Malone on steroids -- figuratively, of course. And surprise, surprise: Howard is said to prefer the Nets over the Lakers. When's the last time anyone was said to have preferred that?

Good for the Orlando center, who apparently believes that life with an aging Kobe Bryant -- and without an aging Phil Jackson -- might not be all it's cut out to be. Who needs glitz and glamour and all that fun in the sun when you can own Brooklyn with the all-seeing likes of Williams, who spent part of Thursday's practice flagging teammate Anthony Morrow for excessive movement on what became a wayward pass?

"I can see you on the floor wherever you are," Williams told Morrow. "Don't move. I'll get the ball to you. Just worry about spotting up."

King has no choice but to make Williams and Howard Brooklyn's Boys of Spring. The most appetizing consolation prize, Nene, is off the board, and stealing the middling likes of Shawne Williams away from the Knicks isn't going to cut it.

Travis Outlaw has been fired, and King still has Andrei Kirilenko on his radar, along with What's Her Name's ex, Kris Humphries. "I think if you're a Nets fan," King said, "you should feel good that we're heading in the right direction."

But it's only the right direction if it leads to Orlando, and a transaction that would beat King's deal for Williams and even top the Nets' granddaddy of them all, the Stephon Marbury-for-Jason Kidd trade executed by Rod Thorn.

In his previous life as Sixers GM, King made personnel decisions that were good, bad and ugly. His employer, Ed Snider, didn't help him by telling the world he wanted to ship out Allen Iverson.

This time around, King is older, wiser and secure enough in his front-office skin to cop to his own mistakes. "I didn't want to go out and just spend a bunch of money," he said of recent conservative choices in free agency, "because if it doesn't work, that's your roster. I've done that in the past."

No, not many general managers make that concession for the record.

As a Philly guy, King couldn't help but bring up the Eagles' failed Dream Team experiment as a way of reminding everyone that sheer star power doesn't always trump a thoughtful plan. "Sometimes it's not the names you get," he said, "but how you piece it together."

Only now King needs a big name in the worst way, just like he needed a big name in his trade with the Jazz. The GM is the last line of defense separating the Nets from the unmitigated disaster that would be losing Howard, and then losing Williams because of it.

By topping the Knicks' deal for Anthony last year, King has earned the benefit of the doubt. He appears to be the right guy to keep throwing things at Orlando to see if it makes sense.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.