Billy King seems happy. Probably a bit relieved, too. The Brooklyn Nets finally got a much-needed victory on March 14, snapping a five-game losing streak in Philadelphia. Somehow, someway, their playoff hopes are still alive.
Following the conclusion of the game, King was observed chatting with a group of people near an exit in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center. The team’s general manager planned to celebrate with a cheesesteak and a nice glass of wine. He and his family were ready to head home. In that moment, all was well.
The bigger picture, however, tells a different story. Three days earlier, King was on the phone with season-ticket holders, trying to make sense of a season gone wrong.
“I think it’s been a trying year for you guys and all of us,” King said, according to the team’s website. “It hasn’t been the year we wanted.”
And yet ...
“I think it could turn around really quickly,” the Nets GM added. “We’re going to explore every option to continue to add some athleticism so we can be a better defensive team, become a more athletic team, so we can get out and run. That’s the plan. We’ll look and explore every option. There will be no stone unturned as we go forward.”
King can be very convincing. But this one is a tough sell. For all the moves the Nets have made during the King-Mikhail Prokhorov era, for all the money they’ve spent, all they've only been able to muster one playoff series win.
Over the summer -- a busy summer that included the departure of both Shaun Livingston and, stunningly, Jason Kidd -- the organization decided to let Paul Pierce walk as a free agent. Internally, they didn’t think they were going to compete for a title. As a result, lowering their massive luxury-tax bill became a priority. Retaining Pierce just wasn’t in the cards.
“Right now, they’re kind of in the middle right now. And I really didn’t want to be in the middle,” Pierce told NBA.com after signing with the Washington Wizards.
“Our goal is still to try to win a championship,” he said. “We’re not taking any steps back or anything like that. We’re trying to build a team we think can win.”
With Kidd set to make his second trip back to Brooklyn Friday night, the Nets are 27-39 overall -- 7-28 against .500 or better teams, 11-19 at home -- and find themselves two and a half games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Sure enough, the Nets are exactly who Pierce thought they’d be: a team in the middle.
Thaddeus Young has proven to nice addition at the trade deadline. And on Wednesday night in Cleveland, Young’s hot start from the field helped the Nets jump out to a 13-point lead in the first quarter. Though eventually, Brooklyn would get blown out, 117-92.
The Nets, who have been great at scoring in the paint yet still struggle to play consistently under Lionel Hollins, are in the midst of a season-defining stretch. Games against Milwaukee, Indiana, Boston and Charlotte -- four teams they are chasing in the standings -- loom in succession, starting with Friday's Bucks matchup.
Still, fighting for a playoff spot wasn't in the plans. Prokhorov's five-year plan once called for a championship by 2015.
Then came disaster. The Nets were so desperate to keep Williams and win it all that they began hemorrhaging assets left and right. An unprotected first-rounder here. A pick swap there.
As a result of those ill-fated moves, the Nets don’t own total control over their own first-rounder until 2019. The future, despite having perhaps upwards of $60 million in cap space in the summer of 2016, looks bleak.
Bojan Bogdanovic, Mason Plumlee, Markel Brown and the late first-rounder they will receive as part of their pick swap with the Atlanta Hawks in the upcoming draft will help moving forward, but who will lead them? Which current superstar would be willing to leave his current situation for this?
King, though, has more immediate concerns: What is he going to do with Williams and Johnson (who was remarkable during the playoffs last season)? Are their contracts just going to expire? Could they actually fetch anything of value on the trade market? And what about Brook Lopez and Young?
King is also going into the final year of his contract. Will he be a lame duck GM? If the Russians are still in power, will he receive an extension? But if they sell the team, how will that affect his status?
So many questions need to be answered. Being in the middle is tough position to be in. But it's even harder to see how the Nets get out of there.