By Marc Stein
Mikhail Prokhorov tasted his first NBA disappointment almost as soon as he was formally introduced as the new owner in New Jersey … when his Nets greeted the Russian billionaire by coming away with only the third overall pick in the draft lottery after a 12-70 season.
Six weeks later?
Prokhorov faces his first round of real damage control.
Chris Broussard’s disclosure that Nets president Rod Thorn will leave his post July 15 was greeted with widespread surprise when the news began to circulate Friday night, given Thorn’s standing as one of the most respected figures anywhere on the NBA map.
Sources insisted that Thorn was not forced out, with one source telling ESPN The Magazine’s Broussard: “This is entirely his decision.” Newark Star-Ledger sage Dave D’Alessandro, furthermore, reported that Thorn’s wife, Peggy, has been urging the 69-year-old to walk away from the madness.
Yet there were also persistent rumblings among Thorn’s peers late Friday that a pay cut Prokhorov wanted him to take only encouraged him to step down. Although Thorn has pledged to stay on for the next two weeks to help the Nets follow up the hiring of Avery Johnson as coach with their free-agent pursuit of LeBron James, news of Thorn's imminent departure just before the most anticipated summer in league history -- amid whispers of a contract dispute – is a potential blow to the spare-no-expense image free agents have of Prokhorov.
Unless, of course, Prokhorov can soften the blow with a splashy replacement hire. The Bergen Record reported on its website Friday night that Team USA chief Jerry Colangelo – who already knows a little something about recruiting James, Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire -- is New Jersey’s top choice.
A source with knowledge of the Nets’ thinking, meanwhile, told ESPN.com that the team also intends to sound out retired legend Jerry West to see if he has any interest in a front-office comeback, with Thorn – West’s fellow West Virginian – apparently pledging to help Prokhorov find his replacement.
Thorn, though, didn’t want any of this to leak out, repeatedly swatting down questions about his future in fear that the subject could distract from or even damage the Nets’ dealings in free agency, which will begin in earnest Thursday when they are the first team to make a face-to-face pitch to LeBron James.
Questions are already being asked by colleagues and rivals, just as Thorn suspected, because folks around the league are struggling to believe that he’d really want to bow out now, with so much optimism about Prokhorov’s arrival and the Nets’ cap space after such a dreadful season. You’d think Thorn would want to be around for the good part, having watched the Nets flirt so seriously with the league’s all-time worst record, which only made his many early successes in New Jersey -- starting with the 2001 acquisition of Jason Kidd – seem like the most distant memory.
Yet it must be noted that there is something else Thorn is working on that could change the subject again. Sources say that the completion of the draft has not stopped New Jersey from continuing to shop forward Yi Jianlian, with Thorn still hopeful he can find a trade between now and July 8 that sheds Yi’s $4.1 million salary from next season’s payroll. Such a move would take New Jersey’s salary-cap space past the $30 million mark, which is why one source says that the Nets making third overall pick Derrick Favors available to increase the chances of moving Yi or Kris Humphries has not been ruled out.