Calipari can be the one to save the Nets
For a brief, fleeting moment last year, the lights shined not on Broadway, but in Brooklyn and Barclays Center. The stars were in place, star talent assembled on the court, championship aspirations voiced by the bold Russian oligarch owner, and a high-profile star on the sidelines in Jason Kidd, swiped from the backcourt of the rival Knicks and installed in a suit to begin his coaching career.
And so much of it faded out, like a hip Brooklyn nightspot, already crashed and burned in the court of public opinion and on the court of play.
The players failed or fled. Rumors floated that Mikhail Prokhorov was ready to sell. And Kidd bolted, leaving Brooklyn for Milwaukee. Now, the flashy arena, the hip locale, the high-priced failing roster all feel a little like the Nets that stumbled through barren outposts along the highway corridors of New Jersey and Long Island for decades.
The new coach, Lionel Hollins, has overseen an underachieving season. General manager Billy King outlasted Kidd’s power play, but is left managing a mess of a roster with the future clouded by his draft pick giveaways.
It’s simple to follow the trail of where it went wrong, but one NBA front-office official looked at the situation and believed there is a way back — and one that could happen.
The one name that could return the Nets to all of those things they thought they could be, that they seemed primed to be, is currently guiding the best college basketball team in the nation, a coach who crashed and burned with the Nets once already. The Nets can be saved by John Calipari.
“He desperately wants it,” the front-office official said. “He won’t say it out loud. The NBA is the only place he’s ever failed and it drives him nuts. He’s not the same guy he was then. He came to the NBA and he wasn’t ready. He’s ready now.”
If it seems like grasping at straws, a big name to save the day, maybe it is. But NBA sources point to ties that are already in place. In the Nets’ struggles, the one person who has held the trust of Prokhorov is the man behind the marketing, the tireless Brett Yormark. While the product on the court has struggled, the branding of the Nets has been a blueprint for other franchises. While Calipari may have left some rifts when he was fired by the Nets, he remained close with Yormark.
Calipari would have little left to accomplish at Kentucky if the team finishes off the greatest season in NCAA history, unbeaten and marching toward a title. And in front of him lays his greatest recruiting coup.
Calipari has established himself as the best coach in the college game. His recruiting skills are legendary now, a steady procession of McDonald’s All-Americans coming to Lexington, Ky., and churning out after a year or two as NBA-ready prospects.
He has grown as a coach, too, drawing the most out of the top prospects, coaxing them to buy in as pieces rather than stars, all the while leading them to the draft where they join a parade of Kentucky players already in starring roles in the NBA.
So consider this scenario — the Nets figure to have about $60 million in cap space in the summer of 2016, coinciding with a free agent market loaded with talent.
“All these kids, if you look at a free-agent list and check off the ones who he’s got a relationship with you could build an All-Star team,” a person close to Calipari said. “Start with LeBron James.”
James never played for Calipari, but they have a relationship — just like the celebrities who have joined on. Rapper Drake works his way into the layup line at Kentucky’s Midnight Madness.
Jay-Z, former Nets minority owner and now an agent — with Kevin Durant in his stable of talent — has paid a visit. Start perusing the list of players who could be on the market — James, Durant and even Anthony Davis, a former No. 1 pick from Kentucky — and it’s a bonanza of riches for the man who can bring them onboard.
What would it take to draw Calipari from Kentucky back to save the Nets, to oversee a recruiting class on the NBA level? It’s easy to see how it benefits the Nets — an owner who promised a championship in a five-year timetable that expires at the end of this season given a star again, a second citizen in the New York market given a voice again. And for Calipari, coaching for a team in a large market with a deep-pocketed owner puts him squarely in the NBA game again.
For Prokhorov to make it happen, though, there is a path to clear. That would mean Hollins gets cut loose after one season (if it were to come this summer) or two, if they wanted to beat the free-agent frenzy next summer.
To land Calipari it would likely mean that he is handed not only the coaching reins, but the keys to the franchise, too, the same ones they wouldn’t give Kidd. That means the sort of power that Stan Van Gundy got in Detroit, Flip Saunders in Minnesota and Doc Rivers with the Clippers.
It’s what Calipari has in Kentucky. It’s what sources close to him believe it would take to lead to the spot he will land. And all that Calipari could offer the Nets is everything they dreamed they could be.