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Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Starting Five: A tale of two philosophies

By Mike Mazzeo

Brook Lopez
The Nets have tried, and failed, to reach the bar the Spurs have set over the years.
Exactly a year later, the Nets are in San Antonio again, hoping for a different result.

The Spurs are everything you want an NBA franchise to be, a model of stability and success. The Nets? Well, they’re the antithesis of that.

San Antonio’s formula is the best formula in this thing we call the salary-cap era: Bring in the right coach (Gregg Popovich), get lucky (David Robinson gets hurt) and land a franchise-changing No. 1 pick (Tim Duncan) as a result, surround them with the perfect complementary pieces (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli etc.) and then win a lot of games and championships (four titles and counting).

What’s ironic about the whole thing is, at one point, the Nets were trying to emulate the Spurs. They hired former San Antonio point guard Avery Johnson as their coach and a couple of Popovich’s disciples as assistants (P.J. Carlesimo and Mario Elie).

In a perfect world, once owner Mikhail Prokhorov acquired the team, the Nets would’ve drafted John Wall No. 1 overall and paired him with LeBron James and others in the summer of 2010. That would’ve been something. But the lottery didn’t call their number, James made his decision to join the Miami Heat, and the rest is history.

Rather than rebuilding, the Nets opted for a quick overhaul that included trading first-round picks and other young assets for high-priced players like Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. (Brook Lopez, now hurt, is really the only homegrown piece left on the roster, though they wanted to trade him for Dwight Howard.) Johnson was fired 28 games into last season, while Carlesimo, despite leading the Nets to a 35-19 record as interim head coach, was not retained. First-year, big-name coach Jason Kidd was brought in, but so far, it hasn’t worked out.

But back to the Nets’ moves and future assets, which can be viewed here and here.

• Williams cost the Nets Derrick Favors and two future first-round picks (2011 Enes Kanter and 2013 Gorgui Dieng).

• Wallace cost the Nets a first-round pick (2013 Damian Lillard).

• Johnson cost the Nets a first-round pick (2013 Shane Larkin), a first-round pick swap (2015) and a second-round pick (2015).

• Garnett and Pierce cost the Nets three first-round picks (2014, 2016, 2018) and a first-round pick swap (2017).

GM Billy King had a reason -- and for the most part, a good one -- for all of these moves: Williams was the star the Nets lacked. And at the time, he was arguably a top-10 player in the entire league. The Wallace and Johnson moves supposedly helped convince Williams to agree to a four-year, $98 million max contract to stay in Brooklyn. Plus, in Wallace’s case, it’s not like the Nets were going to draft Lillard anyway given they already had Williams. And Garnett and Pierce were the missing ingredients that were going to put the Nets in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference with the likes of Miami and Indiana. Plus, as old as they were, they were replacing Kris Humphries and Wallace, who gave Brooklyn little production. And the Nets would be able to clear their books in two seasons anyway.

Anyway, as we know now, none of these moves has really worked out. Williams’ tenure with the Nets has been marred by injury. Williams and Lopez have played only 100 games together, compiling a 55-45 record. Wallace proved to be a bust, though the Nets were able to move his albatross to the Boston Celtics, albeit at the expense of several firsts. Johnson has actually come as advertised, and while he isn’t living up to the fat deal that the Atlanta Hawks gave him to keep him from the New York Knicks, he has made several big shots. As for Garnett and Pierce, well, they just aren’t what they used to be, and it appears as though both probably wish they were either in Los Angeles with Doc Rivers or still in Boston.

All of this has left the Nets with a projected record-setting payroll ($190 million), little short-term flexibility and a cupboard devoid of future draft picks.

As for the Spurs, Popovich went from GM to coach in 1996-97. They got Duncan (1997) and then found draft diamonds in the rough in Parker (28th overall in 2001) and Ginobili (57th overall in 1999). NBA Finals near hero Danny Green was a journeyman who had previously played with the Spurs and also spent several seasons overseas. Kawhi Leonard was acquired in a 2011 draft day trade. Boris Diaw signed with the Spurs after being waived by the Charlotte Bobcats in March 2012. Tiago Splitter was the team’s first-round pick in 2007. The small-market Spurs, despite not leading the league in payroll, have been able to have sustained success because of their system and stability.

You never hear about locker room dysfunction over there. They just win games.

The money disparity between the two teams is staggering. The entire Spurs roster is set to make $64 million. Parker ($12.5 million) is the team’s highest-paid player. The entire Nets roster is set to make about $102 million. Johnson ($21.5 million), Williams ($18.5 million), Pierce ($15.3 million) and Lopez ($14.7 million) all make more than Parker.

In the future, the Nets may be wise to be more like the Spurs -- and less like the New York Knicks.

Question: How do you think the Nets will do tonight?

In case you missed it: Andrei Kirilenko may play Tuesday.

It’s been awhile: The last time the Nets beat the Spurs in San Antonio? Try June 6, 2003: Game 2 of the NBA Finals.

Up next: Nets at Spurs Tuesday night at AT&T Center