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Friday, August 10, 2012
Nets still a D-12 away from title contention

By Mike Mazzeo



This summer, Nets GM Billy King spent more than $330 million of owner Mikhail Prokhorov's fortune to build a team.

It only took two well-executed blockbuster trades for Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak to build a juggernaut.

King's impressive offseason haul -- which included re-signing Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries and adding Joe Johnson, Mirza Teletovic, Reggie Evans and C.J. Watson -- had dominated headlines across the NBA.

Until Kupchak landed Dwight Howard, that is.

Nets fans have to be ecstatic that their team, which won just 58 games over the last three seasons combined, should be a contender for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference heading into its first season in Brooklyn at the $1 billion Barclays Center.

Still, the fact that the Nets came up short in the D-12 sweepstakes -- regardless of if it was their fault or not (it wasn't) -- has to sting.

The Nets began pursuing Howard in December 2011, when talks of a three-team deal with Orlando and Portland began to emerge. And ever since, it's felt like the "Dwightmare" has taken over and devoured us -- especially in March and July -- much the way the "Melodrama" did in 2010-11.

When Prokhorov bought the Nets, he immediately began hyping a five-year championship plan. The Nets are currently in Year 3 of that plan, and while their roster looks a million times better than what it did during the 12-70 campaign in 2009-10, it still pales in comparison to that of L.A., Miami and Oklahoma City.

Howard was supposed to be the piece to get the Nets over the top, the piece to put them in the conversation with the elite teams in the NBA. He wanted Brooklyn -- and Brooklyn wanted him.

It all made perfect sense. Too much sense.

And yet, here we are, almost year after the initial talks began, almost six months after Howard gave up all his leverage by declining to exercise his early termination option, and he's a Laker.

Magic GM Rob Hennigan ended up choosing a package of Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless and three future lottery-protected first-round draft picks over the Nets' offer of Brook Lopez, Humphries, MarShon Brooks and four future first-rounders.

Based on résumés alone, Lopez, despite coming off an injury-plagued campaign, is the best player of the bunch, but Hennigan must've felt that he wasn't worth max money. Houston's bevy of assets, young talent and picks? Not enough either. So Afflalo -- a nice role player -- a couple mid-firsts and some late future firsts was?

Definitely a head-scratcher. Then again, so was this whole fiasco.

Bottom line: The Nets are still a Dwight Howard away from being in the championship-contender conversation, while the Lakers -- assuming they can stay healthy -- are going to challenge the Heat and Thunder for the league's ultimate prize in 2012-13.

Making matters worse, the Nets have no shot at Howard anymore. The Lakers aren't trading him by the deadline, and the Nets will be over the luxury tax apron in the offseason (unless they somehow freed up significant cap space), so they wouldn't be able to execute a sign-and-trade deal even if D-12 wanted to play in Brooklyn.

Yes, King may have built himself a team, but that team doesn't quite stack up to Kupchak's juggernaut.