TrueHoop: Mikhail Prokhorov

Avery Johnson and the expectations game

December, 27, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Mike Ehrmann/NBAE/Getty ImagesIn 28 games this season, Avery Johnson couldn't point the Nets in the right direction.

The buzzards had been circling in Brooklyn over Avery Johnson for the better part of two weeks. After finishing November at 11-4, the team has dropped to 14-14 and sits at .500 in an Eastern Conference where any team worth its salt should be winning more than it's losing. Not satisfied with their level of saltiness and with the losses piling up, the Nets dismissed head coach Avery Johnson on Thursday, with P.J. Carlesimo serving as head coach in an interim capacity.

Public expressions of discontent are among the surest signs of trouble for a head coach, and those voices had grown increasingly audible in recent days. Less than half an hour after the Nets' dispiriting loss to Boston on Christmas Day, Brett Yormark tweeted, "Nets fans deserved better today. The entire organization needs to work harder to find the solution. We will get there."

Late Wednesday night in Milwaukee, where Brooklyn, without Deron Williams, looked terrible in a 108-93 loss to the Bucks, Gerald Wallace let loose: "It seems like guys are content with the situation that we are in, and I'm f------ pissed off about us losing, especially losing the way we are losing."

While Yormack's remarks were general, and Wallace's were targeted at teammates, point guard Deron Williams was more explicit 10 days ago when he cited what he saw as flaws in the Nets' offensive schemes as the major symptom. Williams waxed nostalgic for Jerry Sloan's flex system, praising the constant motion that facilitated an easy offensive flow, a direct jab at Johnson (and one laced with irony given Williams' grouchiness in Salt Lake City). Meanwhile, Knicks guard Jason Kidd -- not exactly Avery Johnson's biggest champion in Dallas -- challenged Williams' premise: "I don’t think it has anything to do with the coach ... I think it’s just a matter of getting comfortable making shots."

Almost every NBA team has a degree of internal rivalries and grumbling. But the Nets aren't your average NBA team in your average NBA market with an average set of expectations. In New York, the light bulbs flash brighter, the microphones are larger, the media pricklier and the fans are always restless.

That's all true whether or not a franchise is coasting or, in the case of the Nets, has drawn up some of the most aggressive designs for organizational renovation the NBA has ever seen. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has no qualms about the Nets sitting in tax territory for the immediate future. They handed both Deron Williams and Brook Lopez the max, absorbed Joe Johnson's enormous contract and shelled out big money for Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries.

Big payroll aside, the optics -- and Oculus -- loom large. The Nets play in the most ambitious arena built in North America in decades, a building into which Prokhorov invested heavily. And they also have a formidable measuring stick across the East River in Manhattan. Although the Nets weren't exactly looking to take a large bite of the Knicks' market share so much as expand the base of NBA fanhood in the city, the Knicks' rosy success so far has cast an imposing shadow. Had the Knicks fallen flat, both teams could've bunked together in New York Fan and Media Jail. Instead, the Nets have the entire joint to themselves (though they share a wall with New York's pro football teams).

How much of this is Avery Johnson's fault? That depends on how much you believe player performance is dependent on coaching. If you're Avery Johnson's son, an admittedly partial source, the onus falls on the players. Soon after the firing was announced Thursday, the younger Johnson tweeted, "I'm sorry are best players couldn't make open shots. Yeah that's my dads fault totally..."

The kid has a point. Is it Johnson's fault Deron Williams has missed 166 shots outside the paint this season for a ghastly effective field goal percentage of 41 percent from that range? Is it on Johnson that Williams, while not altogether wrong about the contours of the offense, couldn't do what max point guards do -- wield his exceptional individual talent to make the system work?

In recent days, Johnson has ripped several pages from the Utah playbook, installing some tried-and-true flex actions -- baseline screens for cutters who move directly into the next off-ball screen. The results were mixed, but for all the talk about an underachieving offense -- and the Nets have most certainly failed to maximize their assets on that end of the floor -- the team has lost a lot of basketball games in December because it fields the NBA's 10th-worst defense.

When Johnson was in Dallas coaching the elite Mavericks teams of the mid-2000s, "42" was one of his mantras, as in success for his team would be measured in large part by the defense's ability to hold the opposition to a field goal percentage of less than 42 percent. Only a handful of teams are able to accomplish that more times than not, but the Nets are rarely one of them.

It's difficult to assess to what extent Johnson's coverages are at fault. Lopez's skills as a pick-and-roll defender are remedial (his Synergy stats indicate proficiency, but they don't account for demands Lopez places on baseline and top-side rotators). Johnson's menu of options at power forward don't leave him much to work with. Wallace is active, while Johnson has size, but Williams has never demonstrated the instincts or commitment of a quality defender on the ball (though he'll body up in the post).

Schemes and strategies aside, the assignment of blame is one of the trickier exercises in pro sports, because everyone orders the list of NBA coaching responsibilities. Some NBA players want a guy who they can trust, others don't care so long as they get minutes, while others simply just want a friendly workplace where the boss isn't up in their face all day long.

For management and ownership, those aforementioned expectations are everything, especially this season in Brooklyn. Putting an inferior product on the floor, getting embarrassed on national television, crossfire in the tabloids -- it just can't happen. And from the perspective of most owners and managers, maintaining morale ranks just behind winning as the top deliverable for an NBA coach.

Intelligent people can disagree about whether the Nets spent their money well, or whether general manager Billy King has good taste in basketball players, or whether Williams is a coach-killer, or whether it's the coach's job to horse-whisper a temperamental floor general just as the player has the responsibility to do what he can with the coach's system.

But Prokhorov isn't going anywhere, and King has furnished the roster with enough paper tigers to deflect blame (for the time being) and the contracts on the team's books aren't very movable.

That left one remaining party, the guy sitting in the first chair on the bench -- the loneliest seat in basketball.

Mikhail Prokhorov
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images
The draft lottery was a chance for the media to meet the man who will lead the Nets.

The key moment of David Stern's address to the media at the draft lottery came when he was asked if Mikhail Prokhorov is the kind of owner who can elevate a losing team "with the power of their personality and charisma."

Stern's answer: "No."

In March, Prokhorov made a debut of sorts in American media on 60 Minutes, in a story that focused heavily on things like indoor swimming pools, jet skiing and the beauties surrounding him in a Moscow nightclub. He also had a famous run-in with French police concerning the large number of young women he was traveling with, whom the police took to be prostitutes.

At the same time of the 60 Minutes story, Prokhorov was in a much more banal, but far more insightful Bloomberg TV interview, which made clear that whatever ties he may have in Russian politics, he is hardly somebody who merely lucked into his billions -- he's a very sophisticated businessman and leader with a strong track record in a series of ventures.

In saying "no" to the charisma questions, Stern was steering the conversation to the business-savvy Bloomberg version of Prokhorov, instead of the party-and-spend 60 Minutes version, as Stern went on to explain:
He's going to do it by hard work and good management. That's what does it. He's going to do by maybe by drafting a good player that comes out of the lottery and the draft; by surrounding that player with other good players; by making sure that people understand that he's committed to the entertainment experience at the Prudential Center, to commodious reception for Nets fans; and by selling tickets and sponsorships and suites and club seats and the kinds of things that distinguish successful franchises from unsuccessful franchises.

And from that perspective and it helps it helps when people have a sense, fans, consumers and the like, that there's a presence that is committed to all of the things I mentioned. And I think people will be persuaded that Michael is committed to that, and that in itself will help those sales. And players enjoy, believe it or not, playing in full houses, playing in sponsored situations, and playing for a team that they think has a bright future. And I think he brings all of those to the Nets.

One of the things Prokhorov made clear in the Bloomberg talk was that he believes in hiring the right people and delegating a ton of authority to them. He has made Irina Pavlova, former Google and Prudential executive, to be the president of Onexim Sports and Entertainment, which is the holding company that will manage his stakes in the Nets and the Brooklyn arena.

I asked Pavlova if she thought Prokhorov would be the kind of NBA owner who took a businesslike approach, with an eye on profits, or more of a deep-pocketed hobbyist who spent without fussing over details like the bottom line.

She said that he's passionate about basketball, but "he's a businessman first and foremost."

Also, there is one outstanding issue. What's his name?

Stern tells the media that Prokhorov invited him to call him "Mike" or "Michael." Pavlova allowed that such a thing may be OK, but it's not his name. If you can pronounce it, she urges you to call him by his actual name, which is the same as Gorbachev's. It's written phonetically as mihk-hah-EEL, but that sound in the middle is in a part of the throat that isn't usually part of English. (Think about the German word "nacht.") You can hear said properly on the VOA website.

By any name, however, those who know him best -- in the NBA, that includes Stern and Pavlova -- expect Prokhorov to be far more of a stoic, strategic long-term thinker than someone who will bowl people over with a flashy smile and flashier billions.

Evidence of that could be overheard in the media work room after the lottery, where a photographer was uploading photos of the Nets owner to her editors. "Just so you know," she said, "he almost never smiled. He was just stonefaced almost the entire time," which is, clearly, no way to behave if your career hinges on charisma.

It's a great day to be a Nets fan

March, 30, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Mikhail Prokhorov
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images News
Mikhail Prokhorov is going to be a whole new kind of owner.

A crisis-averting home win against the Spurs is nice and all, but it's nothing in the big picture compared to what's coming for the Northeast's saddest franchise.

The Nets' owner-to-be has finally started speaking in depth to English-language media. And while there were tiny missteps that speak to his newness in NBA circles (for instance, saying he hopes his team will win "the NBA cup," saying he's the only NBA owner who can dunk -- paging Michael Jordan -- and calling this year's draft as good as the 2003 LeBron James draft) it's hard to imagine the results could be more promising.

Mikhail Prokhorov has the makings of a special kind of NBA owner.

He's famous for the billions he made after buying a metals company from the government at an insider's price, but in business, he's hardly a one-trick pony -- and even in that transaction he deserves credit for radically overhauling the nature of the business to make it far more profitable than before he bought it. He even reportedly took to the factory floor himself, showing up as a worker as part of convinving hunger-striking union leaders to go along with the reforms and layoffs that prepared Norilsk Nickel for the global capitalist market.

He has displayed extraordinary business competence ever since he started a stonewashed jeans business in the early days of Russian capitalism (and before that, the former Soviet soldier was so effective a leader, organizing students at his night job unloading railway cars, that he says he made more than many doctors). Further business victories have come from currency exchange and banking. Watch his extended interview with Bloomberg TV. It's a little businessy, for sure, and it's more than a half-hour. But after watching, you'll believe me when I tell you he's blatantly a very strategic thinker who works hard, has a talent for management and delegation, and gets consistently good results.

And, even better, he looks like an owner who will delegate meaningful authority. He talks authoritatively about the long-term strategy of his businesses, which drives his investments. But again and again he also makes clear that the day-to-day operations are the duties of the competent people he hires. (At one point, for instance, he says he has no sense of his own household expenses ... but he has people he entrusts to run it well.) If you're a GM with a vision, that's music to your ears.

His strategic leadership alone would likely improve the Nets' performance in the near term. But remember, this is the NBA team that has proved winning is not always the perfect medicine. This is the team that made it all the way to the NBA Finals, twice, and still somehow never became cool and never became the place to be. That's why it matters that, in addition to business competence, Prokhorov brings the potential to be a bit flashy in a way that could go a long way to overhauling the team's dreary image.

The next decade, for Nets fans, is going to be so different from the last one.

The most prominent interview he has done in the United States was on "60 Minutes." It was shorter and far less insightful than the Bloomberg interview, and focused heavily on how rich he is: The $45 million yacht he can't go on because he gets seasick! The massive house! The attractive women crowded around him in the nightclub!

It could have doubled as a segment of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Prokhorov is generally taciturn, but he has a silly side to him -- a way of gently cocking one eyebrow and saying something outlandish. It's smug, to be sure. Combined with all the jet skis, the bizarre way he wants everyone to see all of his possessions and the young women swirling around, and absent all the insight into his hard work and extraordinary competence as a business leader, that story could make you see him as a guy who woke up on third base and thought he had hit a triple.

He's just not that guy. (Or, he's not just that guy.)

But that image isn't all bad for the Nets, even this cartoonish billionaire-at-play character could serve the team's tactical need to look good to free agents. If I were the Nets, I'd rush DVDs of that segment to every good NBA player with a chance of being on the market over the next two years. And here's a story about why: Nearly a decade ago I had a very long conversation with Scottie Pippen -- then a Blazer. One thing about it that amazed was how genuinely reverential he was in talking about Portland owner Paul Allen. There's nothing like having a few millions and some sense of business to make you appreciate the people with the billions. In short, Pippen dreamed of cruising through life like Allen does. The big boats, the private jets, the ridiculous houses, the never-ending travel ... it all made a lot of sense to Pippen, who couldn't easily afford all that (and would later endure profound financial trouble, after sinking big dollars into, among other things, a boat and a plane).

The Prokhorov portrayed in that "60 Minutes" story is someone plenty of NBA players would love to get to know better.

And that's where Prokhorov's most famous misstep could even serve him. Besides buying the Nets, the thing he may be best known for is getting arrested at the French ski resort of Courchevel in early 2007. He was released without charges, but the police who nabbed him told him they did so with the belief the eight attractive young women traveling with his party were prostitutes.

Prokhorov says that "of course" the women were not prostitutes. At the time, the French authorities who locked him up told the press the women may have been paid only with gifts. Somewhere in there, the line between girlfriend and call girl gets a little blurry. But in recent interviews, Prokhorov also does nothing whatsoever to distance himself from the idea of hanging around with tons of young women.

Would he bring those same women to Courchevel again? "Why not?" he replies, in the Bloomberg interview.

Indeed, Prokhorov took Steve Kroft and his "60 Minutes" cameras to his private room at a Moscow nightclub, which was well-stocked with young women who were enthusiastic to see the billionaire. Similarly, Bloomberg's Stephanie Baker writes:
Prokhorov also has a fondness for Russian models. Late one Friday night in December, he hits Soho Rooms, a Moscow nightclub where he takes over a balcony section with male friends and a random collection of long-haired, slim women -- some models, some students -- wearing high heels and dressed mostly in black.

He buys drinks for the group while sticking to mineral water himself. He jokes with some of the women, his hand lightly resting on their waists, before sitting down to watch a bevy of women dancing in white corsets, panties and Cossack-style white fur hats.

"That’s where the energy is," he says, pointing at the women.

Anyone who reads TrueHoop regularly knows that I'm more than happy to write another column about what a shame it is so many in sports see women primarily as sex objects. But I'm also pragmatic enough to see how this will almost certainly play out in favor of Nets basketball. In short: It's not outlandish to consider that NBA players are going to like being around this guy.

What matters most about Prokhorov are his credentials in leadership, strategy and investment. But beyond that, on the image front, the Nets are, for the first time ever, well positioned for the long haul. Prokhorov's party-centric personality, billions and passion for hoops are one pillar. Jay-Z and the credibility endorsement he brings are another. Brooklyn -- which is populous, energetic, wealthy and starved for borough-wide identity ever since the Dodgers left -- is the third leg of the platform.

In short, these aren't going to be the same ol' Nets for long.

And one last point: There is a lot of baggage that comes with being one of the richest men in Russia circa 2010, where there is never-ending talk of contract killings, shady government deals, mobsters and the like. Prokhorov insists he's neither violent nor a politically connected "oligarch." But there's almost an accepted kind of bias there, where if you're a Russian businessman you're under a cloud of suspicion until proven innocent.

I'm guilty of it myself. Aware of what has happened to journalists who ask hard questions about powerful people in Russia, and expecting to be a journalist asking hard questions about Prokhorov, I confess that a while ago I asked an NBA executive if he knew enough about the Nets' incoming owner to assure me I wouldn't regret writing frankly about him. He said that he didn't think I had anything to worry about.

Commissioner David Stern was on camera for both Bloomberg and CBS, and insisted that extensive investigations revealed there was nothing to worry about with Prokhorov. Forgive me for not taking his word about the investigation, for a number of reasons, including this cheap shot: How could the NBA possibly sort out the good guys and bad guys in the Russian mob when they couldn't even sort out the degenerate gambler on their referee staff?

Similarly, "60 Minutes" asserted, oddly without attribution, that Prokhorov made it to the top of the early days of Russian capitalism "with no blood on his hands."

That's a lot of conclusion without a lot of evidence.

But seeing Prokhorov in the media over the last few days -- forget Stern's investigators, or 60 Minute's research -- he's the best evidence there could be that he's above board. Watching him speak, it's easy to understand how a guy like this would have become a billionaire on his own merits. He knows what he's doing. Nets fans, free agents, journalists and all kinds of people will be eager to associate with him. Perhaps the only bad news for NBA fans in Brooklyn is that Prokhorov isn't going to be around all that much, saying he'll be in New York City for only about ten games a year.

Mikhail Prokhorov is going to give Mark Cuban a run for his money as the NBA's most innovative and exciting owner, and Nets fans are going to reap the rewards for many years to come.