- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN Staff Writer
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"The Nets. Definitely, the Nets," Johnson responded Friday at a news conference at Brooklyn Borough Hall, kicking off what should be a riveting "East River Rivalry" between the Nets and the New York Knicks.
"This is a great day, because it's a day when we put together the best backcourt in the NBA," general manager Billy King said, alluding to pairing Johnson (four years, $89 million) with Deron Williams, who signed a max contract worth $98 million over five years.
"They're good. But I think ours is better," King replied. "If you asked [Lakers GM] Mitch [Kupchak], he'd probably say his is better. It's like a North Carolina-Duke thing."
Johnson and Williams headlined an impressive offseason haul by King, who, with what felt like a seemingly endless spending budget from Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, re-signed Brook Lopez (four years, $60 million) and Gerald Wallace (four years, $40 million), while also bringing in Bosnian stretch forward Mirza Teletovic (three years, $9 million) and rugged rebounder Reggie Evans (three years, $5 million).
The Nets, who have gone 58-172 the past three seasons and haven't made the playoffs since 2006-07, now believe they can compete with the upper echelon in the Eastern Conference.
"It's not just about winning a local championship or a regional championship," coach Avery Johnson said. "It's really about winning an NBA championship, and that's what our focus is on."
The Nets' recent pursuit of Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard dominated headlines. But Brooklyn was unable to meet Orlando's steep demands for its 26-year-old franchise player, so the Nets elected to move on and keep Lopez.
"I'm just glad now that we have a direction," said King, adding that Lopez will get into the metropolitan area to take his physical Friday. "We know where we're going."
So why the decision to move on from Howard?
"It wasn't about moving on," King said. "At some point, you've got to decide. We've got a young center that's pretty good, and it was about him under contract and getting him focused and getting our team focused."
Lopez played only five games because of a foot injury last season, but King feels like the 24-year-old center has a chance to be an All-Star this season.
"The one thing Brook always said was he wanted to play in the building [the $1 billion Barclays Center] when it opens, and I said, 'You're the starting center for the Brooklyn Nets,'" King said. "I told him, 'I apologize for what's going on; it's been going on for a long time, but now it's behind you.'"
King claimed he isn't thinking about Jan. 15, the date Lopez would be eligible to be traded per CBA rules if Howard isn't dealt to another team by then.
"I didn't even know when the date was," King said. "We're building and we're going forward. I'm not focusing on another date. We're gonna build with this team here."
King's focus is now on rounding out his roster and adding depth. He confirmed that the team is in negotiations with unrestricted free agent Kris Humphries and is "close" to re-signing him.
"We've got the ability to pay him more than anybody else [because we have his Bird rights]," King said. "The goal is to get him back."
Sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein the Nets are offering Humphries a three-year deal worth $24 million, while the Charlotte Bobcats are offering him three years, $22 million. Because they have Humphries' Bird rights, the Nets could facilitate a sign-and-trade deal with the Bobcats to pick up assets -- possibly a trade exception.
King said the Nets also could use a veteran backup point guard and perhaps a center behind Lopez. Johnson noted they also could use a backup swingman. MarShon Brooks and second-round pick Tyshawn Taylor are the team's other players under contract, pending its signing of Jerry Stackhouse.
King said he never was in pursuit of Johnson, a six-time All-Star, until he called Danny Ferry -- also a Duke product -- to congratulate him on becoming the GM of the Atlanta Hawks. Ferry brought up Johnson's name, and King was interested. So the two teams executed a blockbuster trade, which brought Johnson to Brooklyn.
"I haven't been this excited since my Phoenix days," Johnson said of the prospect of playing with Williams.
Williams reiterated he was leaning toward leaving the Nets for his hometown Dallas Mavericks prior to the Johnson trade. But the three-time All-Star point guard liked how aggressive King and assistant GM Bobby Marks were in free agency, so he decided to stay.
"I think it was a basketball decision," Williams said. "It just came down to really the roster."
Williams said the fact the Nets could offer him one more year on his contract than the Mavericks never factored into his decision to stay.
"I didn't think about that too much, as hard as that is to believe," Williams said.
King never wavered in his confidence that Williams would re-sign. Still, he wasn't 100 percent sure it would happen.
"When I got the phone call, it's what you wanted to hear," King said. "I was happy for him because he was able to make a decision, he was comfortable, and it's behind him."
Avery Johnson loves the team's "Big Four" of Williams, Johnson, Wallace and Lopez. He feels like the pieces will mesh together. He isn't concerned that Joe Johnson's isolation-heavy style will be an issue. He thinks the Nets will want to run in transition, but will also be efficient in the half court.
The Nets' past three seasons have been riddled with losses, injuries and failed acquisitions. But Williams, with a talented roster in tow, said the team's ready to move forward into a new era.
"The last year and a half was painful," Williams said. "It's kind of a fresh start for all of us."
Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
1hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann