Czar’s Season Preview


Happy Birthday Sergey!

I was honored to have the opportunity to celebrate Sergey Kushchenko’s 50th birthday with him in Moscow on Friday. I first met Sergey, the Executive Director of the Russian Biathlon Union and former President of CSKA Moscow, back in 2009 at the School Basketball Festival held in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital city of the Mari El Republic. 48 teams of young boys and girls from 24 regions of Russia took part in the first-time event. At the conclusion of the three-day festival, Sergey and I flew back to Moscow together in a tiny plane. We landed around midnight and wound up grabbing a late dinner at a great Italian restaurant, where we ate and drank for hours and really hit it off.

Coincidentally, I was scheduled for a trip to the Ukraine this weekend to begin preparations for EuroBasket 2011 and was able to make last minute arrangements to fly through Moscow for Sergey’s birthday on the way to Kiev. Numerous political officials (including Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Sergei Ivanov), business executives, legendary athletes, friends and family members were in attendance to pay tribute to Sergey, a pioneer who helped transform CSKA into a modern, world-class club that put Russia back on the map of great basketball countries. NBA Commissioner David Stern sent a birthday gift to Sergey on behalf of the NBA. I had the chance to meet Nets owner and RBU President Mikhail Prokhorov for the first time, who appointed Sergey, his chief sports advisor, to the Nets board of directors that evening.

The party was incredible. An eclectic ensemble of bands from around the world performed along with some local favorites. Sergey’s son also gave an impressive piano recital. There was a continual flow of food and libations the entire night. It was a warm experience and a wonderful show of affection by so many people who care for Sergey.

Gameday Dish: Kings at Nets

While the old adage “everything happens for a reason” applies to all walks of life, it may resonate more loudly with sports fans. For example, baseball fans in Philadelphia and New York have no choice right now but to believe that the failure of the Phillies and the Yankees to reach the World Series simply means that the Eagles and Giants are going to have better years than expected. How quickly fans adopt this mode of thinking merely reflects how quickly they experience the four stages of denial. Similarly, fans of the World Series participants might well be thinking that their success is well-deserved given the miserable starts of the Cowboys and the 49ers.

This brings us to the start of the basketball season. Bitter baseball fans throughout the country can now turn their attention to the NBA, thinking something along the lines of, “Thank God baseball is over just in time for the start of the hoops season.” An outside observer may view this as an obvious rationalization, but others might say it further supports the notion that everything happens for a reason. Perhaps more than either the NFL or MLB, the NBA does not need to rely on fantasy teams to maintain fan interest in the broader league.

This is not to say that fans of a particular NBA team are not as fanatical as other sports fans; it is more an observation that the various story lines around the league (this year arguably more than any other) and the individual star-power pervading the league make the NBA Finals interesting to its viewers even if the home team is not playing (it’s hard to make that same argument for this year’s World Series).

Right now the biggest star of the revitalized Nets franchise may be their new majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire who has been the central character in one of the NBA storylines generating headlines over the past year. Prokhorov has voiced his ambitious intentions to make the playoffs this season and win an NBA championship within five.

While it remains to be seen if the Nets season will have a fairytale ending, they have already improved upon last year’s start. Prokhorov made it to Wednesday’s season opener along with part-owner Jay-Z, his wife Beyoncé, NBA Commissioner David Stern, Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek and over 15,000 fans who were treated to an exciting come-from-behind 101-98 win over the Pistons. The Nets made shots, came up with defensive plays and showed determination.

The Nets will need to keep winning games in order to sustain our interest and keep fans returning to the spiffy Prudential Center. Tonight Proky’s footmen will battle the Kings, another team hungry for a turnaround. We’ll see the NBA’s 2010 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans make his first regular season appearance, having missed Sacramento’s opening night win due to a one-game suspension. Samuel Dalembert might also be reactivated tonight if the medical staff determines that his strained left adductor has healed. The Kings have added some new faces to their roster, including the fifth overall draft pick DeMarcus Cousins out of Kentucky and Carl Landry who returns from the Rockets. I’m anxious to see how far this young, talented team has come since Summer League.

Prokhorov is staying in town until Sunday afternoon so he’ll get to see the Nets in action against the Kings followed by LeBron and the Heat on Halloween. Ian Eagle and I have the call tonight at 7:30 PM EST on YES Network. I’m sure Marv will tune into tonight’s game from home to critique our performances and that I’ll hear all about it on Sunday when we’re back together for the Heat at Nets at 1:00 PM EST on YES.

Around the League: Will the Nets Go From Worst to First in Five?

Tomorrow the Nets tip off against Yao Ming and the Rockets in Beijing for the first of two exhibition games headlining the NBA China Games 2010. This preseason pit stop arrives on the heels of the team’s day-long debut in Moscow. New Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov met many of the players for the first time and introduced them to Russian basketball fans by way of an open practice and a clinic for 3,000 youths in an effort to build their global brand and broaden their fan base.

Prokhorov has set his team’s sights on making the playoffs this season and winning a championship in five years. This might sound like an impossibly tall order for a 12-win team that is coming off the worst season in franchise history.

However, just a few years back the reigning Eastern Conference champion Celtics reminded us what a difference a summer can make. After finishing with the second-worst record in the NBA in 2007 and drawing a disappointing fifth-round draft pick, the Celtics reinvented their roster, acquiring Ray Allen, Glen Davis and Kevin Garnett, and took the championship title in 2008 – their first since 1986.

With a new owner, a new GM, a new head coach, a new arena and lot of new names on their roster including third overall draft pick Derrick Favors, who is certainly a special player, the reconstituted Nets are poised to stage their own incredible comeback. But first they must convince themselves that they’ve got what it takes. A little self-induced amnesia may go a long way as the team’s ability to head into the new season with a winning mentality will be crucial to its success. This starts at the top so it bodes well that Prokhorov has a strong desire to win and is committed to turning the program around, backing up his lofty expectations and goals with a financial commitment.

General manager Billy King and head coach Avery Johnson share Prokhorov’s ambitions and are taking a “team first” approach to their relationship. In addition to the support of Prokhorov and King, Avery has assembled a tremendous coaching staff consisting of former head coaches with great basketball minds and invaluable experience including lead assistant Sam Mitchell, Larry Krystkowiak, John Loyer, Popeye Jones and longtime Nets guy Tom Barrise, who was also my former scout back in Atlanta.

In last Thursday’s exhibition game against the veteran Celtics, the Nets got off to a good start, faltered in the second quarter, and then made a game of it in the fourth. Though Boston ultimately held off the Nets 96-92, there’s a lot to like about how competitive a game it was. A combination of youth, talent and veteran leadership, the new Nets are already looking much improved this season.

It was unusual to see Nets’ former head coach Lawrence Frank sitting on Celts’ bench as Doc’s new assistant. I like Boston’s new pickups and thought that former Cavs Shaquille O’Neal and Delonte West played well and looked like they will be contributors.

The Celts’ new roster gives them depth and versatility, which becomes extremely valuable down the stretch. Ian pointed out we could be looking at five future Hall of Famers on the Celtics starting lineup. They still have to get back their starting center Perkins, but it will be interesting to see if this season’s roster is stronger than last year’s title contenders.

The NBA China Games 2010 opener featuring the Houston Rockets against the New Jersey Nets will be televised live from the Wukesong Arena in Beijing, China on NBA TV this Wednesday, October 13 at 8:00 AM EST.