New owner says Nets can contend for title soon

New Jersey Nets new owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail

New Jersey Nets new owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, address the media at a press conference in New York. (May 19, 2010) (Credit: Getty Images)

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The Nets won only 12 games last season and are at least two years away from having a new arena in Brooklyn. But new owner Mikhail Prokhorov is optimistic it won't take them long to win a lot of games and a lot of new fans.

"I have one secret," Prokhorov said Wednesday in midtown Manhattan. "We are going to turn Knicks fans into Nets fans."

The Nets have long been the No. 2 NBA franchise in this market, but Prokhorov, a self-made billionaire from Russia, has a vision for a new order.

In a 45-minute news conference plus a 90-minute brunch with a smaller group of reporters, Prokhorov said he planned to make the Nets into the first "global team in the NBA." He also gave an ambitious timetable for their improvement, saying he thought the Nets could make the playoffs next year and win a championship in "one to five years."

Prokhorov was short on specifics when it came to plans on how he will turn the franchise around. He deflected many questions with clever one-liners such as "If I tell you, I will have to kill you," when asked about his philosophy as an owner. When asked about soon-to-be free agent LeBron James, he pretended as if he had never heard of him.

He did, however, say that general manager Kiki Vandeweghe will not be retained. He has been in the team's front office since 2007 and served as acting head coach for the final 64 games of this past season, when the team lost a franchise-record 70 games. Prokhorov also added that team president Rod Thorn will be kept on after his contract expires June 30, but did not rule out hiring additional personnel to run the team.

Prokhorov also said he will hire a coach with NBA coaching experience. When pressed, he agreed that means Duke's Mike Krzyzewski is not on his list.

Although he declined to speak about James by name, saying that NBA rules prevent him from mentioning any free agent, Prohorov made it clear he is high on his radar. He said he plans to be in town for a week around July 1, the day free agency opens. James repeatedly has said he wants to be a global icon, and Prokhorov said he believes he can use his position as an international businessman to attract the players he wants.

"I think the Nets will be the first really global team in the NBA," Prokhorov said. "Me being the first foreign owner, I want to do my best to invite all the fans for the team all over the world. Other teams are more local mentality . . . I think I have a competitive advantage compared to other owners."

Prokhorov added he was interested in the Nets mainly because they're in the New York market. He said he'd wanted to buy the Knicks and had made inquiries about them a few years ago through an investment banker. He said he decided the deal could not work because the team's owner, Cablevision, had other properties such as MSG Network and the Rangers.

Madison Square Garden spokesman Barry Watkins said the Knicks never have been for sale. "We are not interested in selling the Knicks and have never entertained any offers," he said. "We look forward to a great rivalry with the Nets, which will hopefully feature two winning basketball teams."

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Knicks, MSG and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.

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