The Brooklyn Nets and Russian oligarch owner Mikhail Prokhorov signaled their intent to contend for a title in the short term when they obtained Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Boston Celtics for what amounted to several first-round draft picks and the responsibility to pay an unprecedented luxury tax. While opinions differ as to whether the Nets actually got significantly closer to serious contender status — most think they didn't — it became very clear that they were willing to spend lots of money on very famous players. The franchise would not observe the same standard practices as others concerned with the penalties of the new collective bargaining agreement.
On Thursday, the Nets added another familiar name to their roster of veterans. As first reported by Peter Vecsey of the New York Post, free agent forward Andrei Kirilenko, most recently of the Minnesota Timberwolves, has signed a contract at the taxpayers' mid-level exception of $3.18 million per season. As followed up by Ken Berger of CBSSports.com, it is a two-year deal with a player option for the second season.
Kirilenko offers the Nets a few necessary skills given their current construction. Pierce brings great scoring potential and veteran know-how to Brooklyn, but his wing partnership with Joe Johnson presents a problem on defense against the NBA's athletic and rangy perimeter scorers. Although the 32-year-old Kirilenko isn't the defender he once was in his AK-47 heyday, he can play that role when called upon. At the same time, Kirilenko can serve as a facilitator an offense, which the Nets should value given that their starting lineup now features several All-Stars — Pierce, Johnson, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Garnett, to a lesser extent — used to getting their fair share of shots. For that matter, teams typically don't get a player of this quality at such a low salary figure. While the Russian connection with Prokhorov likely helped, the possibility of joining up with so many big-name players for a championship run likely appealed to Kirilenko, as well.
That's not to say this is an unimpeachably brilliant move. The Nets already employ several key players with complicated injury histories, and Kirilenko is no different. He hasn't played more than 72 games since 2003-04, and in his last three NBA seasons — he missed lockout-shortened 2011-12 while playing for CSKA Moscow, previously owned by Prokhorov — he's sat out a total of 60 games, which suggests that the Nets would be lucky to have him available for three-quarters of next season's contests. For that matter, first-year head coach Jason Kidd now has another veteran with a certain expectation of minutes, so juggling his rotation (and his players' egos) got a little more difficult.
Of course, the greater context for this move is that Kirilenko's $3.18-million salary will cost the Nets considerably more in practice. On July 1, Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game found that the Nets' luxury tax level dictates that signing a player to this mid-level exception in actuality requires the team to pay $16.7 million (between the salary and the tax) for one season. In addition, this contract pushes the Nets' total payroll over $100 million and their tax hit over $80 million, totaling a cost of more than $186 million to employ this particular roster for the 2013-14 season. That's an insane amount of money to pay for a very good club that still may rank as the third-best in the East even under ideal circumstances. By standard NBA financial logic, this makes very little sense.
Yet Prokhorov's fortune (and, maybe more crucially, his willingness to use it) ensures that the Nets don't have to abide by the same logic as other franchises. If Prokhorov wants to shell out gobs of cash for these notable talents, including the best Russian player of the post-Soviet era, then he can do so as he wishes. As Bethlehem Shoals argued last week, it's an iconoclastic move that effectively tells the NBA's other owners to stick their competitive balance measures where the sun don't shine. Prokhorov has already seen the value of the franchise triple since he purchased it for $225 million in 2009. He considers the money immaterial and the players helpful, so why should he observe these luxury tax guidelines simply because they're considered to be in good taste?