Two rivers over, on a busy Brooklyn intersection, the Nets’ new home is nearing completion. Crisp, black, white and gray Brooklyn Basketball T-shirts can be seen in shop windows and on the occasional jogger.
Logos have been printed, slogans scripted and color schemes set. All the franchise is missing is an identity — a name for the marquee, a face to fill billboards, a smile and a signature from Deron Williams.
Sixteen months after making the bold, risky trade that brought Williams to New Jersey, the Nets have reached their moment of truth. At 12:01 a.m. Sunday, Williams is scheduled to become a free agent, holding the fate of a rebranded, relocated franchise in his palms.
If Williams stays and lures another star — ideally, Orlando’s — the Nets can claim equal footing with the and mount a worthy challenge for the hearts and minds of New Yorkers.
If Williams walks, Brooklyn’s first major team in a half-century might resemble an expansion franchise.
So when someone suggests, as the , that this free-agency period “might be among the most important of the next decade,” not even the Nets will argue.
“It is big,” General Manager Billy King said Wednesday at the team’s training center, which remains, incongruously, in East Rutherford. “I won’t downplay it.”
Every day brings a new, anonymously sourced report on Williams’s leanings. The two most recent, from CBSSports.com and , point to Williams choosing Brooklyn over his hometown team, the Dallas Mavericks.
Avid tea-leaf readers might find encouragement in Williams’s recent visit to the locker room at the new Barclays Center, or in his regular presence at the team’s training center.
As King addressed reporters on Wednesday, a smiling Williams suddenly appeared at the back of the room, having just finished his daily workout.
“I’m still not allowed in the media room,” Williams said with a chirp.
Any questions for Billy? “No,” he said before disappearing down the hallway.
These are tense times for both New York basketball franchises as they warily eye each other across the river.
The Nets have five players under contract, none of them a franchise star. The Knicks are secure in their star power — with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire — but they are hardly settled. Jeremy Lin, their gifted young point guard, is a restricted free agent whose contract rights are clouded by a legal battle between the league and the players union.
This fight over “Bird rights” might not be resolved by the weekend and could severely crimp the Knicks’ ability to keep their other key free agents — J. R. Smith, Steve Novak and Landry Fields — or to sign anyone else of consequence.
Neither New York team is likely to find help in Thursday night’s draft. The Knicks sent their first-round pick to Houston in the 2010 trade for Tracy McGrady. The Nets sent their first-round pick to Portland in February, in a much-criticized deal for Gerald Wallace. Wallace will also be a free agent Sunday.
Barring a trade, both teams will select late in the second round, the Knicks at 48 and the Nets at 57. The Nets can spend up to $3 million to buy a first-round pick, an option that King is still mulling. (The Knicks cannot, having used their allocation in the Tyson Chandler trade last December.)
But the Nets’ fate will truly be determined in the tense days ahead, through phone calls, text messages and meetings, starting Sunday. Although no deals can be signed until July 11 (after the N.B.A.’s traditional moratorium), Williams is expected to make his decision much sooner — before he joins the United States Olympic team for training camp in Las Vegas next Thursday.
The Nets can offer Williams $100 million over five years — about $25 million more than any rival — although it is his competitive impulses, not his bank account, that is of primary concern. In Williams’s season-and-a-half in New Jersey, the Nets won 29 games, lost 62 and failed to obtain a viable co-star.
Visions of a Williams-Howard tag team faded when Howard unexpectedly opted into his 2012-13 contract with Orlando, taking him out of free agency this summer. Now the Nets can only hope to coax the Magic into a trade, albeit with limited assets to offer.
The Nets need contingency plans, and contingencies for their contingencies. King is unbowed. He is armed with about $40 million in salary-cap room, a sparkling new arena and the newly acquired allure of the Brooklyn name. Someone will come.
“The greatest thing I learned from Coach K,” he said, referring to Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, “when something happens, you don’t look back, you go to the next play. So that’s where we’re prepared. If things happen, you go on to the next play.”
When in doubt, teams preach patience. But this is hardly an ordinary off-season, and none of the standard rules apply to a franchise working to distance itself from a generally dismal legacy while wooing 2.4 million potential new fans in the city’s biggest borough.
The marquee at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues needs a name. The billboards need a face. The Nets need an identity.
“Star power sells in this city,” Brett Yormark, the Nets chief executive, acknowledged. “There’s no question about it. But we’re in it for the long haul, and we’ve got to build pragmatically.”