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Joe Tsai always believed in the Nets’ rebuild. He wouldn’t have shelled out billions of his own dollars to buy the team if he didn’t.
But even the visionary who co-founded one of the world’s biggest companies admits he couldn’t have seen this coming, Brooklyn’s improbable rise from the NBA’s cellar to championship contender. Or even favorite.
“The revival of the Nets was already under way when I bought in 2018,” Tsai told The Post. “Sean Marks put the foundations in place with guys like Caris [LeVert], Jarrett [Allen], Joe [Harris] and Spencer [Dinwiddie].
“This core group enabled us to attract top free agents in the summer of 2019 with Kyrie [Irving] and [Kevin Durant] while keeping the necessary assets for the James Harden trade. In hindsight this ‘process’ was brilliant, but I certainly didn’t see it coming at the time.”
Back when Tsai, Alibaba co-founder and now chairman of Nets parent company BSE Global, bought 49 percent of the Nets from Mikhail Prokhorov in October 2017, they were coming off an NBA-worst 20-62 season. They improved to 28-54 in his first season as co-owner, and made the playoffs the next.
For the Nets, 2019 proved transformative, from making the playoffs in April to landing Durant and Irving in June to Tsai taking over a controlling interest that September for $2.35 billion — the highest amount for a sports team to that point. Since then, the e-commerce billionaire has opened his wallet even wider to pay the most expensive trio in NBA history by adding Harden.
Despite not having won, the Nets open the playoffs Saturday versus Boston already bearing the burden of being a betting favorite, the scrutiny of being a superteam and weight of being the NBA’s villains — something Tsai is acutely aware of.
“I don’t know if we’re favored. I saw a poll that says we’re the most hated team around the country,” Tsai noted, referring to a BetOnline survey. “We have players that play for each other and hold each other accountable. When they do that, basketball is beautiful, and they have a ton of fun.”
As much as Tsai has enjoyed watching his Nets and Liberty play, he’s arguably taken just as much pride in seeing BSE lead in the community, from the food banks to the polling sites to the vaccination efforts and, perhaps most of all, Barclays Center being the flashpoint for BLM protests and other social justice movements.
“I’m proud that Barclays Center became the epicenter of social justice dialogues in New York City. People from all viewpoints had a chance to hear each other out in what became the de facto ‘town square’ of Brooklyn,” Tsai told The Post, adding, “I also remember our sweep of the West Coast when we went 5-0 with that big come-from-behind win in Phoenix and us taking bodies [twice] at Staples Center.”
He’d love to get a rematch with any of those Western foes in the Finals.
The Nets’ Big 3 heads into Saturday’s postseason opener having logged just eight games together. No team in NBA history has ever won a title with its top three scorers playing so few games together.
But its fitting that Tsai — who co-founded a company named after a miraculous against-all-odds story — is confident his teams can buck the odds.
“I’ve learned in life that if you are determined, you can make history,” Tsai said — pointing to Sabrina Ionescu becoming the first Liberty player and youngest WNBA star with a triple-double. “The Nets Big 3 play at such an elite level that their chemistry comes naturally, and more important, they play in a way that makes all of their teammates better.”
Keeping them together past next season is going to cost Tsai. All have op-outs after 2021-22, with Marks confirming a desire to retain all three. But can they? If so, the Nets have a chance to carve out a huge piece of the city’s sportsscape.
But unlike Prokhorov’s bombastic arrival, Tsai doesn’t view a rivalry with the Knicks as a zero-sum game. This town is big enough for the both of them.
“The Nets and the Knicks both belong in this city, so nobody is going to take the city away from anyone,” Tsai said. “If both New York City teams are competitive, that’s the best for fans because they get to enjoy great basketball and have a chance to argue over family dinners.”
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