Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets has announced that he will seek the Russian presidency in next year’s elections, competing against Vladi­mir Putin. As Will Englund and Kathy Lally reported:

A newcomer to Russian politics, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, jumped into the race for president Monday in a challenge to Vladimir Putin that would have been laughed off as quixotic just two weeks ago.

But the announcement by Mikhail Prokhorov caused a stir instead. The political landscape in Russia appears to have shifted so dramatically after a week of protests over alleged fraud in parliamentary elections this month that a path may now exist for an oligarch preaching economic development who wants to take on the country’s strongman.

Prokhorov brings a considerable fortune to his task, as well as a reasonably high profile. At 46, he presents a modern outlook and would seem to be on the same wavelength as many of the middle-class Russians who have become disenchanted with Putin and are calling for his defeat in the March presidential election.

First, though, Prokhorov will have to prove himself. The tens of thousands of protesters who have come out on the streets of Russia in the past week are supporting a cause, not following a leader.

That cause is promoting clean elections and, beyond that, a clean and representative government. The most direct way to achieve those results would be to beat Putin in the upcoming election — but that’s still not likely. Prokhorov’s announcement notwithstanding, no single man or woman has emerged as the obvious challenger.

While Prokhorov has a ways to go to rally enough support among the Russian electorate, he has plenty of supporters from his New Jersey Nets. As Matt Brooks explained:

So far, Prokhorov has the support of his coach and players, at least.

“He is pretty smart,”Nets coach Avery Johnson said. “He has great leadership skills. When you are behind the scenes and you are talking to him you know he is a special person. It wouldn’t surprise me. He just wants us to stay focused on basketball. Whatever is happening in Russia will take care of itself in March sometime.”

“He is a man of little words, but he’s cool, a laid-back guy,” said guard Anthony Morrow, who said he would vote for Prokhorov. “I can tell he is one of those guys who walks into a room and has this presence about him, a tall guy. He’s a good dude. Any conversation I’ve had with him, he’s been cool.”

Can’t you see the campaign posters now? “Vote Prokhorov! He’s a good dude!”

Meantime, Prokhorov and the Nets face the daunting task of continuing to build up their team ahead of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

Last week, the Nets were rumored to have met with disgruntled Orlando Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard to discuss a possible trade. That move never materialized, but it did spark speculation of tampering — a charge that could derail the team’s efforts to re-sign star point guard Deron Williams and build the team around him in its new Brooklyn arena next season.

Prokhorov is hoping he can tap into the frustration voiced by thousands of Russians who took to the streets of Moscow to protest Vladi­mir Putin and his party’s victory after a Dec. 4 vote. As AP reported:

Prokhorov, 46, Russia’s third-richest man with a fortune Forbes magazine estimated at $18 billion, said that he’ll seek to build support from the grassroots level and that he opposes “revolution” and “populism.” He quit as leader of the Right Cause party on Sept. 15, accusing President Dmitry Medvedev’s administration of blocking the group’s preparations for parliamentary elections in December.

That Dec. 4 vote, in which Putin and Medvedev’s United Russia party retained its majority, was neither free nor fair, observers from the U.S. and Europe said. Thousands of Russians took to the streets in the week since the contest to protest the results after reports of ballot-stuffing.

An opposition crowd of 25,000 people rallied in central Moscow on Dec. 10, according to police, in the city’s largest anti-government protest since Putin first became president in 2000. A same-sized demonstration occupied Red Square today in support of United Russia, authorities said.

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