When Sean Marks arrived in Brooklyn in February 2016, he stepped into the midst of an abysmal 21-61 campaign. His first full season as Nets general manager, they were the worst team in the NBA, finishing 20-62.
Now, the Nets open the 2021 playoffs as the favorites to win it all.
How did that turnaround happen?
It was about reading the terrain, sensing the direction the league was heading — that it was becoming all about player empowerment. And then figuring out how to build a foundation and culture that could lure empowered stars.
One can almost imagine a disembodied voice echoing from the rafters in Barclays Center, saying, “If you build it, they will come.”
“Sean Marks put the foundations in place with guys like Caris [LeVert], Jarrett [Allen], Joe [Harris] and Spencer [Dinwiddie],” Nets owner Joe Tsai told The Post.
“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.”
Few could’ve seen how brilliant it was on Feb. 18, 2016, when Marks — a rookie GM — was hired by Mikhail Prokhorov and tasked with righting a foundering franchise.
The Nets were talent-starved, had been shopping their star, Brook Lopez, and didn’t have control of their first-round pick until 2019 to get a new one.
That was all thanks to former GM Billy King’s ill-fated 2013 deal with Boston that set the Nets back years. But in some ironic way, there were silver linings to come out if it.
“The main asset that Brooklyn got as an indirect result of it [and other calamities] was Sean Marks,” tweeted Irina Pavlova, who represented Prokhorov in Brooklyn and spearheaded the GM search that found Marks. “Without him, there’s no Nets as a title contender in 2021.”
The climb that looks miraculous on the outside was meticulous on the inside.
The Nets didn’t have the kind of plethora of top-five picks cellar dwellers typically benefit from, so Marks knew he had to be creative.
“The first thing that allowed this is their direction of how they could get good was set for them,” TNT analyst Greg Anthony said, “meaning they knew they couldn’t build through the draft, because of the deals that were made prior.”
So the Nets took the painful steps of taking on salary dumps to get assets. They plucked Harris and Dinwiddie off the proverbial scrap heap and developed both into standouts, the last men standing from the rebuilding.
They hit on picks in the 20s like LeVert and Allen. That pair helped the Nets break their playoff drought in 2019, which paved the way to successfully luring Durant and Irving. Then, LeVert and Allen became the foundation of the megadeal for Harden.
“Obviously the road in terms of getting there is not an easy thing to get to this point. It’s not an easy thing to get the organization to a level where it’s attractive to free agents that want to come,” Harris said. “At the end of the day, guys want to come where they see the best fit in terms of culture, quality of players.
“That’s a testament to Sean and what he was able to instill early on with [coach] Kenny [Atkinson] and the rest of the staff in terms of solidifying a foundation … getting people to mesh together, creating this environment of people wanting to come in and work where it’s positive, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of great energy, over the years where this was just a fun place to play.
“It made it an attractive destination for guys like Kevin and Ky and so on to really want to play here. And now that we’re a championship caliber, a lot of people want to come and play and be a part of a team like that.”
That player empowerment was something Marks correctly judged.
It wasn’t part of his era when he played from 1998-2011, or even when he was a Spurs assistant coach. But he read the prevailing winds and leaned into them.
“The other thing that allowed this is player empowerment. … In our era, we didn’t even appreciate our true value as players. We never looked outside of our own world,” said Anthony, who was the first vice president of the NBPA during the 1999 lockout, when even stars like Karl Malone sold themselves short. “They didn’t understand what their true value was. They just wanted to make sure they didn’t lose that year, not thinking, ‘Man, I’ll be able to recoup that based on who I am.’ They didn’t know their value. Guys today are completely different.
“Guys back then didn’t talk about teaming up, going to a new city, building their own thing. They didn’t look at themselves as being partners with teams. Kyrie Irving caught a lot of slack when he said, ‘We don’t have a head coach.’ People killed him for that, but he wasn’t lying. And I’m not saying Steve Nash isn’t the coach, the point I’m making is they do all that stuff by committee, a lot of their decisions, because they trust their stars. They know how good those guys are, and understand their basketball IQ and their value. So it is more of a partnership.
“You couldn’t have had something like what happened for Brooklyn happen 20 years ago, it’s just the evolution of where players are. … Ultimately it’s Kyrie and Kevin Durant deciding to come. What if those guys decided not to sign there? We wouldn’t be having this conversation, there would’ve been no trade for James Harden, none of that would’ve happened. So they were able to go buy a contender because those guys wanted to play together. They wanted to control their own destiny, their own fate, and pulled it off.”
The Nets realized it’s no longer just about finding talent, but about creating a situation in which your players attract more players.
Teams still need stars to win in the NBA. But if they want to get them — and keep them — they can’t just control them, but must collaborate with them.
“Players know what teams are on the rise up,” TNT analyst Reggie Miller said. “Brooklyn was a team on the rise up, beautiful arena, Brooklyn’s a beautiful city; they understood that. That’s why Kyrie and KD, they want to control their own destiny and put more shine on Brooklyn. Then you go out and get James Harden, and now you’re one of the more marketable teams in the NBA.”
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