So much of what the Nets have done to improve the team's pedigree has been out of the public spotlight. Adding to and improving the basketball operations staff; sending the team on a round-the-world tour in preseason; upgrading the accommodations on road trips; making plans for a world-class locker room and practice facility in Brooklyn...even little things like adding a team chef.
The next step in that will be the integration of the Springfield Armor into the team's basketball operations. Starting May 1, the Nets will have a true minor league club, one that Bobby Marks, the Nets' assistant general manager, hopes will cure a major deficiency for the Nets: player development.
It's not going to get the headlines a free agent signing or a trade will bring...but the Nets hope it will lay the groundwork for a better roster that will attract those free agents and make those players traded to the Nets happy to arrive.
On April 5, as they do every year, the Nets' top executives will fly to Portsmouth, VA, for the local invitational tournament. There, college seniors, mostly borderline NBA players, try to impress scouts from all 30 teams. But this year, for the Nets, things will be different.
"It's where you find D-League candidates, seniors who are not first round picks. That will be the start of the operation," says Bobby Marks, the Nets assistant GM, of the team's takeover of the Springfield Armor.
Then, some time after the season ends on April 13, Marks, Billy King and Avery Johnson will talk with Dee Brown, coach of the Armor, and his assistant, Kevin Whitted--both former NBA players, about their philosophy of coaching, and, more importantly, player development.
"We will meet with Dee, sit down with him to get a feel for what his philosophies are as we look to hire a coach," says Marks, the driving force in the Nets' D-League strategy. "He had pretty good success for Terrence (Williams) and Ben (Uzoh) so there already is a little bit of a comfort level there. We want to see what he sees going forward."
May 1 Is Start Date
On May 1, the Nets will officially add the Armor to their basketball operations portfolio, just about a year after Marks and his assistant, John Zisa, first drove to Springfield with the idea of making the Armor the Nets' own minor league team. It's a three-year deal with an option to extend it another three years in 2014.
In the past, the Nets had an affiliate relationship with a D-League team, like most NBA clubs but barely took advantage of it. In this new, so-called "hybrid" configuration, the Nets will control basketball operations. Ownership will remain in the hands of others. It's an arrangement only the Rockets and Rio Grande Vipers share although both the Spurs and Thunder own their affiliates outright. Along with preparing for the NBA Draft and free agency (and worrying about the lockout) integrating this latest acquisition into the Nets' plans will be a big part of the front office's summer.
"Our big goal is to see players develop," says Marks. "If you can do it, it's a no-brainer; no risk is involved. We're moving toward the baseball model of minor league teams for every NBA team." And the Nets are also happy about being seen as forward-looking. It's all part of improving the organization's reputation, showing potential free agents and others that they're willing to spend the owner's money.
It's not that there wasn't a need. The Nets may spend more money scouting the NBA draft and preparing for free agency, but the $250,000 in coaching and trainers' salaries and expenses they'll be paying out could be a wise investment. It could help fill them a need that's long been unmet and underappreciated: player development. It's not as sexy as the draft or free agency, but it's critically important.
Bench Never Improved
"We never improved our bench with our young players," Marks freely admitted. "They never got better. They flatlined. The Jason's and Vince's and Richard's got older and we never had those kinds of guys. A prime example would have been Marcus (Williams), Even Zoran (Planinic). The late twenties pick. They fall out of the rotation, get bad habits, never develop. if you had that D-League team, maybe it could have been avoided. They could have played!" Even this year, he thinks it might have been better if Ben Uzoh and Brian Zoubek, both undrafted but both given five figure guarantees, had spent time in western Massachusetts with a Nets-oriented operation.
Marks says he'd been making that argument for several years but before Mikhail Prokhorov and his people came along, there was hesitancy to make the investment. There wasn't much support from the Nets basketball operations people then either. Former Nets GM Ed Stefanski showed his feelings about the D-League last year. When asked about his Sixers buying a D-League team, he replied, "I don't see that making much sense".
"They (the Russians) loved it," said Marks. "They thought it was another resource to help develop young players. It was a no brainer if it could improve the on-court product." The team's top officials were on-board as well. King had looked into a hybrid relationship for the 76ers and the ever-impatient Johnson "wanted to do it last July," Marks joked.
The Nets plans for integrating the Armor and the Nets basketball operations are indeed ambitious...and it starts with the three key basketball operations hires: the coach, assistant coach and trainer.
Brown One of Several Candidates
Brown, the former Celtic, will be one of the first candidates to be interviewed for the first--and most important--hiring. He won't be the only candidate. The Nets have some others they intend to talk with before announcing who the new head coach will be sometime in mid-June. "We've started formulating a list of potential candidates but we didn't want to come in and just tell Dee he was out. We want to give him a chance."
And whoever gets picked, "they will be here for summer league, for training camp," Marks added, referring to the Nets' practice facility in East Rutherford. "The same message has to be preached in Springfield as well as New Jersey... They will be on the floor here. Whatever staff we put together on Summer League, they will be part of that staff. They will familar with younger players...who we draft, who we sign."
Those three will be Nets employees, paid by Prokhorov; not Armor employees. Whoever is hired will be asked for their opinions just as the Nets' six current assistants are. "They will be an extension of our staff. We have had (D-League) coaches come down to training camp before but now instead of watching, they will be on the court, doing dtrills. They will be our seventh and eigth assistants".
Of equal importance, they will be working from the Nets playbook, using Avery Johnson's training methods. There will be no need for an Armor player to cram on the plane after being called up, no need for a Nets player to put aside what he learned in Nets camp on arrival in Springfield. It should afford a seamless transition.
Marks, Lee Could Be "GM"
As for administration, Marks, director of basketball operations Milton Lee or a Nets scout will be the defacto general manager, making trades, signing and waiving players, occasionally traveling back and forth to Springfield during the season. Jordan Cohn, already the Nets' D-League scouting guru, will add the D-League Draft in early November to his duties. That's the way the Rockets have worked it with their "hybrid" club, the Rio Grande Vipers. Gersson Rosas, Houston's vice president for player personnel, is also GM of the Vipers.
"We talked with Houston at great length," said Marks. "Big thing I got out of that: If you have the right mix of people, it can work."
And that "mix of people" will extend to the trainer's job at Springfield, the third person whose salary will be paid by the Nets. "The same goes for Timmy Walsh, our trainer. He has to feel comfortable with the Armor trainer because they will be working with him on our training and rehab methods." It might even include some cross-pollination between the Armor management and the Nets' business side. "They can lean on Brett and his people, with ticketing, marketing."
It's not perfect, Under the current CBA, only first and second year players can be sent down to the D-League. And unless a player is under contract with (or his draft rights are held by) the parent club, he can be called up by any one of the 30 clubs at any time. And because their salaries, paid by the NBA not the Nets, top out at $25,000, players have been abandoning the D-League for overseas jigs. Orien Greene, who had a 10-day tryout with the Nets this winter, recently left for the Beijing Ducks, where the pay is multiple times better. There are also "roster fees" to be paid per transaction and there's no opportunity for a profit. It's purely an investment. (The Nets hope a new CBA might permit injury rehabs down on the farm, like baseball.)
Nets Have "Comfort Level" with Armor
Why the Armor, which has only been the Nets' affiliate for two years and is an expansion club who won a D-League worst seven games last season and only 13 so far this season? "Again, we had a good comfort level. We were comfortable with the owner who's a baseball guy with minor league clubs, Michael Savit. We're comfortable with practice site, the arena. It's a good area. If we put a enough product there, they will draw. and you can keep an eye on things. That's more appealing than some place in Midwest or West, where you're not within arms reach."
The Armor and their fans will get something out of it as well, starting with winning, says Marks He notes the Rockets' Rio Grande Vipers won the D-League championship last year. "Our goal is to help develop players, and you want to win up there as well. We owe that." There will be other things. The Armor will be able to get help from the Nets business side on marketing and ticketing promotions and "the goal is to eventually have a pre-season game in Springfield."
Marks was at the NCAA Regionals Friday night at the Prudential Center, scouting a wide range of players. Harrison Barnes and John Henson of North Carolina seem to be outside their realm of possibilities, even if they could parlay the #28 and #36 picks with another one purchased on Draft Night into a higher pick. But there were others who might fall into their hands: Brandon Knight of Kentucky late in the first; David Lighty and William Buford of Ohio State in the second; DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson of Kentucky undrafted pickups.
He liked what he saw and adds having the relationship with Springfield will help the Nets front office on Draft Night, yet another advantage.
"Knowing that there is an affiliation, you are already ahead of the game," he said. "It's an advantage you know that you have Springfield for second round picks, even a later first round pick, not a lottery pick. When we make the decision that night, we know they are automatically going to Springfield, where they can develop."
That, says Marks, is a good thing.