If you listen to Sean Marks long enough, you will hear him use a signature phrase about the challenge he’s facing, now exactly year into his career as Nets GM. “It’s the hand we were dealt,” he will say, a phrase the encompasses lost draft picks, a lack of experienced talent, a barren culture, etc.
The previous regime’s mistakes are at the core of what he will have to do to bring the Nets back into contention. There is no complaint in the phrase, no mention of Billy King ... or ownership, just an acknowledgement of the starting point in what could be a rebuild lasting three, five, seven years, beyond the terms of his contract which now has three years to run.
How much has he accomplished in the first year? Some of it is easy to quantify. The Nets have won only nine games out of 55 and are easily the NBA’s worst team. Jeremy Lin, the big off-season acquisition, has missed 43 of them to a stubborn series of hamstring injuries. Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead, taken higher than most draftniks thought was wise, have been ranked among the top ten rookies for weeks. Sean Kilpatrick, Marks first acquisition, is among the highest scoring undrafted players in the NBA.
Some of it is less easy to grade. Marks has established a culture built on character. Players who don’t measure up get cut or not even signed. It is at the core of the rebuild. It’s what gets them through the night.
Kenny Atkinson crystallized it before the break, telling Newsday.
“I think the intangibles are: What’s your team’s work ethic? What’s their spirit like? How are they coming into practice every day? How are they approaching the games? How’s their focus? Those are the things we’re looking at, and we cast an eye towards our young players. How are they doing? How are they improving?”
Spencer Dinwiddie, whose game has steadily improved while playing for the Nets, told Newsday Sunday the culture can even mitigate the effect of all those losses.
“I think I was a little bit shocked at first, having been on other teams. Nobody can like losing or tolerate losing, but to be able to have that collective buy-in and stick to the program, I think it talks to the character of the guys. We have that belief in the coaching staff and the GM, the whole regime.”
Marks has also pushed the idea that the players are at the center of everything they do in the front office. There’s the little things that mean a lot, like the new Family Room; team lounges at both Barclays and HSS featuring chairs custom designed for seven footers; a new team plane. All new, all the time, all for the players. Ask April Booker, Trevor’s wife. We did.
“With this being Trevor's seventh year and being on two teams previously, our family is used to adjusting to such a fast-paced life, but the Nets have made it feel like home by letting us know that FAMILY MATTERS.”
Beyond the roster, culture is what drives the hires for basketball operations. More than 30 new staffers have taken their place at the HSS Training Center under Marks, at least eight of whom worked for the Spurs at one in their careers. There’s a new emphasis on sports science: analytics, performance, “prehab” as Marks has called it. The D-League team plays and practices at NBA facilities this year. That’s unique. (And Marks is a fixture at the LI Nets home games. King didn’t attend a single D-League game when the Nets operated the Springfield Armor.)
Virtually every pundit likes what Marks is doing in Brooklyn, likes the emphasis on culture, character, the player-first emphasis...
BUT, BUT, BUT
The Nets situation IS bad, maybe the worst in the NBA and for a LONG time. Brooklyn has few assets to improve in the short term. When they got lucky in 2004 and acquired Vince Carter, they had all their own first rounders plus three they picked up in the trade for Kenyon Martin five months earlier. When the Nets acquired Deron Williams in 2011, carrying out Mikhail Prokhorov’s desire to go for the home run every time at bat, they had all their own picks and two others grabbed here and there. There’s no 23-year-old Stephon Marbury to trade for Jason Kidd either.
Yes, the emphasis on development can help even things out eventually, BUT small mistakes that can be tolerated on deep rosters turn into disasters on the Nets. Greivis Vasquez’s lingering ankle issues on top of Lin’s hamstring injuries left the team bereft of point guards. You can argue whether Yogi Ferrell was a big loss —the Nets do have two solid rookies who may ultimately play the point, BUT the optics aren’t good. Same old Nets. And the sniping about how Lin has missed so much time isn’t limited to the fan base.
Even positives can have countervailing negatives. The Nets’ HSS Training Center is spectacular, maybe the best in the NBA. Marks was hired the day after it opened and has remade and reworked elements of it to make it as player-friendly as possible. All but two players —Sean Kilpatrick and Randy Foye— now live close by. Great. BUT Brooklyn has the highest real estate prices in the U.S. according to a recent survey, and New York City taxes are high. That can hurt recruiting, league sources say, particularly with players on vets minimum deals with kids. A small thing, but it’s out there.
Bottom line, and we hate to use the word BUT ... it IS a process. Anthony Bennett doesn’t work out. Quincy Acy does. Greivis Vasquez’s injury is borderline disastrous but it gives Whitehead minutes. Nets give up a great character guy in Thaddeus Young, get another one back in LeVert. And as Long Island Nets coach Ronald Nored noted, not as a an excuse, but as a statement of fact, “we’re all new.”
So we’re not going to grade Marks first year. (The New York Post on Sunday gave him a C+, dropping him because of the point guard mess.) The fanbase for the most part is willing to be patient with him, looking for hope. In the early days of the season, when there was a lot of hope, the team’s turnstile numbers were up 12 percent over last year, TV ratings up 44 percent. There is a reservoir of good feelings waiting to be tapped.
To his great credit, Marks has been very honest about the long road ahead. He’s always said the Nets are about progress this year. That’s helped a lot. We can only hope that he gets lucky. After all, it was another Brooklyn GM, the Dodgers’ great Branch Rickey, who said, “Luck is the residue of design.”
- Nets newcomer gets top grade in rough midseason report card - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Sean Marks: The First 367 Days - Charles Maniego - The Brooklyn Game