It’s very likely that February 18, 2016 and April 17, 2016 will come to be known as two of the most important dates in Nets history. Those are the dates the Nets hired Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson, starting a rebuild that some have saw as the among the most daunting in NBA history.
How have they done? Put it this way. It is time for Mikhail Prokhorov (and Joe Tsai) to step up to the plate and create another memorable day: the day the Nets give Marks and Atkinson contract extensions before they become free agents in 2020.
Why extend them before their deals expire in 2020? For a number of reasons. First, they earned it. It would make a statement to free agents about stability. It would make a statement to free agents about Mikhail Prokhorov’s commitment to patience. And it hedges against the ever so slight possibility, driven by human nature, that Markinson might factor in their job security when making decisions.
As for job performance, there is no doubt. The Nets are over .500 because Marks and Atkinson have dug them out of the abyss on their hands and knees, with a shovel.
The smartest decision Marks made was the one that drove the rebuild. That was to never worry, not one iota, about the embarrassment of conveying top draft picks to the Celtics, but rather, treating that as a sunk cost – as Zach Lowe alluded to here.
Marks could have decided that to quickly get beyond the optics of giving top three picks to Boston, the Nets could have resorted to signing “George Hill like veterans” — as Lowe wrote— and tried to win as many games as possible. But that would have saved them from some Celtic fan jokes about the “Brooklyn pick” era, and endless Tweets. But if the Nets did that, they wouldn’t have an infrastructure of young players today. They would have effectively hurt themselves simply to avoid the optics of helping Boston.
Marks was smart to realize that the Nets were never going to “win” the Boston trade, and avoiding the sunk cost fallacy, that is making a bad outcome worse by sinking more resources into flawed endeavor. Instead, he decided to simply move on. He was also smart to realize that the Nets were better off building for themselves, regardless of what Boston did. After all, if you become good, there will always be other good teams, but you cannot control who the other good teams are. All you can do is get good yourself.
The result was a shrewd strategy whereby Marks would use every asset available to add young talent (and good culture vets to show them the ropes). Equally important in a results-based league, he executed the strategy well.
D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, and Rodions Kurucs (and ultimately Dzanan Musa) became Nets in whole or in part because Marks used his cap space to eat bad money, in the interests of acquiring good young talent. And he made friends with agents by tendering huge offer sheets to mid-level players. Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris were available to everyone, sitting there on the NBA scrap heap, but Marks got them for what amounts to nothing in NBA terms.
Caris LeVert, obviously, was acquired for Thaddeus Young, in a clear case of prioritizing the addition of young players. Marks, at the time, talked about having the time to wait out LeVert’s foot surgery recovery because of the “life cycle” of the rebuild – a tell that he was in no rush to win immediately.
Clearly, Marks has added a solid stable of young talent – and done so with limited resources. LeVert, Allen, and Kurucs are providing mid to late lottery talent to the Nets, despite being picked 20, 22, and 40 in the draft. Russell, acquired in a salary dump, is doing the same. And the oldest of the group is Harris, at 27. Two are 20.
But it’s more than just acquiring talent. The Nets set up a performance team with a “prehab” philosophy, beefed up the scouting staff and made unconventional hires: a former Navy SEAL human performance manager to run the training operation and a Harvard Law graduate to be the team’s capologist.
As for Atkinson, he too has done an excellent job molding the players Marks has provided. The smartest things Atkinson has done? Put development above all else, and run a modern motion offense designed to succeed in today’s dribble drive, pick and roll, and three point shooting era – regardless of personnel early in this rebuild. This is something smart folks have credited him with since his first year at the helm
Early in Atkinson’s tenure, there were plenty of calls from fans for less three-point shooting. The common refrain? Why isn’t Kenny coaching to his personnel? Why are his rotations so deep, as opposed to riding the hot hand?
Atkinson stuck with his modern offense for a reason. His personnel did not allow the standings to reflect it, but by running an offense heavy on penetration, floor space, and three point shooting, Atkinson was exposing his young players to the type of modern offense they will need to play in the 2020’s ... contention time. By getting his best players accustomed to that style of play early, he eased the learning curve for the future – which is now the present.
Now, when the Nets want, for example, Allen to rim run in a playoff push, or Russell to strike a balance between calling his number, pitching the ball to the wing to get movement, or otherwise, they are used to those roles, rather than only being thrust into them now.
Atkinson maybe wins a couple more games early on by dissolving his system and instead maximizing his personnel at that time – players like Quincy Acy, Luis Scola, and Randy Foye. But if he did that, again, the Nets would be worse off today. He was smart to stick to his principles.
Atkinson also, smartly, stuck to development as his key ethos, over wins and losses. Despite fans wanting him to ride the “hot hand” Atkinson made sure everyone got minutes, and players were put in a variety of different situations so that they all developed. Sometimes that meant Isaiah Whitehead shooting a technical free throw, or Allen taking threes. Sometimes that meant sitting a red-hot Russell because Dinwiddie needed the chance to grow as well.
The results have been fabulous. Russell, Dinwiddie, LeVert, Allen, Harris, and Kurucs have all improved under Atkinson’s watch. Even veterans, like Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll, have seen their careers become revived under his watch.
When push comes to shove, over a three-year period, Marks and Atkinson have filled the asset hole left by the Celtic deal and replenished the asset pool, acquired and substantially developed a strong core of young players, got some to sign bargain contracts and positioned the Nets for a possibly huge summer in 2019. That is extension worthy, on both counts.
Beyond earning it, the other factors mentioned above bear note as well. Extensions for Markinson make a statement to free agents about front office stability. In this “player empowerment” era that LeBron James spawned in 2010, star free agents clearly want to play with other stars, but also want to do so with an organization they can trust.
When Dwyane Wade was asked about why he LeBron and Chris Bosh did not choose the Knicks in 2010, he was clear: “from an organization standpoint, we didn’t feel like they could handle it: . That was Wade taking a shot at the Knicks, saying that they were not competent enough to help the Big Three win a championship. Pat Riley was and Miami won the day.
Stars want to know that your organization is competent; that if they hand you four years of their prime, they can trust you to make strong decisions. Extending Markinson sends the right message – these men and their staffs have brought stability to this franchise, we know that, and it will continue going forward.
Extensions to Marks and Atkinson make another statement as well: it helps show free agents that Prokhorov’s claims, since 2010-2016, that he has learned from his past mistakes are indeed genuine. Clearly, Prokhorov was overzealous in rushing to build a winner during the Billy King era – that is something on which most people would agree. Since hiring Marks, Prokhorov has been clear that he learned from those errors, and now desires to build things deliberately. Tsai has bought in as well, even when his favorite player, Jeremy Lin, got moved so the Nets could have more cap space for another long-term deal. Rewarding Markinson for their work to date would speak volumes. It would represent Prokhorov rewarding the precise patience he says he preaches. That, too, can impress free agents.
Lastly, extending Markinson would empower them to continue making smart, patient decisions at the deadline and in the summer of 2019. When a general manager or coach is a lame duck, close to expiration, there is always the risk, a product of simple human nature, that that lame duck status could cause them to make win-now decisions in the interests of job security, instead of the patient decisions required for the long term health of the franchise.
As Bobby Marks said on a January 11 podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski about his own situation with the Nets right after the Boston trade.
“You’re fighting for your jobs, you’re fighting for financial security down the road, and maybe you’re … trading a couple of second round picks to … save luxury tax … I think you do look, you shouldn’t, where it’s, we’re not going to be here two years from now … let’s worry about right now.”
Certainly, Markinson is on infinitely stronger footing today than Bobby Marks was in 2014 and 2015, the time period he referenced on the podcast. Nevertheless, his comments serve as a reminder, as is common in sports, that a GM or coach troubled by anxiety could place self-preservation ahead of the long term interests of the franchise.
Prokhorov, and Tsai should avoid that even being talked about this summer as they and Markinson try to sign a big star. Empower Markinson, now. Give them both multiyear extensions, now. (And remember in negotiating, how cheap you got them for back in 2016.)
Last July, it was clear that Harris had earned a new contract. In December, it was clear that Dinwiddie earned a contract extension. The Nets stepped up to the plate and gave both nice deals.
Now, it is Markinson’s turn to be rewarded. In other words, Mikhail and Joe, Write.the.check. It will be a good investment.