The Nets are not contenders, not by a long shot. They have yet to secure a playoff spot. But what they do have now, three years after Sean Marks was hired, is respect. That was the message throughout All-Star Weekend. Every time they’d be mentioned, you’d hear in the next breath “surprising” or “breakout” or as Reggie Miller said, “the Nets are back, baby.”
Marks, the architect, hired Atkinson, the developer, in the weeks after he was hired, and together they shuffled salary dumps and draft picks, picked up and shined diamonds in the rough and yes, developed a culture that every day seems smarter and smarter.
In public and private, Marks says the Nets have “a long way to go.” That, as we’ve noted, in progress since the Nets GM had previously said his team has a “long, long way to go.” One “long” down, one to go.
Last week, Brian Lewis sat down with Marks and talked about the three-year journey, about beefing up the basketball operations staff, particularly scouting and performance, to the point where it’s now 65 strong. And how patience remains a virtue at HSS Training Center.
“It’s one thing to say you’re going to have patience, do your due diligence, it’ll all come. That’s easier said than done,” Marks told The Post. “It’s easy to say we’re going to sit out this free agency, sit out this particular thing. There’s been a learning curve there. If you ask the people around me, they’ll tell you I’m not the most patient person.”
Now, as long as the last third of the season matches the second third, things appear to going in the right direction. They will return to the court Thursday as the six seed with a 30-29 record. The last time they went into the break with 30 wins was 2012-13, their first year in Brooklyn. And this year’s team is filled with fresh young faces, a starting lineup which features a 22-year-old and two 20-year-olds.
And they finally have their own picks going forward after giving away the store in 2013 and leaving Marks and Atkinson with a bare cupboard marked Future. They had a lot to prove early on. The franchise’s reputation wasn’t great and although the hires look good now, Marks and Atkinson had never held the big job before. They were both longtime “assistants” upon arrival in Brooklyn.
“People didn’t come to Brooklyn because they didn’t have a choice: I had to pry them out of places,” Marks said. “I had to ask, ‘Do you want to come here with me? Please?’
“The people who bought in and saw the potential, this vision, they’re the ones building it. This is 65 basketball operations people. This is 400 people on the business side.”
Marks said he looked at the Nets as a start-up, a place where you can experiment here and there, build your own thing with limited expectations, at least early on.
“We look at it like a startup. We were a penny stock. Maybe we’re worth 10 cents now. Someday we’ll be worth a dollar. One day this franchise is going to be worth 10 bucks. But don’t wait to get in.”
Marks’ former bosses were sad that he left, but word was that before he even sat for an interview with the Nets, he was telling those close to him, “this job is mine.” He had even gotten a tour of the HSS Training Center while it was under construction.
“The motherf–ker bailed out on us,” Spurs GM R.C. Buford jokingly told The Post. “He realized there were big challenges ahead, but he’s never one to shy away from challenges. It doesn’t surprise me that he and Kenny [Atkinson] have had the impact they’ve had. … The impact of the culture they’re building is becoming apparent.
“It’s evident in everything, his ability to create relationships, to build culture. … He’s got an unbelievably engaging personality. That’s why he gets people to believe his vision. That’s the reason there’s such an impact he can have.”
There was hope back in February 2016, but there was also a lot of skepticism that Marks, who was advocating radical surgery, would succeed. At least one of the other candidates for the job was telling people there are worst starting points for a rebuild than Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young. Another wanted to retain Billy King in some advisory capacity.
Among those uncertain, Lewis writes, were the players. He spoke with the only player who was a Net back in 2016 and still wears the black-and-white today.
“When things first happened, you’re on the skeptical side. … Just believing in him as a GM was hard for me at first because as a human, we all have trust problems and issues. But it grew on me. I listened to what he said and just fell in love with everything he was doing. We’re winning now. … Look at where we’re at today.”
Along the way, Marks has added little things to the Nets culture, significantly improving player amenities both at Barclays Center, where within months after his arrival, he had a seven-figure family room constructed out of storage space, and at HSS where the players’ lounge was filled with furniture sized for very tall men.
Now comes the next steps: getting into the playoffs ... and pushing into the free agent market. Although returning players like Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Deron Williams all signed for big bucks, the Nets have NEVER made a big splash with free agents. Their two biggest signings EVER in terms of money were Jeremy Lin and Travis Outlaw ... and we all know how those worked out.
There are indications word has gotten out around the league. Jimmy Butler and Kristaps Porzingis both put the Nets on their very short lists of places they’d like to play ... and as we’ve noted, Kawhi Leonard would have a very familiar sense walking into a Nets staff meeting.
Lewis suggests the Nets interest in at least Porzingis and Leonard continues even after they —and their Bird Rights— were shipped off to Dallas and Toronto.
“Things surrounding the team probably look a lot more attractive to the outside,” Marks told The Post. “We’re a more attractive destination.
“The young guys we know are going to be Nets for the foreseeable future, we’re proud of their development and that’s a pretty good foundation. People have taken notice and said, ‘Hey, I [could] play with that group.”
Respect, culture ... and draft picks are all things the Nets can sell right now, things they could not market a mere three years ago.
His former coach, both as a player and an assistant, thinks Marks will get there, aided by Atkinson and the others he’s brought on.
We’ve been rooting for his success and the success of their group since he went,” Popovich said. “It’s obviously very positive and going in the right direction, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Good enough for us.
- Sean Marks needed three years to turn Nets’ entire world around - Brian Lewis - New York Post