The Nets Gambled on Talent, and it's Paying Off

When the Brooklyn Nets hired Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson as their new GM and Coach in January of 2016, it signaled a clear culture change for the franchise. Gone was the furious, win-now mentality the team took on after the infamous 2013 trade where Billy King mortgaged the future of the franchise in an attempt to win a ring. In his and Atkinson’s introductory press conference, Marks shed some more light on the situation, "We’re all on the same page…[owner Mikhail Prokhorov has] given us the reigns to run this thing our way, and if it takes time it does." And while perhaps all newly-minted GM’s say something along these lines, in the Nets’ case, Marks was telling the truth. He had a vision for the team, and ownership backed him fully, and allowed him to execute that vision.

Marks had an impossible job: fix a bad team with no cap space, draft picks, or many valuable assets to deal. There are three means through which teams can improve the talent level on their team: The Draft, Free Agency, and Trades. Without their own first-round draft pick or any cap space, Marks needed to engineer a new way to acquire more talent for his roster. His strategy was to go after talented players who, for some reason or the other, had lost significant value over the course of a short period of time.

Perhaps the clearest example of that strategy is in D’Angelo Russell, the Nets starting point guard, and latest All-Star! The former Buckeye was the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, but after a difficult first two years in LA – which reached rock bottom during the Nick Young saga –was shipped over to Brooklyn in exchange for an aging Brook Lopez and the 27thoverall pick in the draft so the Lakers could select Lonzo Ball as the face of the franchise. Sure, Russell struggled a bit during his first couple of years, but his market value had dropped far more than it should have based on his potential, and Marks took advantage of that. A season and a half later and, thanks in large part to the excellent developmental work of Kenny Atkinson (more on this later), Russell is now an all-star.

Just a few months after that, Marks made another move and sent veteran Trevor Booker to the 76ers for the third overall pick in that same 2015 draft, Jahlil Okafor, a player who was rated highly coming out of college and had a great rookie year before falling behind Joel Embiid in the depth chart.

He’s taken a similar strategy in the draft, often finding players who were projected to go higher but fell due to injuries during their last year. In the 2016 draft, Marks’ first as GM, he selected Caris LeVert, a Michigan product who could have been a lottery pick if not for injuries that derailed his junior and senior seasons. His talent was rarely questioned, even in college, and the skills he showed at Michigan were enough to convince Marks that Kenny and the staff would be able to get him over this injury and continue to develop. And while he has continued to be a little injury-prone during his time in Brooklyn, LeVert was breaking out as the Nets best player before he dislocated his foot earlier this year.

Spencer Dinwiddie’s rise to prominence from being cut multiple times earlier in his career has become well-documented as he has developed into a reliable scorer over the past two years. Like LeVert, Dinwiddie, too, was once considered a potential lottery pick. In his appearance on the Woj Pod, Dinwiddie discussed how he was sure he would have been taken in the top 14 if he hadn’t torn his ACL during his senior year. Marks keyed in on finding bargains wherever he could, and decision-making to this point has led the Nets back into the playoff hunt.

But while Marks had the vision, none of this would have been possible without the work of head coach Kenny Atkinson. The former Hawks assistant was considered something of a ‘player development guru’ thanks to his work with Jeremy Lin during ‘Linsanity’ and the growth that guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder showed during his Atlanta days. He has certainly fortified that reputation during his time with the Nets, helping Dinwiddie, Russell, and LeVert blossom into high-level contributors, and helping build the team’s culture.

While none of these players might ever turn into All-NBA caliber players, and the Nets certainly don’t have the pieces to make a run at a championship yet, Marks and Atkinson came to Brooklyn with a plan and, having been given time to let it come to fruition, have made the Nets relevant again.