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A vision that came to fruition sooner than anyone expected

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Asked when he thought the Nets had a legitimate shot at the playoffs, Spencer Dinwiddie made it clear when he and his teammates first saw the possibility.

“We reported to camp on September 1.”

Dinwiddie and the Nets clinched their first playoff berth in a long while on Sunday – their first postseason appearance since the 2014-2015 season back when Lionel Hollins was the coach and Billy King was the general manager. The team hit rock bottom not long after and brought in Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson to refurbish the entire organization.

They took over a 21-win franchise in free fall. People around the NBA had warned both Marks and Atkinson about the risks of taking over the Nets – a job that looked like a lose-lose situation from the start. No free agents were coming to Brooklyn. The lottery picks Brooklyn should’ve owned were all headed to Boston until 2019. Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young were really the only value the Nets had.

Marks was confident he could find ways to get talent in the door.

“There are several other places and other ways to go out there and do it,” Marks said at his introductory press conference in February of 2016. ‘Obviously you can go to free agency. I’ve seen it done around the NBA where you’re building not only through free agency, you’re building through the European market, you’re building within your D-League franchise and developing your players there.”

No marquee free agents were even thinking of coming to Brooklyn at that time, but Marks signed players he thought Atkinson could develop. While Marks preached patience, the moves he made turned into the young and growing foundation in Brooklyn.

  • First, he signed Atkinson which turned out to be the best move of all. While others might think you could only improve through the Draft, trades and free agency, Marks and Atkinson believed there was another way —player development— and it worked.
  • He traded Thaddeus Young to Indiana for a first-round draft pick that turned into Caris LeVert – one of Brooklyn’s many cornerstones.
  • He scooped up Joe Harris from the G-League, and Kenny Atkinson developed him into the NBA’s best three-pointer shooter.
  • He dropped Yogi Ferrell and signed G-Leaguer Spencer Dinwiddie to a bargain basement multi-year deal. Atkinson and staff turned him into a Most Improved and Sixth Man candidate in back to back years.
  • He traded Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough to Washington in return for a first-round pick that turned into Jarrett Allen – another young cornerstone for Brooklyn.
  • Then, he made the biggest move in his short time as general manager. He traded the franchise’s leading scorer and fan favorite, Brook Lopez, along with the 27th pick in the 2017 Draft in exchange for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov. Less than two years later, Russell’s become the face of the franchise ... a star for New York.
  • He signed a Euroleague player,?Justin Hamilton, on a flyer on a team-friendly deal and traded him to Toronto for DeMarre Carroll and a first and second round pick, one of whom turned into a 20-year-old phenom Rodions Kurucs, the other a 19-year-old who’s Long Island Nets’ star Dzanan Musa.

Marks accumulated four first-round picks during a time when the Nets had zero. He picked up assets in Harris, Dinwiddie, Allen, Russell, Carroll, Kurucs and Musa – all who made up the foundation of the Brooklyn Nets you see today. In addition to that, he opened enough cap space to sign at least one max free agent this upcoming summer.

He made team-friendly acquisitions such as Ed Davis and Jared Dudley – two players who served as the veteran presence this young Nets roster so badly needed.

And today, we’re talking about the Brooklyn Nets as sixth seed, and perhaps one of the most improbable and unpredictable turnarounds in sports history.

“Like I told them — no one believed we could do it,” Kenny Atkinson said. “Those are the most beautiful moments in sports. I’ve never won an NBA championship, but next to that, we’ve proven everybody wrong: The predictions, even their head coach. They proved me wrong. They’re much better than I thought they were going to be. I didn’t know that tightness until I got to know that group.”

Marks also hired the right people to help him find talent and build off it, a respected Italian superscout here, an Australian sports medicine guru there. He hired lawyers, a number of them, to do capology and analytics. Suddenly a rebuild has turned into an evolving winning culture.

It wasn’t all as simple or easy or quick.

The Nets finished 20-62 the first season of the “Markinson” era. Players developed and it was clear that a culture was being built, but the Nets simply didn’t have the talent. The following season, the Nets finished 28-54 – an eight-game improvement with players developing and an identity forming; one that included a blue-collar, hard-nosed style of ball. The Nets competed in games, but they couldn’t close them out.

The eight-game improvement was impressive, but the Nets were still a losing team. They didn’t have it just yet.

Then came the 2018-2019 Nets. The players had a chip on their shoulder and a team filled with evolving players looking for opportunity. At the very least if it didn’t work out, Marks finally had his own first-round pick to work with.

Win or lose, fans thought he could do no wrong.

That’s when things became interesting just two months into the season. The Nets were 8-18 and losers of eight straight —same as the Knicks— while LeVert sat out for an extended period of time due to a dislocated foot. It would’ve been too easy to fold and tank, but their hard-working morals wouldn’t permit. Kenny Atkinson, among other coaches, reiterated that there would be no such thing as giving up. Not part of their mentality, period.

The Nets won 18 of their next 23 games – their best 23-game stretch since 2004-2005, while sitting three games above .500. They really hit their stride when they beat the Detroit Pistons back on March 11 giving them a four-game playoff cushion.

That’s when Atkinson realized, with 13 games left, that there was only one acceptable result.

“They’ve played above expectation,” Atkinson said back in March. “So yeah, it’s a good feeling, but now it’s a nervous and an anxious feeling, because now we’ve got this new goal, this new thing with the playoffs.”

They kept it going and never fell out. Following that game, they headed out on a seven-game road trip. The 13 games left included just three teams below .500. It got a little too close for comfort with only a half-game separating the Nets and the ninth seed with three games left in the season. They prevailed the same way they had climbed out of the gutters of the NBA, by sticking together through times of adversity.

“Every NBA season you go through a tough stretch, and we all stuck together, from ownership and [Marks], to the players and the staff. We went through that rough time and got through the tunnel. That helped us become the team we are today,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson and his staff never viewed this as a year-by-year thing. They saw it as an ongoing process that started the day they walked in the door, hence why they value continuity so much. The season would’ve been considered a success even if they fell short, but finally Marks, Atkinson —and the players— saw the fruits of their labor.

“It’s huge for our team, huge for the city of Brooklyn. We worked really hard for it,” said Caris LeVert, who has been with Brooklyn since the new regime took over.

“I’ve been through losing so much in this league, so to finally get a taste of winning and what the playoffs are going to feel like, I’m excited,” said Russell.

Wednesday’s final game will determine which seed the Nets will wind up with and who they’ll face this weekend. They’re destined to play either the Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers – two teams with plenty of star power and enough playoff experience.

The Nets, meanwhile, will enter the playoffs with just five players on the roster who have participated in a playoff game. And one of those is the prophet Dinwiddie who’s played in exactly one. Like they did with the regular season, they will enter the postseason with zero expectations. It’s all house money at this point and that’s dangerous for any team that’s played the Nets. At the very least, they’re going to give you a dogfight.

And this is what Marks and Atkinson have assembled. With a clear vision in mind and a culture still being built, their plans look like they might be coming to fruition sooner than anybody could’ve ever imagined, including themselves! Just ask Atkinson.

“I would say, not ahead of schedule, way ahead of schedule,” said Atkinson. “I was expecting year four, year five, that’s when we’ll start being in the playoff mix. I don’t know. Like I said, I think it’s a special, special year, special moment and very proud as an organization that we’ve come this far in a short time.”

And it’s not over.