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From a ‘long, long way to go’ to ‘way to go!’ ... the Nets journey

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets-Press Conference Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It’s long been Sean Marks’ mantra. The Nets, he would say, even early this season, had a “long, long way to go.” Then, subtly, perhaps even subconsciously, he recently began to say the Nets had a “long way to go.” And now?

WAY TO GO!!!

For the pundits, the transformation has been “remarkable,” “extraordinary,” and even “complete.” But if you ask the Nets GM now what he thinks about the Nets current situation, he would surely talk about the organic development of culture, etc. and say the job is not done. And it’s not. But Sunday night, the rebuild, the progress, whatever you want to call it reached a milestone. Not the end of the road, but an on-ramp from local streets onto the BQE. Potholes be damned. We are on our way!

With Marks the architect and Kenny Atkinson the engineer, the Nets brass tried fitting together the pieces, however jagged, however rusty, however new and shiny. As head coach, Atkinson bore the brunt of the pain that came with the rebuild... seasons of 20 and 28 wins. Losses piled on losses, injuries piled on injuries. The doubters did their worst.

But from Day One, Mark, Atkinson and their staffs prioritized character and culture over everything. No shortcuts, they would intone at every press conference. And they found the guys who fit the mold. Marks rescued D’Angelo Russell from the Lakers, in a move he privately called “transformational.” Atkinson developed two key pieces who had been unceremoniously dumped by multiple teams: Joe Harris, now the best shooter in the NBA, and Spencer Dinwiddie, arguably the best bench player east of Lou Williams.

Veterans who were buyout candidates elsewhere —DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley— became contributors on the court, mentors off.

The scouts, led by assistant GM Trajan Langdon, found what could be called diamonds in the rough: Caris LeVert who some teams had taken completely off their draft boards because of his multiple foot surgeries; Jarrett Allen, who many thought didn’t love the game enough; Rodions Kurucs, who played 43 minutes in Europe and whose Spanish team had tried to hide him!

He may not have had draft picks, but he had ideas. When Marks arrived in Brooklyn, he had no first rounders of his own through this year and no seconds —period— through 2021. The Boston trade, now universally seen as the worst trade in recent NBA history (at least), had devastated the team’s future.

What he did have (finally) was a patient owner, who chastened by The Trade, gave him the leeway he needed. He knew he had great facilities, the biggest market, and some trade assets: veteran players who would make nice fits for competitive teams. He sent Brook Lopez, the team’s leading all time scorer, to L.A. for Russell. He sent Thaddeus Young, a character guy, to Indiana for the draft rights to LeVert. Neither move was popular. Both were huge risks.

That, in turn, gave him cap space for lopsided trades that turned out better than anyone, probably even him, expected. Justin Hamilton for DeMarre Carroll and the picks that became Kurucs and Dzanan Musa. Isaiah Whitehead for Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, a first and a second. A week later, he turned around and traded Arthur for Jared Dudley and yet another second.

And he had assets that were more subtle, ones of his own making: a performance team that combined with the team’s medical staff, gave Brooklyn perhaps the best sports medicine and sports science operation in the NBA. Pioneering techniques, customized regimens, men and women with advanced degrees and experience across sports, whether it be the NBA or Australian rugby.

There was also the million dollar family room carved out of a storage room and player lounges that were designed down to the inch by a world-class interior decorator. Seven footers need not screw their huge bodies into a tight space just to play video games. Every little thing mattered.

Finally, there was the development ethos that pulled it all together. Measure sleep patterns. Monitor the color or your pee. Work on individual skills — “vitamins.” Pair like-minded assistants and players. Don’t have high picks? That’s fine. Take what you got and turn them into players who are the equivalent of the picks your lost. Caris LeVert or Jaylen Brown? You tell me. Or trade for a top pick no one wanted any more, like Russell.

How about a mechanism for finding and developing deeply hidden gems ... and not just players but staff too? The G League which hadn’t been a priority under the previous administration (what had?) is now a focus and on Sunday, two hours after the Brooklyn Nets made the playoffs, the Long Island Nets won Game 1 of the G League Finals.

There are missteps, bad luck along the way. Jeremy Lin, who agreed to play for his Linsanity mentor, Atkinson, missed all but 37 games over two years. DLo underwent knee surgery his first year, robbing him and us of knowing his true potential. Trading for Allen Crabbe. Let’s not talk about that for now. He wheeled and dealed. His RFA offers made him friends with agents, if not rival GMs.

Meanwhile in the gym, Atkinson developed offensive and defensive systems he thought would work long-term. Put a premium on deep shooting and athleticism, position-less basketball. It took a while to populate those systems with players who could do the jobs required. Be patient, stay the course. Find the pieces, work them, coach them to within an inch of their basketball lives. And.give.them.confidence. Joe Harris was taken aback when Atkinson told him the Nets wanted Harris, who had been dumped by the Cavaliers and Magic, to be “our Kyle Korver.”

Two and a half years of hard work and Harris is not only the Nets Kyle Korver. He IS Kyle Korver, the best three point shooter in the NBA, taking his three-point percentage from 38.5 percent to 41.9 to a league-leading 47.2, from No. 50 to No. 1. That’s better than Korver or anyone named Curry or Thompson.

The piece de resistance, of course, is Russell, who arrived in Brooklyn as damaged goods. The greatest point guard in NBA history, Magic Johnson, had decried his lack of leadership as he ushered him out the door. Worse, he timed his harsh critique so that his comments would be the subject of the first questions DLo faced at his Brooklyn press conference.

Marks knew all about Nick Young and Iggy Azalea, but he also had spent time talking to Russell prior to the 2015 NBA Draft when he was working for the Spurs. He felt more than comfortable trading for him. For the Nets, judging character isn’t about reading clips or some secondhand accounts. It’s about face-to-face, knowing.

Russell slowly realized where he fit. He spent all last summer in Brooklyn working out, changing his eating habits. He didn’t want to be seen as injury-prone any more. And it worked. He’s played 80 games this season, missing one for rest. Coach’s decision. And he worked on his game as well. He didn’t give up on his “inefficient” mid-range game or his floaters. He made them work. Finally, he was the engine that drove the Nets from their nadir on December 6, when they were 8-18 and suffering one injury after another, to the playoffs. He proved to be their on-court leader ... at 22.

When it finally came together this season, it surprised just about everyone... Atkinson admits it surprised even him. It didn’t seem to surprise his players. They never gave up in any game. They left the tanking mentality for others. The Kings game, with its historic turnaround and DLo’s stunning heroics, was just the best example. They go hard ... and they have fun. After one particularly brutal Celtics loss, Kyrie Irving noted how he sees other benches dancing while his sulks. Everyone knew who he was talking about.

No, Marks and Atkinson will tell you, the journey isn’t complete. The Nets are still a work in progress. Hell, the playoffs start next weekend! They have needs, while will likely be exacerbated by the harsh light of the post-season ... but they’re in the playoffs. They will face competition for big free agents ... but they will be in the hunt. They will make mistakes ... but will be bold enough to take the risks. And on a journey, that’s all you can ask.