Sean Marks sat on a stage in front of reporters and cameramen ... a lot of them. It was a cold day in late February with a dark cloud over Brooklyn. Questions were thrown at Marks, but no answer, it seemed, could point to a quick fix —or even something long-term. The Nets were simply in a horrid situation.
After all, he was taking over a 21-61 team with exactly zero first round picks of their own over the next three years and a similar number (none) of second rounders over the next five! He didn’t have a young star and really only three legitimate NBA players in Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic.
Moreover, he was not the front runner for the job even the day before. Bryan Colangelo was seem as the likely choice to replace Billy King. So how would he solve this problem?
Marks possesses a humble, yet confident demeanor. He’s so well organized you could diagram his sentences. But the debut was not auspicious and it wasn’t just because of the enormity of the challenge. He slipped and referred to the Nets as the “New Jersey Nets” but that was soon forgotten. What he offered seemed amorphous. The word he used to describe the way out was “culture” and the importance of filling the brand new HSS Training center with the right people. Building a workplace that the best people will find attractive.
“The people within the organization are gonna define this culture, Marks said at his introductory press conference in February 2016. “So it’s the hires that are going to be made over the next two, three, four months, those people are gonna be the right people to push that culture, to drive that culture, and you’ll see that culture not only on the court, but It’ll be behind the scenes, it’ll be within the community. We’ll all be on the same page with a clear vision.”
“Culture” and “vision” seemed poor substitutes for a plan, for draft picks or young players.
Three years later, the Brooklyn Nets built a workplace that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving wanted to join. It’s the first time a superstar free agent – two nonetheless – has signed with the Nets. Prior to Sunday, their best free agent signing was Armen Gilliam in 1993.
Marks was able to lure the two of the biggest free agents in one of the most historic free agent classes in NBA history. It was the “transformational” move that culminated one of the most improbable turnarounds in sports history.
This was no seat-of-the-pants operation. During his summer press conference in 2018, Marks tempered expectations, explaining to reporters how the Nets wouldn’t skip steps and how they had a “a long, long way to go.” Then, he slipped something in there that would ring true this weekend: “We have a year to prepare for the summer of 2019.”
He knew who he wanted. Kenny Atkinson knew who they wanted. “It’s a real fantastic opportunity,” Kenny Atkinson told ESPN at the Draft Combine. “We’re going to have options. A, I think we all know what A is,” he said with a big smile.
‘Plan A’ was now in play. With the team progressing well on the court, showcasing the organization’s success and an historic free agent class, the Nets thought it was the time to go from “a long, long way to go” to “way to go!”
It wouldn’t have happened without the “culture” Marks preached from Day 1 –- something a number of competing teams in free agency lacked. (Hint, hint) “Culture” isn’t just a word. There are layers to it, starting with the people you hire and how they apply important morals to the workplace.
The workplace, whether one of the practice courts or one of the cubicles down the hall, was built it around the belief hard-work, improvement, cohesiveness and a high-character individuals in all departments of the basketball side.
Winning mattered, of course, but it wasn’t going to the standard measure of success.
“I told you it was never going to be measured with wins and losses,” he said in that same 2018 press conference. “That’s not something [I] was looking at or that ownership was saying, ‘Look if we don’t win X amount of games, it’s going to be considered a failure.’”
Marks’ first hire was Kenny Atkinson, an assistant coach from the Atlanta Hawks, having spent four years there and four years as an assistant with the New York Knicks. Atkinson was known for his persistence, having spent 14 years as a player overseas, then 12 years as an assistant coach both in Europe and in the NBA.
Atkinson admits how people warned him about taking the job because the situation was so dire. A New York native, he was ready for the challenge and go from 20 wins, the worst record in the NBA to a 42-win playoff team from his first year to his third.
One thing that’s often forgotten about Marks and Atkinson. They were both brand new to their jobs. Other than running the Austin Toros in the then D-League, Marks was a rookie GM and other than coaching the Dominican Republic’s national team, Atkinson was a neophyte in his job too.
“We’re all new to this,” Marks said early in their joint tenure. “This is my first job as a GM, Kenny’s first head coaching job, and a lot of staff members, it’s the same thing. They’ve been put in positions where this is their first chance at a high-level position.”
They were all in it together and so had an opportunity to create something unique as they went along, but the Nets played a tricky game. Expectations were on the rise. They were 8-18, the same as the Knicks on December 7 of last year. They could have easily tanked for Zion. For the first time since 2013, they had their own pick. It would have been a race to the bottom with James Dolan’s team.
We’ve never talked about tanking, Sean and I,’’ Atkinson told Michael Kay at one point. “I’m just going to be honest: Internally, we don’t use the word. We don’t talk about it.”
Instead, they stayed true to the culture, their morals, and played hard every night. After dropping eight straight, they won seven straight starting with a last second win over the eventual NBA champs, then 20 of the next 26 en route to their first playoff berth in four seasons.
Players began to notice the infrastructure Brooklyn built – between the culture, young core, front office, coaching staff and treatment of players. Players began noticing, namely Kyrie Irving, who was getting fed up in Boston.
He started looking over his shoulder over towards Brooklyn. He saw the team he loved growing up, having fun and growing together while playing in Brooklyn, one of the biggest markets in the NBA, a short distance from West Orange, NJ. He was enticed and as time went on and he became more frustrated with his situation, he started eyeing the Nets as they were eyeing him… and Durant. They spoke regularly about teaming up.
Then, the two of them saw their seasons end ignominiously. There were indications they wanted more than the Celtics (Irving) or Warriors (Durant) could deliver. Irving was more outspoken.
“The taste of defeat, the style of being down 1-4, I haven’t felt, so for me, it’s just moving on to the next thing, and just seeing where that ends up,” Irving said after the Celtics got hammered by the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semi’finals.
After the playoffs, Irving and his camp essentially alienated the Boston Celtics. He bought a home in South Orange and speculation began. Then, sources told NetsDaily that Irving was at the 40/40 club the same night as some players on the Nets. Wink wink.
It became more and more clear the Nets would be flat earth believers. Spencer Dinwiddie is close to Kyrie. The two have been good friends and happened to be in the same class during a semester-long business class for pro athletes at Harvard University in summer of 2018.
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So fun to welcome these amazing athletes to the Harvard family yesterday! They crushed it in their case discussions during the #CrossoverIntoBusiness kick-off. And kept things 100% serious throughout the day, as you can see. I can’t wait to see how far they’ll come this semester. #Harvardfamily #HarvardHBS #lifeatHBS (By the way, yes, I am wearing yellow sneakers. All will be explained later!)
Dinwiddie, as big a fan of the Nets culture on the team, talked it up. Team insiders insisted to NetsDaily throughout the process that Dinwiddie was designated as one of the top recruiters for Kyrie. He didn’t speak a word about the friendship publicly. Nor were there many hints on social media. He moved in silence… the way Sean Marks wants it to be.
“Mutual interest” turned into “done deal” in the matter of weeks, according to several sources who spoke to NetsDaily. It was only a matter of time before their culture and the people in it would attract a big name and there were still weeks until free agency would open. For Kyrie, it wasn’t just about the culture and everything Brooklyn has to offer.
It was also about coming home, with a clean slate and chip on his shoulder. Robin was secured. Next, they needed to get Batman.
And this is where culture -- and the people Marks had hired come into play.
Marks brought in Andrew Baker, a Tulane-educated lawyer who he knew from the Spurs, to serve as “Director of Contract Management.” One of Baker’s most important long-term tasks was maximizing space for big targets, whether Irving, Durant or Kawhi Leonard.
Zach Weatherford, who ran the Navy Seal Human Performance Team, was assigned to build the Nets Performance Team. The medical team was already one of the most accomplished in the NBA, with Dr. Riley Williams III as the medical director and Dr. Martin O’Malley as the foot and ankle specialist.
Two Australians were given the task of building up sports science and sports medicine. Four stats heads —all in their 20’s— divided up analytics tasks, some responsible for in-game situations, others for transactions. It was all part of the “culture,” one they were developing from the inside out.
Increasingly important —and increasingly well respected— was the whole performance infrastructure and regimen. On Mondays, they test your body – specifically vulnerable spots like hamstrings, hips and glutes. It also helps tell when your body needs rest. They have players wear Catapult vests to test blood flow. It also helps dictate a players’ workout schedule for the week.
For a player like Durant, who’s had his share of injuries, that mattered. There were other personal connections as well.
Sources began linking Durant’s name to the Nets in a serious way back in April, citing his desire to play with longtime friend and Brooklyn cornerstone, Caris LeVert. The two have worked out together in the past and developed a strong relationship. Both trusted Dr. O’Malley, with Durant telling LeVert just before his last surgery that he’d be “brand new” after “Doc O’Malley” was done with him.
Durant became enamored of LeVert’s game as well as his friendship. Despite his LeVert’s bizarre dislocation, KD saw LeVert as an ideal third man for a superteam, behind him an Irving.
Said one Nets insider, “Kevin really wants to play with Caris.”
”It’s like a big brother,” LeVert said when he was asked about his relationship with Durant. “He reached out when I was in college. Obviously, we had similar injuries and things like that and the same surgeon. He’s like a big brother… He’s obviously played on a huge stage right now repeatedly for a couple of years playing in the Finals and things like that. He gives a lot of good advice.”
He also “loves” Jarrett Allen, according to more than one source. Taurean Prince, acquired in the Allen Crabbe salary dump, works out with Durant in the off-season as well. Prince said he and Durant are family guys.
Then, Durant ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Suddenly his focus was on other things… other things that Brooklyn had to offer.
Golden State had the roster and prestige, but Durant’s time there was up. There are differing opinions on how he saw the Warriors medical staff, the one that cleared him to play. He also tired of Draymond Green, who he butted heads with.
Initially, he —and Irving— were intrigued by the Knicks. Durant moved his company, Thirty Five Ventures moving to New York City. But unlike the Nets, the Knicks were on a tanking mission. The idea of a reunion of the 2016 Olympic team in NYC faded along with the Knicks record. A 17-win team without Zion Williamson —or any big name— wasn’t very enticing for a guy coming off two championships in Golden State.
In the end, he didn’t even give them or anyone else a meeting. His agent, Rich Kleiman, met with Warriors’ President of Basketball Operations to inform him that he wouldn’t return. That was it. Batman was ready to join Robin in Brooklyn, not Manhattan.
One insider talked about the depth of their friendship.. “About a year back, they played two strangers in pickup basketball. Both of them refused to play on opposite teams, they always needed to be together.”
Another was more succinct. “They’re like brothers.”
Yes, the Nets had competition, for a while, but the Nets were ready-made, a winning team with a proven basketball operations system, yes a “culture.” The move would bring not just Irving, but Durant close to their homes, Irving in New Jersey, Durant in Washington, DC. Brooklyn is a lot closer than Oklahoma City or Oakland.
The Nets, whether it’s the GM, Sean Marks, or the CEO, Brett Yormark, don’t talk, at least publicly, about the competition posted by the Knicks in the basketball or business arena. Let us worry about our own, both will say. There’s enough here to keep us busy, engaged.
No, they are competing against the entire NBA now ... and this weekend, they proved they could prevail. The Nets won, validating what Luis Scola said after one year under the Markinson regime: “Once they win, they will get [anybody] they want.”
And they have.