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Sean Marks talks KD’s return, Kyrie’s leadership and the new narrative

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2019 NBA All-Star Game Photo by Michelle Farsi/NBAE via Getty Images

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Sean Marks took the stage for the annual press conference between himself, Kenny Atkinson and reporters. As the 6’11” GM entered the room, Atkinson didn’t trail the Kiwi. Instead, the head coach accompanied Kyrie Irving, to the doctors. He had just gotten elbowed in the face thirty minutes before the press conference.

Welcome back.

The media was out and ready to hear what the GM had to say, as the Nets brace for the most anticipated season in franchise history. The Nets have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and as a result, expectations grow, questions loom and the spotlight turns on Brooklyn.

The Nets caught flack after a New York Post article circulated that Durant might indeed return this season... not next. NetsDaily has heard similar, yet nothing has been definitive. ESPN’s Rachel Nichols blasted the reports and said it’s a narrative the Nets need to shut down immediately.

Marks sort of did... in his own way.

“His rehab is going very well. With Kevin, I think what we’re going to say is the expectations are that he’ll be out for the year,” Marks explained Tuesday. “We’re not going to plan on him playing. His rehab will obviously be predetermined over the course of the next few months, how he goes with the performance team, but ultimately Kevin will have a large say in when he comes back and how he’s feeling. The expectation now is for him to be out for the year.”

They sort of quieted the narrative, but not fully. The Nets are known to be super conservative with players’ injuries, then managing their workload. The suggestion is that once Brooklyn’s doctors clear Durant to play, they will leave the decision to him. The Nets trust Dr. Martin O’Malley, who operated on Durant’s broken foot in 2015 as well as this past spring on his ruptured Achilles.

Marks made it more than clear that the Nets do not expect him to return, but the idea of this self-fulfilling prophecy will ultimately be in the hands of Durant.

“Nothing has really changed. This is just an easier way to say that Kevin controls the rehab. He’s attacking this like no other… I think there’s more at stake here. This is, again, a long-term approach. There’s a lot of people with a lot of sweat equity in this from the rehab perspective and so forth, so I think it will be a group that makes the decision and obviously Kevin included as to when and how that return is made.”

It wasn’t all about Durant, of course. While that remains the biggest question of the season, there are still plenty more. From the first to the third year of Marks and Atkinson’s reign, the key words were culture and development. Things have shifted, but the culture they constantly discuss is still a point of emphasis – and something that doesn’t just ‘stop’ with new personnel.

“It’s no less important now than it ever has been. I think this is now a challenge for everybody here. Everybody’s been around and has been driving this culture together. This is not one or two guys, it’s an army. Between the whole group here, from players to staff to everybody, they’ll be driving this culture. It’s going to be an interesting challenge...

“Culture’s always evolving. Everybody’s culture should be evolving.”

The Nets gutted a young 42-win team to chase these superstars, ultimately adding eight new players. The culture included continuity and commitment to growth. There are contradictions in what the Nets did, but it’s near impossible to blame them after the moves they made. Marks understands there will be higher expectations and a next step he and Atkinson must take.

Asked about whether he feels he has the right coach up for the new challenge, Marks praised Atkinson for the work he’s done and expects to continue.

“Right off the bat Kenny and his entire staff have been up to the challenge,” he explained. “I think we’ve all witnessed, a first time head coach coming in from Day One, and nobody can ever argue that he’s not passionate about it, not improving along the way.

“He’s his biggest critic, nobody puts more man hours in there, and no one is more demanding of himself than Kenny. And that’s literally all I can ask for, especially when it comes to the product that’s on the floor and how they respond to it, I think what we’ve seen is a group of guys get behind Kenny. Whether it was Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, I expect nothing more this year.”

There’s a hurdle Atkinson must take this upcoming season. The spotlight hasn’t been on him. He paid his dues in the NBA and was hired as Brooklyn’s head coach during a rebuild. He’s shown that he can improve players – and his teams. He had an attachment to last year’s team and the coaching staff, knowing what they built was unique and special. It was indeed the ultimate underdog story of the NBA last season.

Improvement was the goal.

Now?

“I think we would be in the wrong business if we said our goal is to be sort of sustainable and along for the ride of mediocrity. None of those words exist with us. We’re gonna compete at the highest level, and we expect the ultimate goal.”

Atkinson has relied heavily on veteran leaders – a couple who were previous players of Atkinson’s whom he could trust. In the past, the Nets have had Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin, DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis and Jared Dudley take the role of veteran leader. It’s a term thrown around perhaps too often, but Brooklyn salvaged their season due to the wittiness of Dudley and a players-only film session he planned following an eight-game losing streak. With Brooklyn’s season on the line, they won seven in a row and 20 of the next 26.

They’ve taken the next step. Now, the veteran leaders ARE their superstars. Marks named others such as DeAndre Jordan, Garrett Temple and Kevin Durant. But throughout the press conference, he expressed faith in the leadership Kyrie Irving has shown this past summer.

“We’re obviously pretty excited about having Kyrie in here and I think it’s been, we’ve seen it out on the court already in these pickup games — the leadership, the work ethic and the competitive nature that he has brought to the group has been terrific.”

He later added how he’s enjoyed the camaraderie between the younger guys and the veterans, while stating the Kyrie has been “religiously here for three weeks.”

Sources told NetsDaily over the summer that Irving planned the workouts in Los Angeles. Players came together and not just Nets. Carmelo Anthony was there as well. Reports circulated that Irving and Durant pushed the idea of Anthony participating in the workouts and they vouched for him.

But sources reiterated that Melo was going to be nothing more a player-friendly workout. While Melo impressed, Marks seeming hasn’t budged on his superstars’ request. Then again, like several other things (KD’s return), Marks left the door ajar, just a bit.

“We’ve looked at multiple players, we’ve brought in several players, whether it was throughout the summer for pickup and they’ve come in on their own accord. It’s documented that guys were playing together in L.A. (with Anthony), so for us, I think we’ll use our Exhibit 10s, we’ll use training camp in which to try and figure it out, whether it’s two-way spots and so forth. We’ll use that to figure out where we go.”

(A league source suggested that the Nets 20-man roster could be released as early as Wednesday. Nobody was saying who will be on it, but eagle-eyed reporters spotted two possibilities: C.J. Williams, a 6’5” swingman who played for Minnesota last season, and John Egbunu, a near 7-foooter who had an injury-scarred career at Florida.)

Marks praised some of his homegrown products when asked who has surprised, going in detail about Joe Harris’ great summer with Team USA, Jarrett Allen being at HSS daily, Spencer Dinwiddie being the “first guy in the gym” and Caris LeVert arriving at the practice facility at 10 P.M. “on a nightly basis.”

Things are different in Brooklyn, to say the least. They’ve lifted off into a new stratosphere, one the organization hasn’t seen in years – if ever. During last year’s preseason press conference, Marks told reporters, “The coaching staff… They want to win right now, and I don’t blame them. That’s part of what I love about our group here, they’re competitive as any. But again, I got to rein them back in and say, ‘trust us, if we’re trying to build this long-term, it’s going to take some time.’”

With Irving manning the ship and Durant rehabbing until further notice, that time Marks was talking about… is now. And much sooner than anybody anticipated.

“The challenge is a little different than it was years one, two and three. It’s certainly, expectations are different [and] I think we’re up for the challenge.”