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Mazzeo: How Sean Marks got Nets GM job ... and how it almost didn’t happen

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When word came on February 17, 2016 that Sean Marks had won the Nets general manager job, it was supposed to be a great day for the organization.

The morning after the Nets and Marks had seemingly agreed on the job, the Nets were officially opening the HSS Training Center in Brooklyn’s Industry City. Reporters and season ticket-holders got tours, key figures from the team and Hospital for Special Surgery were toasting each other. A corner had been turned.

But there was a problem. The Nets had low-balled the assistant GM of the Spurs, offering him roughly the same salary he was getting in San Antonio. Was Marks going to settle for the same money when he was tasked with a monster rebuild and a jump in standard of living from the NBA’s poorest market to its most expensive. No, he was not and Mikhail Prokhorov who had offered Marks the job was forced into a public relations guffaw that stole the show from the training center opening.

“I have never heard this name before,” Prokhorov replied when reporters asked about the reported job offer. He did it with a smile, but as Mike Mazzeo writes for Forbes Sports, it set off a panic. Working through the night, the two sides came to an eventual agreement. Marks signed a four-year, $9 million deal which has since been significantly upgraded and extended.

The near disaster is just one of several scenarios that Mazzeo, who covered the Nets for ESPN back then, lays out in a lengthy story on how the Nets took a chance on Marks and how it has worked out ... spectacularly for them.

Mazzeo tells the story mostly through the lens of the two people who guided the GM selection process back in 2016, Mike Forde, the Nets consultant for the search, and Irina Pavlova, then president of Prokhorov’s ONEXIM Sports and Entertainment, the Nets Brooklyn-based parent company. The two now work together at Sportsology, a London-based consulting company.

Forde, a Brit, had worked for another Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, at Chelsea, the English soccer power, then became a consultant for the Spurs, having formed a friendship with R.C. Buford, San Antonio’s legendary GM. When Nets ownership finally tired of Billy King and Lionel Hollins in January 2016, Forde was a natural to coordinate the search. Prokhorov and his No. 2, Dmitry Razumov, wanted to mimic the San Antonio culture and knew of Forde’s ties with Abramovich.

As Mazzeo writes, the Nets required all their candidates to write up a plan for rebuilding the Nets who, lest we forget, had no draft picks of their own through 2019, no real stars and declining attendance and local TV ratings. More than one pundit believed the rebuild would take a decade.

Marks’ offering didn’t cut it, Forde recalled to Mazzeo. Marks’ report was “underwhelming, too broad and lacking substance.” But he made it to the finals of the vetting process and then aced the process with his interview.

“He blew us away,” said Forde.

“He knew his (stuff),” added Pavlova.

Forde who knew Marks from consulting with the Spurs believed in him and ultimately so did the search committee., but it was a big risk. After all, Marks was only four years from the end of a playing career that was remarkable for two things: a ring with the Spurs in 2007 and the NBA record for fewest total minutes played in a career of 10 or more seasons. And he was hardly a “name” candidate.

Marks did other things in his resume: time as an assistant GM and assistant coach under Buford and Gregg Popovich and an ego. As Mazzeo writes, Marks was not afraid to tell people, “this job is mine” after the opening came up. And during the Spurs annual visit to New York in January, Marks got a guided tour of the training facility, then nearing completion. Ironically, it came the same day King and Hollins were dumped.

There were bumps along the way. Razumov initially liked Bryan Colangelo who was the smart pick, having won Executive of the Year honors with two different teams. Brett Yormark, the sole American on the search team, wanted his pal John Calipari and even set up a dinner with Prokhorov and Razumov in which he reportedly pleaded, “only he can save us.” But Cal wanted $120 million over 10 years and both the GM and coaching gigs. Prokhorov who was never shy about spending money didn’t want one person holding both jobs.

In fact, writes Mazzeo, Colangelo thought he had won the competition. (Things would have been different under a GM Colangelo who thought there were worse scenarios than a rebuild centered on Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, both of whom Marks dispatched for younger talent.)

Mazzeo details the early days of Marks time as GM, tendering big offer sheets to the likes of Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe, Otto Porter Jr. and Donatas Motiejunas which may have angered rival owners but won him the confidence of NBA agents. He also convinced the Russians to hire Kenny Atkinson who had never had a head coaching job but had a reputation as a development guru, which was borne out in Brooklyn with the success of Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell, all castoffs.

The ultimate success came on June 30, 2019, the night of “the Clean Sweep,” when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (along with DeAndre Jordan and Garrett Temple) agreed to sign with the Nets, justifying Marks plan ... and Forde’s confidence in him. And, as Mazzeo (and Bobby Marks over the weekend) noted, “Incredibly, they still have all their future draft assets.”

Forde gives a lot of credit to Prokhorov and Razumov for risking it all on Marks.

“If Sean delivers, he’ll be the guy who hired him,” Mike Forde said of Prokhorov. “He and Sean allowed current ownership to start at second base.”

Pavlova who championed Marks perhaps said it best.

“It’s beyond my wildest dreams,” Pavlova told Mazzeo. “Having KD and Kyrie, and James Harden (demanding a trade) saying he wants to play with the Nets? What universe is this? It’s pretty amazing.”