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Five years on, Sean Marks and his Nets nearing their goal

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It’s more than an irony that on the fifth anniversary of his hiring, Sean Marks is leading his Brooklyn Nets into Staples Center for a battle of championship contenders. It’s a wonder!

It was February 18, 2016 when MIkhail Prokhorov handed him the keys to the HSS Training Center, opened the day before, after a weird 24-hour delay. The Nets had offered the job to Marks, then assistant GM of the Spurs, but there had been a wrinkle, measured in dollars and cents, that took a day to iron out. It led a very Net-sy moment.

When reporters surrounded the Nets owner the day before and asked about the status of the Marks negotiations, Prokhorov replied with a smile, “I never heard this name.”

From that inauspicious beginning to this, Marks has become not just a successful GM, but in the eyes of many fans, the man who can do no wrong. Of course, he has made some mistakes, but he had a strategy, mapped it out, and delivered. That’s all you can ask of anyone! His team is now the betting favorite in the East, despite a series of early season issues. Three of the NBA’s top 10 players now call Brooklyn their home and his rookie coach is growing ... fast.

Marks is both audacious and unsentimental. He’s willing to do things that are unpopular and out-of-the-box, but within a culture that emphasizes the player over everything else, from the training center-as-workplace to accommodations to player performance to player empowerment. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden weren’t so much recruited as they were enticed by what Marks had done with the franchise. Luis Scola, who was among the first veterans Marks signed, was right, “Once they win,” Scola had said back in 2016. “They will get everyone they want.”

When he took over, of course, he walked into a franchise that was, to say the least, troubled. The team was in the midst of 21-win season, the previous coach and GM having been unceremoniously (Lionel Hollins) and ceremoniously (Billy King) dumped. The Nets did not control their own first rounder till 2019, their own second until 2021. Brook Lopez was the closest thing they had to a star and they had continually tried to trade him. The owner, among the wealthiest in the world, still had an open wallet, but looked increasingly disengaged. Rumors of a sale, perhaps ordered by Vladimir Putin, were always in the air.

The team did play in New York and did have a spanking new $52 million practice facility. Marks told people that if the Nets had been anywhere else, he wouldn’t have taken the job. He started with creature comforts and family first. It had been a big part of the culture in San Antonio and he made sure it was a big part of what he was building in Brooklyn.

There was a million dollar family room carved out of storage space next to the small practice court, player lounges at Barclays Center and HSS Training Center were designed by a hot New York interior decorator. Lounge chairs were custom rigged for big people. Players could bring significant others on team trips. Ultimately, a satellite clinic of the Hospital for Special Surgery was set up one floor below the practice courts. Sports science and medicine were valued. The Nets “embedded” a Team Performance Psychologist.

Whenever the Nets acquired a player and deemed it worthy of a press conference, the player’s family was seated up front and Marks would open things by introducing and welcoming the family, often by name. Show love, it’s the Brooklyn way! Deep Collaboration mattered, too, even deep down in the management infrastructure.

His first steps outside his buildings were small. He did what his Russian owners had wished in retrospect they had done on arrival back in 2010, basically clean house, but keeping those staffers he trusted. He brought in loyalists from San Antonio —no fewer than eight in the early days, recruited others to the bright lights, big city, hired a coach whose player development skills were at the top of his coaching resume. And then let people around the league know he and his owner were still very much interested in building a contender.

One of the earliest —and underappreciated— things Marks did was reconstitute relationships with agents ... and he did it audaciously and yet unsentimentally. He let Joe Johnson go so he could sign with a contender. He tendered offer sheets far above the market price to Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe. TJ admits throwing up (twice) when he saw the number, “$50 million,” on the sheet. Never mind that the sheets had royally pissed off the owners in Miami and Portland who would have to match. It made the agents and their players happy. (The price in fact was so high that those teams eventually gave up on the players and both players wound up in a Nets uniform.)

It wasn’t just those two. He later tendered big offers to Otto Porter Jr. and Donatas Motiejunas. It wasn’t just big agents with big clients either that he tried to assuage. In April 2017, he made a series of moves in a 48-hour period that fulfilled promises he made to the agents of two players who would soon be out of the league. It may not have gotten much notice in the press, but it did in the agent fraternity.

He took big risks. He traded fan favorite Thaddeus Young for a draft pick so he could take a player just off crutches. He traded the team’s all-time leading scorer for a kid who had been ushered out the door in L.A., convincing ownership that the move would be “transformative” and it was. DeAngelo Russell and Caris LeVert led the team on a magical, unexpected playoff run only three years after he arrived. NOBODY had thought THAT was possible.

But perhaps nothing was more revealing of the culture Marks created than the Nets success in player development. Turning DLo’s career around was one thing. He had been the overall No. 2 pick in the Draft. He had been expected to succeed. But Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie were different. They were both second rounders. Harris has been dumped by two teams in a single morning (while he was undergoing surgery that included removing a bone from his foot!) Dinwiddie was wallowing in the G League, having also been cut by two teams when the Nets took a chance on him.

Now, on the morning before the Nets face the Lakers, Joe Harris has the fifth best career 3-point shooting average in NBA history, having surpassed his coach, Steve Nash, Kyle Korver, and yes, even Steph Curry, in the last year. Dinwiddie, who averaged 21 and 7 last year (and helped convince Irving to join the Nets), is pushing his body to return to play this year. The G League was no longer a backwater. Underappreciated draft picks, like LeVert and Jarrett Allen, developed well and fast enough so that they became part of maybe the biggest Nets trade since the days when Rod Thorn stole Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. Small signings became big. Witness Jeff Green.

The Harden trade was perhaps the best example of both how audacious the 45-year-old GM can be. He admittedly mortgaged the future. Fan —and pundit— reaction was at best mixed. The stink of what happened when Billy King traded the future for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce came wafting back (forgetting how much older and done they were than Harden). LeVert and Allen were fan favorites and Allen looks like a future All-Star. But James Harden has been a revelation. As he proved against Phoenix, he’s as legitimate an MVP candidate as either of his teammates.

Nothing proved how unsentimental Marks can be than his decision to toss Kenny Atkinson aside. You can call it “mutual agreement,” as the Nets did, but Atkinson and Marks had seemingly been joined at the hip in developing the team culture —”Markinson,” as fans called them. And bang, he was gone! Maybe it was Joe Tsai who pulled the trigger, as Ian Eagle has said, after meeting with (unnamed) players. And if you want to talk audacious again, how about the hiring of his long-time friend and Hall of Famer as a rookie coach!

There are mistakes fans will point to: taking Dzanan Musa at No. 29 and Rodions Kurucs at No. 40 in the 2018 Draft, or not demanding a pick in the Allen Crabbe salary dump. But the Nets got DeMarre Carroll in that trade for Justin Hamilton (remember him? No, you don’t.) So what! The Nets have committed the future and their treasure to the “Big Three.”

It should also be noted that Sean Marks is not that popular with his counterparts around the league — He’s arrogant. He’ll cut corners. It’s a subtext to his success you hear every now and then. How else to explain that he finished TENTH in Executive of the Year voting last season after signing KD and Kyrie while giving up essentially nothing. The EOY award is voted on by fellow NBA GM’s.

Sure, Marks is arrogant. Wouldn’t you be if you had done what he’s done in his chosen field over the last five years?! Sure he’s unsentimental. He will make players (and coaches) lives easier but when it comes time, he’ll do what he has to do and say nice things about them. It is a business, after all. Sure, he’s audacious. As fans, you have to love it. What’s he going to do for an encore? And he is oh so clever, offering little in the way of transparency. His press conferences are master classes in diverting and deferring. Reading between the lines is a full-time job for beat writers.

No NBA GM has done his job as well as Sean Marks has in the last five years. He’s done all of what was asked him when as a rookie GM he was given a big (if then not yet a high profile) job ... and a hell of a lot more. He’s now not just the general manager, but an alternate governor of the Nets, a title bestowed on him by Tsai in appreciation of what he’s done. Putting aside the team for a moment, he’s also improved the value of the franchise. As the new chief commercial officer of the Nets parent company said the other day, “every business metric” is up.

When Marks got the job, he didn’t promise much, very little in fact.

“I am very excited to be named the General Manager of the Brooklyn Nets, and to become a member of the vibrant and dynamic organization that represents Brooklyn,” Marks said in statement. “I would like to thank Nets’ ownership for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to the challenge of creating a unified culture and building a winning team.”

Behind the scenes, he was different. He wanted to be the Nets GM, badly. There’s a story that after the Nets dumped King and a lot of replacement names were being bandied about, Marks was undeterred. As the story goes, he was overheard to say, “That job is mine!”

Good for us it was.