In an examination of how Sean Marks built the team that will take the court tonight as the betting favorite to win it all, Brian Lewis reaches back to “Fields of Dreams” for a sports analogy that is indeed appropriate.
One can almost imagine a disembodied voice echoing from the rafters in Barclays Center, saying, “If you build it, they will come.”
That is the theme of the Lewis piece, that Marks understood just what he needed to build to attract the superstars who now call Brooklyn home: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving who chose to come to Brooklyn as free agents in 2019 and James Harden who demanded a trade to the Nets earlier this year.
It was about reading the terrain, sensing the direction the league was heading — that it was becoming all about player empowerment. And then figuring out how to build a foundation and culture that could lure empowered stars.
“Sean Marks put the foundations in place with guys like Caris [LeVert], Jarrett [Allen], Joe [Harris] and Spencer [Dinwiddie],” Joe Tsai told The Post.
“This core group enabled us to attract top free agents in the summer of 2019 with Kyrie [Irving] and [Kevin Durant], while keeping the necessary assets for the James Harden trade. In hindsight this ‘process’ was brilliant, but I certainly didn’t see it coming at the time.”
It all started of course at the bottom, in February 2016 when Marks was hired the same day the Nets unveiled their new training facility, the result of an extensive search process following the “reassignment” of Billy King and the firing of Lionel Hollins a month earlier.
“The main asset that Brooklyn got as an indirect result of it [and other calamities] was Sean Marks,” Irina Pavlova, who represented Prokhorov and spearheaded that GM search, said recently. “Without him, there’s no Nets as a title contender in 2021.”
Early on, they did salary dumps to get picks back, firsts, seconds, whatever was available, traded solid players like Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic and Brook Lopez for either picks or a young star, and found players who became stars. They got Caris LeVert for Young, Jarrett Allen for Bogdanovic and D’Angelo Russell for Lopez. Those three plus the big “finds,” Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, became the core of the exciting 2018-19 team that won 42 games, made the playoffs and attracted attention and ultimately superstars.
“Obviously the road in terms of getting there is not an easy thing to get to this point. It’s not an easy thing to get the organization to a level where it’s attractive to free agents that want to come,” Harris said. “At the end of the day, guys want to come where they see the best fit in terms of culture, quality of players.
“That’s a testament to Sean and what he was able to instill early on with [coach] Kenny [Atkinson] and the rest of the staff in terms of solidifying a foundation … getting people to mesh together, creating this environment of people wanting to come in and work where it’s positive, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of great energy, over the years where this was just a fun place to play.”
At the core was player empowerment, something which a lot of media — especially sports radio jocks — do not get. But players (and former players) get. Players wanted to be partners with their teams and free agents in the larger context of that phrase.
As Greg Anthony told Lewis, “They wanted to control their own destiny, their own fate, and pulled it off.”
“You couldn’t have had something like what happened for Brooklyn happen 20 years ago, it’s just the evolution of where players are,” Anthony explained. “Ultimately it’s Kyrie and Kevin Durant deciding to come. What if those guys decided not to sign there? We wouldn’t be having this conversation, there would’ve been no trade for James Harden, none of that would’ve happened.”
Anthony cited the comments Irving made prior to the season on Durant’s podcast as an example of the evolution of player empowerment ... and how many just don’t get it.
“Kyrie Irving caught a lot of slack when he said, ‘We don’t have a head coach.’ People killed him for that, but he wasn’t lying. And I’m not saying Steve Nash isn’t the coach, the point I’m making is they do all that stuff by committee, a lot of their decisions, because they trust their stars. They know how good those guys are, and understand their basketball IQ and their value. So it is more of a partnership.”
Steve Nash’s hiring was also part of it. A player’s player. Now a player’s coach. The days of coach as “my-way-or-the-highway” figure is done. Call it empowerment, call it collaboration, it apparently has worked. Players regularly praise his ability to communicate whether inside or outside the locker room.
Empowerment has also been about seemingly little things as well as the big ones, the ones that made headlines. The new training center that Marks walked into was and is state-of-the-art. He understood it was the players workspace. Lounges were built with players special needs in mind. Even something small —like custom-made lounge chairs big enough to accommodate seven-footers — attracted attention. No detail was too small, no conventional wisdom too established to question.
A seven-figure family room was carved out of storage space off the Barclays Center practice court. Players could bring family and significant others on road trips. After Mikhail Prokhorov laid out $52 million for his new training center, Marks got millions more to upgrade it. And then, there’s the performance team built around sports science, sports medicine, even sports psychology. It’s ability to extend careers, whether it’s Demarre Carroll or Blake Griffin is well-known
Then there was New York. Marks would not have taken on as difficult a challenge in Sacramento or Memphis. He understood the value of the city, and not just to homeboys like Irving. New York is New York. If you can make it there ... you know the rest.
As Reggie Miller told Lewis, players know. They can calculate the value.
“Players know what teams are on the rise up,” Miller said. “Brooklyn was a team on the rise up, beautiful arena, Brooklyn’s a beautiful city; they understood that. That’s why Kyrie and KD, they want to control their own destiny and put more shine on Brooklyn. Then you go out and get James Harden, and now you’re one of the more marketable teams in the NBA.”
Of course, as Marks and others in the Nets front office know and appreciate, the Nets two owners, Prokhorov and Joe Tsai, have been willing to use their substantial resources to build infrastructure, hire staff, pay luxury taxes!
So far, so good. To suggest it all started with the ill-fated Boston trade that got the Celtics Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum (and for two years, Kyrie Irving) is not an exaggeration. Now, the Nets and Celtics will pair off starting tonight, it’s a reminder that sometimes you just have to, borrowing another sports analogy, trust the process.
- How Sean Marks brought Nets to this championship point - Brian Lewis - New York Post