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Picking the ‘right players’ will be Nets next challenge

As Joe Tsai knows, and Mat Ishbia is learning, managing NBA players is indeed difficult so finding the right ones is a priority.

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Joe Tsai’s comment this week about managing difficult players may have been tongue-in- cheek but as Brian Lewis reports Sunday, the degree of difficulty will be a guiding force for Sean Marks this summer. The Nets learned their lesson the hard way.

That’s not to say Kevin Durant didn’t give it his all whenever he was healthy enough to take the court, but the exits of Kyrie Irving and before him James Harden were fraught with headline-grabbing, sound byte-filled commentary on how the Nets needed players more concerned with the team rather than personal goals. (And if you don’t believe Tsai the media, remember what a respected veteran like Goran Dragic had to say.)

“I just think, yeah, it was different for them,” Mikal Bridges said talking about what went down earlier. “Obviously, before the trade and stuff with everything that was probably going on around here it just probably felt like more than just basketball at that point.”

As Lewis wrote:

Privately, Brooklyn coaches and executives have talked about the reliability the newcomers have brought. They’ve dealt with difficult; now they’re looking to do drama-free.

After seasons and off-seasons filled with all manner of controversy, the Nets like what they have in players — and personalities — like Mikal Bridges, Nic Claxton and Cam Johnson assuming he will re-sign. Same goes for Dorian Finney-Smith and of course, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, assuming they stay. Ben Simmons situation is different and yes, difficult, but there is some new hope that he can get it together. He’s been working diligently at HSS Training Center in hopes of joining teammate Patty Mills (the NBA Sportsmanship Award winner in 2022) in Australia’s pursuit of the gold in FIBA’s World Cup in August. Sean Marks has also said — repeatedly — that he’d like to keep the core together.

Indeed, if you’re looking for a summary of what the Nets want to do down the line, take a look at this season’s final episode of “Brooklyn Bridge,” the Nets in-house magazine. It is marketing and PR, of course, but over and over, it quotes players as well as Marks and Jacque Vaughn on the value of focusing on the team ... and basketball.

Typical of the comments was Vaughn’s discussion of Claxton’s growth ... and not just on the court.

“To see his growth this year makes me realize why I want to do this: to be around a guy who is totally different than when I met him,” said the head coach. His seriousness, his ability to talk, to direct guys, to show up every day. A lot of growth from him, more to come, but to see him from beginning to end, a lot of credit to him.”

Players are also talking about teammates, how hard they work, how they can fit going forward. It’s what we’ve heard repeatedly since the end of the season...

Not in “The Bridges” video is a comment by Marks from the team’s end-of-season presser. He was asked about going the superstar route again. Everyone in the room knew the background ... and the name of the prospective superstar. Damian Lillard.

“It’s a great question and something that we’ve thought of a lot and will continue to think about as we go, involving all the people in those decisions,” Marks said.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t look back and say, ‘What if?’ Had we done this? Should we have done this? So it gives us a moment to reflect and say, ‘Well, did we have the right process in place? Were we really, really ready for that group? Was the borough of Brooklyn ready? Was the team ready? Was the surrounding ready when you bring in Kevin, Ky and James and that group?’ But at the same time, that era is gone and we’re onto something new here.”

Lillard is different, a throw-back in terms of team loyalty and engagement. He may not like the idea of rebuilding, but there he was last week, taking in draft workout at the Blazers training facility. And he already has a strong bond with Bridges.

That discussion, that decision, will take place in July, but knowing the way the Nets basketball operations runs, there have already been internal talks, data-sharing, etc.

The issue of finding the “right players” is one that is at the center of NBA discussions Sunday. In Phoenix, the same scenario is playing out. A team built with superstars failed spectacularly. Older players got hurt, there wasn’t enough depth and one of the superstars, Devin Booker, even refused to sit down with the media after the debacle. Recriminations have followed. Scouts were fired. So was a key front office staffer, then the highly respected head coach. And yes, in a familiar scenario, going forward the draft cupboard is bare.

“I’ve got Kevin Durant for three more years. I’ve got Devin (Booker) for five more years. We’ve got a run going,” Mat Ishbia, the Suns owner, told Bill Simmons at the time of the KD trade. Now, like Tsai, ironically his mentor, Ishbia is learning just how difficult the NBA can be.