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Nets Need to Pick a Direction ... Fast

When the Nets play the Lakers Friday, it will be that halfway mark of the 2023-24 season. Big takeaway: the Nets’ present and future lacks clarity.

Indiana Pacers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Sean Marks sat humbly in front of a room filled with media members only two days after he was hired in February 2016, next to then-chairman Dmitry Razumov. The organization was stuck in purgatory and there wasn’t much to be optimistic about, however change brought curiosity, relevance, and a glimmer of hope that things would turn around. Marks uttered the word culture — ten times to be exact — during a time when they sorely needed it.

Culture is used loosely but it represents some sort of a plan. Exactly what the Nets need right now.

Circumstances were different, but eight years into the Marks era and the Brooklyn Nets have only won one playoff series. Given the state of the Nets when he was hired, one might’ve called that a success. Now? It’s debatable.

I. Overachievement? Improbable

Marks hurried to Brooklyn barely hours before the trade deadline. The team stunk and they lost all their picks to chase aging superstars; stuck picking up the pieces after the catastrophe we simply know as “the Nets-Celtics trade.” Lionel Hollins was head coach. Donald Sloan was their starting PG for nearly half the season. They had zero picks remaining.

“I think culture is [a term] that gets thrown around pretty loosely,” Marks said at his introductory press conference in Feb. 2016. ‘We’re gonna bring this culture, we’re gonna bring that culture.’ The people within the organization are gonna define this culture.”

The former Spurs assistant GM didn’t make any significant moves (as one would expect) his first day on the job. But one of his first moves was waiving Joe Johnson out of good faith — checking off one of many boxes in what creates a good culture: Building trust among agents and trusting the importance in the word of mouth.

He continued…

‘You’ll see that culture not only on the court, but it’ll be behind the scenes, it’ll be within the community. We’ll all be on the same page with a clear vision.”

Marks and his trusted accomplices got the job done with little to work with. They rebuilt and started from the bottom with the right coaches and the right players. They did well keeping things behind the scenes, And though imperfect, former owner Mikhail Prokhorov deserves credit for trusting Marks to restart. It took three seasons to land two of the game’s best, then Prokhorov officially sold all his assets to Joe Tsai for $3.2 billion one month later.

II. The Hangover

Marks and the Nets are back picking up the pieces after another catastrophic bomb. Whether you want to believe it or not, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were the identity of the Nets. So long as those two actually played, the Nets had a chance to win a championship. They’re gone. The visions of winning one — or multiple championships — hypnotized Nets’ fans. Belief that an NBA title could be brought back to the BK meant something; Nets fans waited since the early 2000s and new Brooklyn fans witnessed felt the high for the first time ever.

I wrote an article for the Daily News in 2019 saying the Nets could become much like the 1980’s Mets — capturing titles, fans, popularity, and credibility. Something every “little brother” team needs to establish some sort of legitimate base. The Nets had a golden chance to do the same but it failed, like a lot of things in life, but how it went down was overall ugly and depriving.

Fans watched KD and Kyrie play 143 games in four years (an average of 36 games!). They lost almost all the coaches after Kenny Atkinson was fired, they lost members of the front office as they continued to get hired/promoted elsewhere. Then, the final bang with the few who remained — Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert — for James Harden (80 games with the Nets). One playoff series win.

Julius Erving. Jason Kidd. Kevin Durant. The Nets simply do not get these guys in the door often, if ever. And it’s so much bigger than what they do for an organization on the court.

It’s numbing for Nets fans to go from that … to this.

III. This.

An underwhelming basketball team with its highest-paid-player sitting out for much of another season. As of this writing, it’s an organization with no clear direction... and time is running thin as the losses mount.

They put a ton of weight on Mikal Bridges — a fine two-way basketball player on a team-friendly contract. Despite averaging a career-high 21.5 PPG, he is not the No. 1 scorer on a championship team. That’s what made him the player he is when he played next to Devin Booker in Phoenix.

That leads us to Cam Thomas. He’s a young bucket-getter with work to do until his game is rounded out, but a bucket on a team that has struggled mightily to score points. They’re at the point where they need his offensive creation, which doesn’t really bode well for a team that wants to “retool.” I say it as such because he’s a good player on a bad team with an inconsistent role. His trade value likely isn’t very high. Cam’s limbo status is a good epitome of who these Nets are as a basketball team.

They’re sorely missing a star point guard that can close games — and that’s the minimum to make them competitive and get them back into the conversation. That, of course, depends on whether they plan on competing and not rebuilding. We don’t know halfway through the season...

IV. Marks’ Nets in 2024

We’re eight years into the Marks era and Ben Simmons agent Bernie Lee is praising Brooklyn for its player-first mentality. That part has not changed. The team isn’t very good and they don’t have their own pick. His vision to build a winning culture is stuck in limbo… and it’s been eight years. The circumstances during the 7/11 era were bizarre but ultimately he was the GM, he owns the responsibility.

This team is not an easy team to watch or cope with.

They do things on and off the court that are puzzling as if they’d accomplished something — resting their star players in a home game against the Milwaukee Bucks in front of Barclays’ biggest basketball crowd ever. Make matters worse, they were winning late in the third quarter and then rested whichever starters remained.

They dropped nine of 10 games after that, becoming a .500 team to one that has fallen eight games below. It set a bad precedent for the players, the fans, and the organization as a whole — they were fined by the league for violating the NBA’s player participation policy. Bridges told reporters that he was “not a fan” of the benching, and it’s hard to believe a coach with something to prove would willingly pull such an outrageous move. Yes, fans were outraged.

The hangover we mentioned? It makes every loss hurt more. It puts the culture word under a microscope, the one that was supposed to have been established when Marks said it 10 times during his opening presser.

The losses are piling up and the patience is running thin because it’s awfully similar to when Marks took over — a team stuck in limbo.

Then there’s another side to this. Marks has tools he didn’t have when the team was stuck in limbo back in 2016 — expendable contracts, good role players for contending teams, and an array of high-valued draft picks. He will have an opportunity to execute something, perhaps Dejounte Murray, if that’s the direction ownership wants.

Marks will go where Joe Tsai wants him to. The two are very close and have shown persistence despite a number of challenges. Marks has security.

V. Joe Tsai’s Nets

Firstly, give credit where it’s due. The Nets started to embrace New Jersey with old-school jerseys and events involving the NJ Nets, namely Kerry Kittles among several others. It isn’t perfect, the banners are still black & white, we haven’t gotten a Swamp Dragons Night yet (half kidding) — but it’s better than what it was when Proky and Brett Yormark ran the show.

He’s shown a willingness to spend, specifically when he gave max contracts to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving en route to the second-highest luxury tax bill in NBA history. He has personally paid out $323 million in luxury taxes with little to show for it. But how much does that matter when you lose?

The Nets lost 30% of its season ticket holders in 2022-23 after spiking prices without justification given how little fans watched KD and Kyrie, along with their publicly murky futures with the team.

There’s two things it would appear: Tsai has shown a need to have control and he’s shown an urgency in bringing in money versus spending. Still, the Nets profits have been elusive so much so that of all the NBA teams, its estimated valuation has grown the least over the last several four years, reports Sportico.

We’re talking about a very successful businessman in Tsai, but so far, he has failed since taking over the Nets. He, like Mikhail Prokhorov, expected instant gratification while having zero experience running an NBA team or being involved with one. Prokhorov had a five-year championship plan and finished with one playoff series win. Tsai is in his fifth season with one playoff series win, too.

The similarities are present but the management styles differ. Tsai has shown that he’s more hands-on, particularly public. His decisions re Kyrie Irving’s various shenanigans and before that in the controversy over Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet prove that.

Present day, it’s his decision to make — and a big one at that. Build now or rebuild?

It’s crucial to understand Tsai’s mentality, or at least what we think we know when it comes to how he views NBA stars.

Discussing the role artificial intelligence will play in digital entertainment at a conference in May 2023, Tsai said, “Believe me, I manage a basketball team and the players are very difficult to manage. If you’re in Hollywood, it’s very, very difficult to manage people.”

Two months later, ESPN’s Brian Windorst said that “Joe Tsai would rather have a team that plays hard that he’s proud to own that wins 40 games and fights for the play-in than have a team that has way more talent that he’s not proud to be a part of.”

Was that an exaggeration? Well, maybe but that’s where we are today. And it ain’t fun.

We talk so much about a culture and how it starts at the top. This isn’t to say that Tsai hasn’t been dealt a weird hand because he has, whether it’s been Irving’s high profile antics or James Harden quitting on the court or US-China relations. His priorities, so we’ve seen, remain fasten on the fan’s dollar. That’s not to say other governing owners aren’t the same way, but when the big chance fails, the product stinks, and the vision going forward isn’t clear — the culture crumbles. Beyond that, the Nets brass do not seem to grasp how much the lost promise of the Big Three has effected the fan base.

A culture starts at the top and Tsai IS the top.

VI. Repercussions

The team isn’t very good and they’re stuck in limbo. We know that. Injuries haven’t helped but it’s a part of the game. Firing another coach isn’t going to miraculously turn this around even if Jacque Vaughn hasn’t been perfect. There isn’t much allure to watch for one singular player either. It creates the perfect storm for frustration, confusion, and pessimism among the fanbase. Just as it was growing.

There’s more, because of course, there’s always more. Brian Lewis of the New York Post reported that the Nets entered this week averaging 43,000 total viewers per game on YES — down 34.85 percent from this point last season.

VII. Moving Forward...

We all act like we have the answers when we really don’t. That’s part of the fun and frustrations that come with liking a team/sport. That said, it’s time the Nets practice what they preach when it comes to culture, and it’d probably serve them right to stay humble and learn from mistakes the franchise has made in the past.

In order for them to accomplish such, they need to pick a direction… and fast. Just like when Marks sat in that seat for the first time in 2016.