LAS VEGAS — It’s hard to survey the landscape at the NBA Summer League and not feel for the Brooklyn Nets.
First, dozens of teams here are busy displaying their shiny, new lottery picks and emerging second-year players, indirectly rubbing it in the face of the poor Nets, who have little of either. Second, some of these Summer League teams probably would’ve given the Nets’ regular season teams a good run over the last few seasons, which says more about the Nets than anything.
And when you focus just on the Boston Celtics and rookie Jayson Tatum (who’s having a splendid summer) and promising second-year guy Jaylen Brown (who a month ago in the playoffs bravely sized up LeBron James as “just another player”), well, let’s not go there. It’s too painful for Brooklyn.
Weighing it all from several rows up in the stands at the Thomas & Mack Center is Sean Marks, the Nets’ GM, who’s too busy to feel sorry for himself or the franchise he’s running.
“We came in knowing what we had and knew the hand we were dealt,” he said.
Yes, Marks went into this with his eyes and his imagination wide open, which really was the only way to go. And the creative side of him is doing some commendable work. The Nets were a shipwreck when he came aboard two summers ago, stripped of their present and immediate future. They’re still a team that finds itself as a complete opposite of the reigning-champion Golden State Warriors. But in swift time Marks has made a series of team-building decisions that are giving the Nets hope, when before, there was none.
Armed with virtually no assets except salary cap space, Marks has swung deals to add Draft picks and players in whom the Nets can invest – the main one being newly acquired 21-year-old former Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell. Suddenly, a plan is in place and if you squint, you can visualize the day when the Nets are no longer victims of one of the most egregious franchise collapses in recent memory.
Understand that when Marks took the job, the Nets were a losing team that lacked talent and didn’t own its No. 1 Draft pick outright for three years. Which meant, there would be no “reward” for their misery, no quick antidote for their condition.
In a haste to make a splash in Brooklyn, their new home starting with the 2012-13 season, the Nets sacrificed their future for the present. Believing they were a few championship-tested veterans away from making LeBron James nervous, Brooklyn sent first-round picks in 2014, ‘16 and ‘18 and the right to swap picks in 2017 to the Boston Celtics for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in a 2013 trade.
They shrugged it off, suspecting they would be strong title contenders and those picks would amount to low-level first-rounders. Except those picks had no protections. And worse, the Nets collapsed, done in by an injury to All-Star guard Deron Williams (from which he never really recovered) and players who ran face-first into the Aging Wall.
And those picks turned Celtics boss Danny Ainge into a modern-day Red Auerbach.
You could argue that no team has better positioned itself for a jackpot since Auerbach nabbed Robert Parish and the future pick that became Kevin McHale for essentially Joe Barry Carroll in 1980, giving the Celtics two-thirds of the greatest front line in NBA history and an epic era that followed. Ainge flipped the Brooklyn 2017 pick, which was No. 1 overall, to Philly for the third pick (Tatum) and a future No. 1.
Ainge is still working on his manifesto with those Brooklyn goodies, and in an internet era, everyone is giving opinions on what Ainge should and shouldn’t do with them. (So far, those picks have either directly or indirectly amounted to Brown, Tatum and James Young, with more to come.) Meanwhile: Brooklyn? The Nets still don’t own their No. 1 pick until 2019.
Ownership was behind us when I said,’`This is how we’re going to do it,’ which is what I needed to hear,” said Marks. “We all signed up for this. We’ve got a long, long long way to go but we’re taking baby steps to get there.
Nets GM Sean Marks
After being handed one of the worst situations anyone can recall, Marks has simply worked harder and more creatively than other GMs, only because he’s had to. And he’s annoyed a few as well by trying to poach their assets.
Over the last two summers, the Nets have signed four restricted free agents to contracts totaling a whopping $270 million. Brooklyn whiffed on all four after those teams matched the offers, but by swinging for the fences for Allen Crabbe, Otto Porter Jr., Tyler Johnson and Donatis Montiejunas, it shows the level of determination — desperation? — of Marks.
“Nobody is saying, ‘We want to steal your players’ but this is within the rules, one of the tools we have in our toolbox,” Marks said. “We have the (cap) money. If we were going to sit back and wait until 2019 when we have our pick, we would doing our ownership and fan base a disservice. So we have to be as creative as we can. It hasn’t worked out so far, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
That surplus of cap space is also being used as a dumping ground for bad contracts of other teams, provided those teams sweeten the deal with a first-round pick. Marks did this again by reportedly taking on DeMarre Carroll’s contract from the Raptors along with a 2018 first-rounder (this deal becomes official once the Wizards match Porter’s offer sheet, expected this week). Brooklyn also swung deals for two first-rounders and a second-rounder.
“We’re in the talent-acquisition and building mode,” he said. “Because of our situation we have to be creative and curious. This hasn’t been done before, so my feeling is, let’s go against the norm and do things a bit differently.”
A few weeks ago, the Nets absorbed the three years and $47 million remaining on Timofey Movgov’s contract because the Lakers tossed in Russell. Yes, the Nets had to sacrifice the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, Brook Lopez, in the process. But Lopez had only one year remaining on his deal and Brooklyn therefore had to act fast. Besides, Marks feels getting Russell at his age is like getting a No. 1 pick.
“We could’ve drafted a player a year older than him if we had a pick in this Draft,” said Marks. “He’s five to six years away from reaching his prime. That’s a calculated risk we wanted to take.”
Of course, whenever a team surrenders a former No. 2 overall pick after two seasons, as the Lakers did with Russell, there are some worries. And those were heightened when Lakers boss Magic Johnson threw shade at Russell, saying what the Lakers needed “was a leader…and also (somebody) the players want to play with.” Johnson then drafted Lonzo Ball, a past-first point guard.
“We’ve been encouraged by the conversations with D’Angelo. We’re excited, he’s excited. His actions speak louder than his words. When we did the trade, he said, ‘Look, I want to catch a red eye there.’ He’s energized by it. Sometimes a change of scenery makes all the difference.”
Russell played well in the second half of his rookie season and the Nets are encouraged by that, believing he’ll continue along that path and make himself into a franchise asset. There are no sure things, certainty, but what Marks is doing is putting the Nets in position to acquire players that, in a best-case scenario, help push the Nets in the right direction.
In that sense, he hired Kenny Atkinson to coach in a way that does more to develop players than to chase the top teams in the East. The practices are almost as important as the games themselves. Instead of Pierce, Williams, Garnett and Joe Johnson, the Nets now have Russell, Caris LaVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — all of whom are under 22 — to groom over the next few years.
“We are looking to break the mold a bit,” said Marks.
Marks is breaking the mold himself. Only 41, he’s alert and smart, having arrived here from New Zealand and graduated from Cal-Berkeley with a political science degree. He endeared himself to the San Antonio Spurs while playing three seasons with the team, including their 2005 title winner. As soon as he retired, coach Gregg Popovich and GM RC Buford hired him for the front office and groomed him for this, and he’s forever grateful to be product of that system.
“I look back at the lessons I learned from Pop, from RC and they’re invaluable,” Marks said. “I still speak with them and get their advice. It was also great to learn from the players: Tim [Duncan], Manu [Ginobili], Kawhi [Leonard] and Tony [Parker]. A great experience for me.”
After rushing the process and ultimately failing to build a winner, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov learned hard lessons. Now, he’s going about it more organically this time.
“Ownership was behind us when I said,’`This is how we’re going to do it,’ which is what I needed to hear,” said Marks. “We all signed up for this. We’ve got a long, long long way to go but we’re taking baby steps to get there.”
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