BROOKLYN – The NBA is a copycat league and no franchise has been borrowed from more over the last 20 years than the San Antonio Spurs.
Several teams have attempted to bring “the Spurs way” somewhere other than San Antonio. Currently, there are acolytes of Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and head coach Gregg Popovich at the top of front offices in Atlanta, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Orlando and Utah.
The latest general manager hire out of San Antonio was made by the Brooklyn Nets, who tabbed Sean Marks to replace Billy King in February. Since then, Marks has built a front office and basketball operations department almost from scratch. Only a few people remain from King’s staff, while Marks has brought in two dozen new faces.
The Nets’ new home, a gorgeous practice facility with an incredible view of Manhattan, was built before Marks’ arrival. His task has been building a culture to match the space. The Spurs are his model, but it’s more a philosophical model than a physical one.
Marks wants an open office, both literally and figuratively. Diversity — in regard to who the people are, where they’ve worked, and what they think — is important. Thinking outside the box is encouraged. All you have to know about that is that Marks hired a cap specialist from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and a director of player performance from the Naval Special Warfare Command.
So far the reviews have been good. In a recent interview with SiriusXM, new Nets point guard Greivis Vasquez called Brooklyn “a great work atmosphere.”
“We got everything,” Vasquez said. “We just have to worry about basketball.”
The basketball might not be very good for a while. The Nets went for the quick fix a few years ago, but flamed out after one trip to the conference semifinals and were left without control of their first round draft pick for five straight years.
Even without the picks, Marks has chosen to take it slow. And owner Mikhail Prokhorov has apparently learned his lesson.
“Our owners know exactly what the expectations are,” Marks said at a press conference on Tuesday. “They were on board when I first took the job. They were on board when [head coach] Kenny [Atkinson] took the job. He wanted to be very clear about how we’re going to build. This is not going to be something that’s turned around in 2-3 months. As we’ve said before, we want something that’s done strategically and systematically, that builds a strong foundation and not something that’s a fleeting moment.”
Right now, the foundation on the court is Brook Lopez, some young guys who have yet to break through, and some vets who have spent most of their careers coming off the bench. But when NBA.com sat down with Marks earlier this month, the roster wasn’t discussed at all. Instead, the conversation (edited for clarity and brevity) was about the process of building a new front office and culture from scratch, as well as the tools that help make decisions.
NBA.com: How much of a plan did you have in place when you were first hired?
Sean Marks: I think everybody who’s in my situation at the time, where they’re interviewing for a job, should have an understanding of this is how I would like to do things if I ever got that opportunity and who I’d like to bring with me and the type of leader, roles, so forth that I’d like to implement. But you never quite know until it’s here and it’s boots on the ground and the people are walking through the door, you’re getting a feel for them and they’re getting a feel for you and how just things are going to unfold.
I think I’m very, very lucky that the staff — some that have stayed, which is great, and others that I’ve brought in — has wanted to come and join in this ride. I’m fortunate that I’ve got a good staff here.
NBA.com: How detailed was your plan?
SM: I don’t think it was a numbers thing. It wasn’t like “Well, I have to have seven scouts” or “I have to have six front office members.” I was fortunate to have spent many years as a player and as a front office [executive] and coach with the Spurs, so I saw how the dynamic was laid out within the Spurs front office.
I lived it and more important than numbers is the relationships. Are people talking? Is my door open? Is there sight lines between various different offices? How often am I going to run into the head coach? Is he going to see me five times a day, because he needs to know that I’m here. I need to know that he’s here. If he has a problem, he can always come in here. And that’s not just for the head coach. That’s for everybody. That’s for the entire building.
NBA.com: Is it weird to go from being a cog in the wheel in San Antonio to now having control over the livelihoods of everybody you’ve hired?
SM: A little bit, but I’ll keep going back to Pop and R.C., because that’s who I know best. It wasn’t a dictatorship there by any means. We all knew that it was their final decision, without a doubt. But at the same time, the authority that was given helps people grow. I saw it first hand and that’s a huge selling point. I can sit here and say, ‘I’d like you to come and join my team, but, by the way, it’s our team. It’s not me. It’s us. We’re all in this together. It’s a collaboration. Run with it and have fun with it.’
I want to empower the staff here. I want everybody, whether it’s some of the in-house guys and girls we have here, a scout, the analytics team, I want them coming to me more than I’m going to them.
NBA.com: Have you diverted from your original thinking as you’ve gone through this process?
SM: Not entirely. I think it’s fluid. We’re trying to build this and grow and push. I talk about culture all the time. I talk about values and character all the time. Obviously, I have to live that, but everybody else here has to push it, where we know this is not an overnight quick-fix. We want to put something here that’s sustainable. We want to make strategic decisions along the way that will lead to something that has a life beyond a two-year horizon. This is something that will build and it starts from the bottom. It starts from the people.
We have an incredible facility here. It shows ownership commitment, which is undeniable and they’ve done everything they can to support us. But to me, that’s the bricks and mortar. It’s the people inside the building that make this place special.
NBA.com: So how do you get a cap specialist (Natalie Jay) from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals?
SM: All these hires are going to take time, because we’re going to grow. We’re going to get a feel for what people like and where their specialties are. In the case of Natalie, I stole the idea. I didn’t come up with it on my own. But I had spent some time with Brian Cashman over at the Yankees and I’d seen how he had done some things. And he has a very similar setup there. I thought why not get a fresh set of eyes on the CBA? Somebody who can really just dive into it head first and come up with some new ideas.
And we’ll see. We’ve got a group of them. It’s not just Natalie. Natalie’s doing a great job, and it’s also Andrew Baker from the Spurs, who’s also a young lawyer. The two of them are hopefully tearing it apart.
NBA.com: And I think you opened some eyes by hiring your director of player performance (Zach Weatherford) from the Naval Special Warfare Command.
SM: Player performance is a segment of the basketball operations that I’m very passionate about, having seen it, not only in the NBA, but overseas, national teams and so forth. We realized that a lot of the treatment methods being done overseas were world class. They were the cream of the crop.
It’s very much hands on. But they’ve been using sports science, work load monitoring and so forth, for so much longer than American sports, especially basketball, football and baseball. So they’re a little bit more in tune with how it transfers from practice to play or from drills to minutes in a game.
Hence Dan Meehan, the guy we signed from the AFL, he’s got a background in a lot of that, which is terrific. Zach has been involved in the Navy SEAL performance program for the last four or five years. I looked at him, first of all, great culture, great character and values. That’s what I’m trying to bring in here. And if he’s going to be the leader of a group over there…
Those guys spend more time with the players than, certainly, the front office does, but also more time than the coaches do. So they’re really the ones helping mold these guys and really helping them develop them as people, as husbands, as fathers, as players, as athletes. And that’s important to me, that every one of our guys here knows that Zach and Dan the whole group over there is committed to player care. That’s the biggest thing.
NBA.com: That’s a big group and it feels like “player performance” has become a big thing in the NBA rather quickly.
SM: It has. We did a very similar thing in San Antonio and many other teams are taking a similar approach to more people. We’ve got two athletic trainers and three physios on staff. So they’re a big group, but they’re versatile. They can move from training room to strength room to on the court. It’s not that “My job is solely in the training room.” These guys are athletic trainers and physios and strength coaches. So they can take a player through the different spectrums of rehab or player care.
A player can go to any one and they’re all the same page. With 15 guys, an 82-game schedule and the traveling that we do, gone are the days were one or two guys can do an adequate job. We want our players to feel that we’re doing everything we possibly can, like every other team is.
NBA.com: How important is analytics to what you’ll be doing?
SM: Analytics is huge. It’s definitely a tool in your toolbox. The way it’s going – in not just basketball, but all sports – analytics and sports science are sort of merging and becoming one. It’s a really growing field. You probably can’t get enough of it.
However, I don’t think you want to lose sight of what’s important, which is the hands-on. That’s where Pop was brilliant. He’s the best at that, where “Numbers can say this, but I want to sit next to the guy. I want to have a cup of coffee with him and I need to get to know him, because that’s the most important thing. Analytics won’t show you his character. They won’t show you is he competitive. They’ll show you stuff he does on the court, but I need to know him as a person. I need to know whether I can trust him and what his makeup is.”
NBA.com: Have numbers ever changed your thinking on anything?
SM: In San Antonio, there’s a million examples of how we changed how we played in games or how we valued players — whether they’re Draft, international or free agents — and how stats translate. That’s something constantly battling over, what in an international game translates to an NBA game. What can we expect? It’s sort of an on-going debate.
But I think what’s interesting is what do the numbers tell you about breaking up the season. Obviously, in San Antonio, we had an older group of guys. They needed rest. They needed recovery. How many minutes do they play? When should their minutes come and in what games should they play? How should they be treated? It’s a constant debate, but do the numbers and analytics match up with what Pop and the coaches’ feel was?
It’s hard to stay rigid, because a lot of things can change over the course of the year. But for me, I thought planning out a season like that was really interesting as you’re gearing up for a playoff run.
NBA.com: Is there any new tool that you’ve come to really value or appreciate?
SM: Without going into details, I think you had analytics over here, grading players on the court, effective field goal percentage, all the numbers that anybody can get on line and check out. Then you had sports science over here that’s arguably doing the same thing. They’re showing workload monitoring and a plethora of other things.
But when you start marrying those two and seeing what’s the outcome, that will help. That helps coaches if they’re prepping for the next five games. That’s got a rehabilitation component to it. That’s got a season-long, periodization plan to it. And that affects what they’re doing on the court, but also what they’re doing off the court, how they eat, sleep, train, recover, play and practice.
NBA.com: How much of that information do the players get?
SM: What I’ve seen is if you’re going to ask players to do a certain drill or activity, wear something, sleep a certain way, recover a certain way, you now have to show them the results and you now have to ask them for feedback. Because if you don’t, they’re not going to do it.
They can’t be treated as guinea pigs. It’s got to be “Here’s a plan that we’re laying out for you. Let’s get constant feedback.” If we’re not getting feedback and we’re not giving them feedback, showing them the improvement, they’re not going to wear it.
NBA.com: Are you changing their lifestyles?
SM: There’s a fine line. We don’t want this to be a distraction. What we saw in past places I’ve been is that players start to buy in and players are the ones that start leading this and saying, “I want to know what I’m doing. I want to how it’s affecting me because I did this and that the other day. I felt great. What did I do different?”
And now you better be ready to give them feedback, because if you don’t, they’ll say, “Don’t poke and prod and give me this and that. I want to know what I’m doing to my system and why I’m doing it.”
NBA.com: So what’s the decision-making process like when you’re in free agency or talking to another team about a specific player?
SM: The whole group is in the room. Here, it’s a collaboration. It’s not myself and [assistant GM] Trajan [Langdon] and two other people. If everybody’s here, they’re all in the room.
The analytics guys sit there [points to a room across from his], between the front office and the coaching staff. If the coaches want to use them, which they do, it’s great. We’ve got to get it to where the numbers are telling us, so they’re the ones having flags. “We should be looking here.” It’s not just us going and asking questions.
NBA.com: So they may want to add to your free agent list.
SM: They have their own lists.
NBA.com: I imagine that Coach Atkinson was your most important hire. Was there a second most important hire?
SM: I’ve never thought about a first hire or second hire. Obviously, Trajan was a huge part. I’m very familiar with him. We’re good friends and I think the thing I appreciate the most about Trajan is he’s not afraid to tell me, no. And that’s what I want. I don’t want “Yes” men around here and I know he doesn’t want that either. So I’ve got no problem being in a room and we’re debating it. We’re hashing it out. I want that across the board.
NBA.com: Do you have an example of that, without mentioning any free agents?
SM: Honestly, it happens on a daily basis. And I love that about Kenny too, and Kenny wants that on his staff. Kenny and I have disagreements, probably on a daily basis. But I think they’re not to the point where you go, “Geez, I’m not going to talk to him.”
I want to hear him out. I want to hear all those coaches out. That’s important. We’re here to serve those coaches.
NBA.com: Back to the big picture, is there a level of satisfaction with what you’ve put together?
SM: To be honest, I don’t ever look back. It’s only been six months. It goes to the trajectory of where we’re going. We’re building something. It’s taking the right approach, slowly. We’re going to be very fluid. We got a lot of flexibility. So we’ll see how the season transpires.
But I’m very fortunate that the coaching staff that Kenny’s got is terrific. The feedback that we’ve had from the players has been great. The front office that I have is supporting, pushing, and maybe thinking a little outside the box. It’s not just me that’s doing that. Everybody is asking that question of “Why.”
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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