Just What Are the Brooklyn Nets Up to?

We all knew Sean Marks was moving the Brooklyn Nets in the right direction. From the resurgence of the organization during the 2019 NBA Playoffs to the sudden rise of their free agent candidacy, the Nets have been considered a threat to turn the corner from rebuild to contender.

When news broke on Thursday of the trade Marks orchestrated with the Atlanta Hawks, we found out the timeline for when the Nets intend on becoming contenders: RIGHT NOW.

Yes, the Nets are one superstar away from becoming a legitimate Eastern Conference threat.

The Nets have reportedly agreed in principle to trade Allen Crabbe, the 17th pick in the 2019 draft, and a lottery-protected selection in 2020 to Atlanta for Taurean Prince and a 2021 second-round pick. The move will not be official until July 6th when the new league business year begins, but the agreement allows the Nets to begin free agency with a robust negotiating budget. Trading Crabbe’s salary and shedding the cap hold from the 17th pick opens up an additional $18 million in cap space, bringing the team total to $45.6 million.

Now Brooklyn can be legitimate power players for marquee free agent names like Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant. The freeing up of cap space not only launches them into max contract territory but gives them the flexibility to re-sign their star guard, D’Angelo Russell. That’s right, they could re-sign him to a max contract and still likely avoid the luxury tax. Or they can let Russell walk, renounce his free agent rights, and have enough room for two max contracts.

The key with free agency comes down to the order of operations as much as it does the budget.

The Nets will enter July with an operating budget of $45.6 million and ten players under contract (nine currently and the 27th pick in the 2019 draft). Before officially inking Russell to a deal, Marks and his staff will want to use the full capacity of their cap room and bring in a top player or two. Because they hold Bird rights on Russell, they can wait to re-sign him until the team is over the cap. Thus, expect the Nets to use most of their allotted $45.6 million on players new to the organization.

Beyond the cap mechanics and maneuvering that Marks has done to help build a serious contender this summer, the team has been angling for July 2019 for some time. Money alone does not make the Nets a preeminent destination, but three main factors stand out that show the legitimacy of their free-agent pitch:

Kenny Atkinson and the Organizational Culture

Feb 13, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson reacts on the bench in the first overtime against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Back in February, San Antonio Spurs general manager RC Buford spoke to The New York Times about Marks, his former protege, and the turnaround he is spearheading in Brooklyn.

“In every role he’s had, he’s been a culture builder.”

As the leader of the turnaround in Brooklyn, no truer words have been spoken. Marks’ fingerprints are all over the upstart, underdog mentality that brought the Nets to the postseason just two years after owning the NBA’s worst record.

Head coach Kenny Atkinson deserves a great deal of credit for working in unison with Marks. The first major hire and move of the Marks era, Atkinson has proven not only a strong tactical coach but a great developer of talent and cultivator of culture. He has made the Nets’ locker room a place where players want to belong. When shooting swingman Joe Harris stayed with the Nets this past summer, he made it no secret that he was willing to sacrifice to remain in Brooklyn.

“I could’ve got a longer deal. But I talked about the relationship I had with Sean, with [coach] Kenny [Atkinson], with all my teammates,” Harris remarked. That type of loyalty is rarely seen today in any corner of the business world, let alone in professional sports.

Where does that loyalty come from?

Perhaps it’s a uniquely individual investment in the growth of players that the Nets have taken. Instead of employing one or two skill coaches that work with the whole roster, they assign a skills coach to work with one or two players, creating a much stronger and individualized bond between the two collaborators.

“I work with one coach who also works with DeMarre Carroll, but he has that intimate level where he only works with two players,” Harris told Uproxx this February. “He understands both of our games extremely well. If you come in and watch me do my individual skill work, you’re going to see me doing things that you’re going to see from me in the game. You aren’t going to see things that are uncharacteristic of me and how I play.”

Loyalty is a two-way street, and the organization has proven its loyalty to the young players they bring in with both tangible benefits they cannot get elsewhere and the patience to reap its benefits. Over two years ago, Zach Lowe of ESPN noted the groundbreaking and intensely detailed processes the Nets have created for gaining an edge with winning habits. They practice minutes restrictions with every member of the roster. They track diet and sleep habits with questionnaires and private chefs. They empower their players to take ownership of their own role in preparation to becoming a winning athlete.

The amount this team has invested in player development, embraced sports science and revolutionized their thinking over a short period of time is unparalleled.

Marks and his business dealings have gained significant traction with agents because of how he honors his deals and handles his contracts the right way. A story gained significant traction around the trade deadline from RealGM’s Keith Smith, who posted a Twitter thread about one such example. In short, it notes how the front office has earned goodwill with agents because they took care of two borderline roster guys from their G-League team, rewarding them with what amounted to a year of NBA service so they could get paid.

Those little deeds do not go unnoticed, and it’s just a small glimpse into the way the Nets do business. All the guys in their locker room feel secure to do their jobs and get better because they don’t believe the organization is simply trying to profit from them and move on. The feel like they are being invested in as individuals, as people with room to grow. Those efforts go a long way.

A Versatile Roster of Elite Role Players

Feb 6, 2018; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Caris LeVert (22) drives to the basket against Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul (3) in front of Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen (31) during the second quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Nonetheless, the pitch to any top-tier free agent must revolve in some form around winning. The Nets must be able to demonstrate why they feature the complimentary pieces that can pave a path towards a championship, all while illustrating how that superstar will be the focal point of the plan.

Based on the roster Marks has built, there is little doubt Brooklyn has an intriguing blend of young talent and versatility to pitch at any of the top names.

The brightest of the young pieces are 24-year-old Caris LeVert and 22-year-old D’Angelo Russell—the latter an All-Star this past season that averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists. LeVert has exhibited as much upside, particularly before a gruesome injury derailed his promising campaign. In the first fourteen games, the University of Michigan product put up impressive stats of 19.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists.

Other prominent role players can have just as much positive impact.

Taurean Prince, just acquired from the Hawks, is a solid scoring wing that can play the 4 and is no defensive liability. He is only 25 and shot 39 percent from three last year. Starting center Jarrett Allen has only been able to buy a drink legally for a month and yet recorded 24 double-doubles in 2019. Stud sixth-man Spencer Dinwiddie, shooter Joe Harris and versatile forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are all younger than 28.

The Nets roster is indeed built for versatility around whichever star they are able to procure. Prince and LeVert are a versatile combo at the 3 and 4, with players like Harris, Dinwiddie and RHJ filling in the blanks if Atkinson wants to play big or small. Dinwiddie’s ability to play the 1 but guard up makes him an ideal backcourt mate to someone like Kyrie or Kemba Walker, (if not simply D’Angelo Russell). Rookie Rodions Kurucs is another athletic, offensive-minded 4-man that gives Brooklyn size.

Most of their roster is between 6’6″ and 6’9″, with positional fluidity ruling the roost. Those players help blanket the defensive deficiencies of smaller, score-first point guards. If the Nets plan to move forward with Russell and another point guard side by side, they have a lethal small-ball lineup surrounding a rim-running, lob-catching center in Allen. They’ll force teams to match up with them more than worrying about matching to their opponent.

Few of these role players are signed beyond next season, but the fact Brooklyn holds all their Bird rights makes for the possibility of group longevity. If not, they are only looking at replacing role players, which can be done via trade or their Mid-Level Exception fairly easily. The Nets are rich in depth and can maneuver their roster in any way they see fit.

Trust in Sean Marks

Mar 24, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Sean Marks general manager of the Brooklyn Nets talks at a press conference announcing the Long Island Nets D League team before the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the day, the vision for the organization is what sells. Marks has proven a shrewd negotiator, a fantastic evaluator of talent and the overall cultivator of this upstart group. His vision has been completely on point and overachieving based on expectations for where the Nets were just a few short seasons ago, much less historically.

He can easily sell the same upstart, underdog mantra to a top guy that comes for a visit.

As appealing as this roster is talent-wise, its real appeal comes from youth and upside. Some of those young players won’t pan out as members of a championship team, and holes will undoubtedly spring before a title comes to Brooklyn.

Trust in a general manager to press the right buttons and plug those holes is important for a free agent, as they know a bump in the road will not derail the train from reaching the station. That’s the underlying takeaway from the Nets rebuild: Marks can fix it, and he will. He’s hired all the right people, hit on most of his draft picks and managed every asset the Nets own down to the very last drop.

Believe in Marks and you won’t be led astray.

Nobody knows exactly what free agents will be attracted to Brooklyn. Irving and Walker grew up in the shadows of the Barclays, so there is some emotional appeal. Butler and Durant are enigmatic personalities that are too erratic to predict. Evan an outside name like Klay Thompson getting a max contract thrown at his feet could be enough to pry him to the Big Apple.

July 1, 2019 will be the day the Nets have been building towards for several years. Not just to build a respectable, upstart also-ran. They’re ready to finish building a big-time winner.