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The turnaround of the Brooklyn Nets is something special

After landing superstar free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets have completed one of the most incredible turnarounds in sports history.

The day was May 16, 2017, A.K.A. the night of the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery. On that night, the basketball world would learn which team would pick first in that year’s NBA draft. Upon the results of the lottery, the first pick should have gone to the Brooklyn Nets, who finished the 2016-17 season with the worst record in the NBA. However, the pick instead went to the Boston Celtics, as the Celtics had the rights to a pick swap with the Nets, who instead got the 27th pick.

This is all the aftermath of the infamous trade between Boston and Brooklyn back in 2013, a trade that sent Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry to Brooklyn in exchange for several role players and their first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, as well as the right to swap picks in 2017. The trade is often considered to be one of, if not the worst in NBA history. The Nets never made it past the second round with Pierce and Garnett and in 2016, had the third worst record in the NBA. Brooklyn received the third pick that year, but because of the trade, it went to the Celtics.

It would not have been an exaggeration to say that the Brooklyn Nets were in the worst situation any NBA franchise could be in. They had one of the worst teams in the NBA with few assets and did not have control of their own first round picks to draft the best talent in the draft. The Brooklyn Nets’ reputation around the league was at an all time low. Many looked at them as a never-ending dumpster fire and a doomed franchise for years to come.

Two years later, to quote Marv from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, “My how the tables have turned.”.  In the 2018-19 NBA season, the Brooklyn Nets defied everyone’s expectations. They finished the season with a record of 42-40. Their record was good enough for a spot in the NBA playoffs as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. It was the first time the Nets have made the playoffs since the 2014-15 season. Unfortunately, Brooklyn lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round in seven games and were eliminated from the playoffs. Nevertheless, it was the most fun the Nets have been to watch in a long time.

Despite making the playoffs being an impressive feat, the real shock came over the summer. In the 2019 NBA offseason, the Nets managed to sign 30-year-old superstar and arguably the best player in the world Kevin Durant, along with perennial All-Star and one of the top-three point guards in the NBA Kyrie Irving. Both players were considered two of the top three prizes in what was considered to be a historically loaded free agency class. Since both players are close friends, it was rumored that both players wanted to sign with the same team. And both players chose the Brooklyn Nets.

Merely two years after one of the most humiliating moments in franchise history, the Brooklyn Nets have now become title contenders for the next several years. It is without a doubt one of the most historic turnarounds we’ve ever seen in sports.  It begs the question; How in the world did the Nets get to this point? How did the Brooklyn Nets rebuild their franchise without any control of their own first round picks? Most of all, how did they rebuild to the point where they were considered such an attractive free agent destination? Attractive enough that two of the best players in the world wanted to come? To answer this question, we have to dive into the three key elements that fueled the Brooklyn Nets turnaround.

Sean Marks

Back in 2016 in the middle aftermath of the trade with the Celtics, one thing was obvious. It was time for the Brooklyn Nets to move on from general manager Billy King. King’s plan to turn the Nets into instant contenders ended in catastrophic failure. It left the team void of draft picks and assets with minimal postseason success to show for it. Without a doubt, it was time for someone else to take the reins as General Manager of the Brooklyn Nets. However, the key factor in this wasn’t just the Nets replacing Billy King. Rather, it was who they replaced him with. On Feb 18, 2016, the Brooklyn Nets hired Sean Marks, former Assistant General Manager for the San Antonio Spurs.

As it turns out, that day was the day when the Brooklyn turnaround truly began. Sean Marks turned out to be a phenomenal hire and general manager for the Brooklyn Nets. His vision engineered the Nets turnaround from a basement-dweller to a championship contender. Most of all, he did it all with no control of his own first round picks as well as minimal assets. How did Sean Marks pull off such a drastic rebuild in such little time? When you dive in and take a deeper look, it becomes quite clear. Sean Marks found and developed unknown players into key pieces of a playoff team.

Marks traded Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers for the 20th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. With that pick, he selected Caris LeVert out of Michigan, who has one of the brightest futures out of anyone on the Nets roster. On Dec 8, 2016, Marks signed Spencer Dinwiddie, who’s developed into one of the best sixth men in the NBA. On July 19, 2016, he signed Joe Harris, who’s become one of the best shooters in the league. In the 2017 NBA draft, he acquired the 22nd pick from the Washington Wizards. With that pick, he selected Jarrett Allen, one of the most promising young big men in basketball. In the 2018 NBA draft, he acquired the 40th pick and selected Rodions Kurucs, who surprised everyone and had an impressive rookie season.

Above all, Marks had one key move to make as general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, that was what to do with franchise center and Nets all-time leading scorer, Brook Lopez. It was crucial for Marks to get the best return possible for his most valuable asset at the time. He would end up doing just that. Marks traded Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to the Los Angeles Lakers for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov. The latter was eventually traded in a salary dump to clear cap space.

The former, however, played a key role in terms of getting the Brooklyn Nets to the point where they are today. After an injury plagued 2017-18 season, D’Angelo Russell burst onto the scene in 2018-19. Russell finished the season averaging 21.1 points per game, 7.0 assists per game, and 3.9 rebounds per game on shooting splits of 43.4 percent from the field, 36.9 percent from three, and 78.0 percent from the free throw line. Most of all, he carried the Nets multiple times in close games and hit multiple clutch shots, the most notorious one being on March 19, 2019 against the Sacramento Kings. D’Angelo Russell scored a career-high 44 points, 27 in the fourth quarter, as the Nets came back down from 28 points to win the game.

Sean Marks took a risk on D’Angelo Russell that paid off big time. Without him, it’s extremely unlikely that the Nets make the playoffs in 2019. Therefore, Brooklyn wouldn’t have been nearly as attractive as a free agent destination, and there’s a strong possibility the Nets would have been unable to lure Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to sign. Ultimately, the Nets would not have the cap space necessary to sign all three of Durant, Irving, and Russell. Therefore, Brooklyn signed D’Angelo Russell to a four-year, $117 million max contract and traded him along with Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham to the Golden State Warriors for Kevin Durant, who the Warriors signed to a four-year, $164 million max contract, as well as a protected first-round pick in 2020.

Sean Marks taking flyers on the right guys as well as acquiring and hitting on draft picks allowed him to build a core of young players in Brooklyn that superstar players would love to play with. That was the first big reason why the Nets were able to turn it around as quickly as they did. And one things for sure. Even though he’s now in Golden State, the Nets will forever be grateful to D’Angelo Russell for what he did for them in such a short time.

Brooklyn Nets Culture

Along with how he rebuild the Nets roster, Sean Marks deserves credit for building something arguably just as important. That was rebuilding the Nets culture. Back during the early 2010s, the Nets culture was a mess. Deron Williams went on record saying that playing in Brooklyn nearly made him quit basketball. Paul Pierce said that without him and Kevin Garnett, the 2013-14 Nets would’ve quit. It was obvious that the Brooklyn Nets needed a change in culture as much as they needed talent.

Thankfully, Marks has done a phenomenal job rebuilding Brooklyn’s culture, which places a strong emphasis on player development. As we’ve seen with the likes of Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, Brooklyn has been able to take other teams outcasts and develop them into the best versions of themselves. And there’s one man that deserves enormous credit for developing all these impact players. That man would be Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson.

Kenny Atkinson was hired to be the Brooklyn Nets head coach on April 17, 2016. Atkinson was hired because he had two key elements that the Nets needed in their next head coach. The first was his resume in terms of developing players. Atkinson was always known as being one of the best developmental coaches in the league. He is able to form great relationships with his players in order to help them along in their development. Furthermore, as we saw with the development of multiple Nets players, Kenny Atkinson knows how to develop his players.

The second reason why Kenny Atkinson was the perfect head coaching hire for Brooklyn was his system. More importantly, the new-age style of play he implemented in Brooklyn. Even when the Nets finished with the worst record in the NBA, it was noted that Atkinson had inherited a similar style of play to that of Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors in Brooklyn. It’s a style that places heavy emphasis on sharing the ball and shooting the three. Atkinson’s coaching style is perfect for today’s NBA, and should complement Kevin Durant’s and Kyrie Irving’s games perfectly.

Another big contributor to the Nets culture is their state of the art training facility. Their training facility, the HSS Training Center, has not only received great reviews from players, but is in Brooklyn to help players get acquainted with the area and the culture of Brooklyn. Furthermore, the Nets medical staff is also top notch, as they helped Caris LeVert nurse a potential season-threatening injury. This should provide some relief for Nets fans in terms of Kevin Durant’s injury, as he has the best in the business helping him recover and rehab, including Dr. Martin J. O’Malley, the Nets team doctor who performed the surgery on Durant’s achilles.

Last but certainly not least, the key piece to the culture of the Brooklyn Nets is how hard they play. The Nets are known for playing a gritty style of basketball. They play ever single one of their games hard. Every player on the team gives 100 percent every night. Furthermore, the team has excellent chemistry, as the Nets were well known last season for their bench celebrations. This gritty style of Brooklyn Basketball did not go unnoticed by Kevin Durant, as he told Sean Marks himself “I love the system. I love how you guys play. We could never take you guys lightly. If we were up 10 with two minutes to go, we knew that didn’t mean anything against Brooklyn.”

It’s worth mentioning how the Brooklyn Nets culture played a big role into D’Angelo Russell’s development. D’Angelo Russell came to Brooklyn with his character in question after his time with the Los Angeles Lakers after the notorious incident with Nick Young. Lakers then president Magic Johnson criticizing him for his “lack of leadership” following trading him to the Nets. D’Angelo Russell’s reputation around the NBA was about as low as it gets.

However, similar to how D’Angelo Russell helped changed the reputation of the Brooklyn Nets, the Brooklyn Nets helped change D’Angelo Russell’s reputation as well. Russell completely bought into the culture the Nets were building and helped to boost it as well. He was known for his newly-found leadership in the Nets locker room and close relationship with Kenny Atkinson. With how much Atkinson and the Nets got D’Angelo to buy into their culture, there’s little doubt that they will be able to do the same with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

The story of the turnaround of the Brooklyn Nets organization is truly one to behold. A team that was once viewed as a disaster with no future did a complete 180 in three years. Sean Marks managed to build a talented roster without control of any of his own first round picks. Kenny Atkinson and the rest of the Nets staff managed to build the perfect culture for basketball in Brooklyn. All of this culminated in the Nets landing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, setting themselves up to be title contenders for the next several years.

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Adam Grassani

New York & New Jersey Sports Staff Writer,
New Jersey Jackals Beat Writer
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