(image via AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Sean Marks – 366 Days
One year ago today, 18 February 2016, Sean Marks was hired as Brooklyn Nets General Manager (It was a leap year, thus the rad 366 days headline.) With the Nets, Marks inherited a franchise with possibly the bleakest future in the entire NBA, suffering a draining of assets rarely seen in professional sports. With no draft picks, no superstars, and no elite prospects, many were skeptical of how Marks would approach the uphill battle of rehabilitating the Brooklyn Nets. The previous regime aimed for success in the short term, going all in for an NBA Championship. That strategy yielded only a single Playoff series victory. Marks beat out other high profile GM candidates in Gersson Rosas, Arturas Karnisovas, and Bryan Colangelo. Picked from the Spurs’ managerial tree, Marks was a home run candidate, with high praise from Gregg Popovich and RC Buford.
Sean Marks played in the NBA from 1998-2011, yet only played 230 games, equivalent to less than 3 NBA seasons. That longevity may be a testament to Marks’ roles as an influential teammate and locker-room leader. After retirement, Marks cut his teeth in San Antonio, in both the front office and as an assistant coach. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, Marks was being groomed to take a significant role in the Spurs organization before his hiring in Brooklyn. In Marks, the Nets’ upper management saw a leader that would not only change the on-court product, but the entire organization from the top down.
Mikhail Prokhorov seemed convinced that he had chosen the right man for the job, stating,
“His experience on the court, in coaching, and management gives him a 360 degree view of the job at hand…he impressed us with his vision, his values, his personality, and his enthusiasm for the club.”
Prokhorov’s assessment of his new hire was a far cry from the gung-ho proclamations, and impatient strategy of “Championship or bust (AKA marriage in 5 years.)”
Yet even with all the high praise from NBA luminaries ranging from Zach Lowe to RC Buford, the Nets have not seen much success. During the offseason, the Nets lost out in signing Restricted Free Agents Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe, with many other free agents uninterested in the Nets’ advances. The season itself has been marked with disappointment, as the Nets are the worst team in the NBA by far. Injuries and inconsistent play have compounded an already talent-deficient team.
But still, the vibe around the Nets is surprisingly…positive. Observers around the league, from journalists to front office respect Sean Marks and the program that he strives to grow in Brooklyn.
In his first year, here’s what we’ve learned about Sean Marks his strategy for the future, and his style of leadership
Culture is Crucial
“Culture” was the buzzword used by the team and media when Sean Marks was hired as Brooklyn Nets General Manager. In interviews, Marks discussed how the organizational culture was a key factor in the cohesion and continued success in San Antonio. In Brooklyn, Marks stated his desire to build a strong organizational foundation, a culture that reached far beyond the 48 minutes of regulation.
In Philadelphia, some of the criticism former GM Sam Hinkie received was due to his treatment of players, treating them (aside from Joel Embiid) as commodities, as pieces in his plan to acquire a superstar. He filled the team with unknowns without a solid player foundation. While the perception on Hinkie has changed with the emergence of “The Process” (both the player and the plan) this season, the positive “culture” was non-existent for several seasons. Hinkie was tight-lipped with the media, and openly defiant when asked about the perpetual losing of the Philadelphia 76ers. It ultimately led to league intervention, and his subsequent resignation.
While the losses have piled up in bunches, the players compete every single game. It may be a broken record seeing the Nets start the game cold, and then mount an exciting, yet unsuccessful comeback. But the resilience or, more appropriately, #BrooklynGrit can be commended. The resiliency and competitiveness of the Nets’ players is a positive takeaway from this season, even with the ultimate disappointment in the win-loss column.
The Nets’ 2015 first round playoff series against the Hawks was a bitter example of the Nets’ previous “culture.” At halftime of game 6, the score was 51-45, with the Hawks holding a small lead. On the third possession of the half, with the score 53-45, the Nets quit after two bad possessions. It could be seen in the body language of the veterans, lazily throwing passes and moving without conviction. This led to careless Net turnovers and easy baskets for Atlanta. Personally, I knew that the series was over with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. I could feel the momentum change in a close game because of the lack of effort by the team leaders.
Compare that scene to this season, where the team is vastly less talented, yet is more competitive than in previous seasons. That is a reflection of the players and the coaches. Kenny Atkinson, in post game interviews, speaks highly of his players, outlining their positive play even after a loss. The players on the bench seem genuinely excited and interested whenever a teammate does something positive. Trevor Booker dances, Joe Harris waves his hands, and Jeremy Lin stands up on every basket, hamstring be damned. The players don’t sulk or look miserable as in previous years, even with the adversity they face. Even though the effort has not translated to wins, the foundation of a winning culture is slowly being established.
Without draft picks, Sean Marks has to take risks in acquiring talent. He stated the following in his introductory press conference this season on the lack of picks…
“Sure, draft picks are one way to build a team. But there’s several other places and other ways to go out there and do it. Obviously, you can commit to free agency. My staff, where I’ve learned, I’ve seen it done around the NBA where you’re building not only through free agency, you’re building through the European market, you’re building within your D-League franchise and developing players there. So yes, for sure, not having a draft pick as we stand right now — but that, too, can change.”
Yet, the risks he’s taken seem calculated and well researched. In the offseason, Marks acquired three players coming off of foot surgery: Greivis Vasquez, Joe Harris, and Caris LeVert. While the Vasquez gamble may not have paid off, Harris and LeVert have played well so far, and look to be pieces for the future. The risks Marks took in acquiring those three shows a trust in the medical staff and his scouts. Harris barely played for the Cavaliers (where Assistant GM Trajan Langdon and assistant coach Mike Batiste noticed him), and LeVert was a projected second round pick, yet they have been bright spots with their play so far.
The Restricted Free Agent offers were indicative of the risks Marks needed to make. Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson were offered $70 million and $50 million respectively, yet were mostly unproven as NBA starters. Rather than pursuing solid veteran free agents like Evan Turner, Gerald Henderson, or DJ Augustin, the RFA’s the Nets signed could have been considered “high risk, high reward.” The same could be said for the flirtation of Donatas Motiejunas and the signing, development, and ultimate failure of Anthony Bennett. While those risks may not have paid off, Marks will continue to strategically take calculated gambles.
Family over everything
One minor, but telling part of the Nets’ recent press conferences has been the language Sean Marks used to introduce people. When Kenny Atkinson was introduced as head coach, Marks said, “We want to welcome Kenny and all of his family to the Brooklyn Nets.” In the free agent introductory press conference, Marks said, “we want to welcome Joe, Jeremy, Trevor, Anthony, Justin, Caris and their families to the Brooklyn Nets.” It’s a key detail adapted from the Spurs, and an aspect important to Sean Marks himself. He even states the importance and role of his kids and family in a video from his time on the New Orleans Hornets.
In Tim Duncan’s retirement ceremony earlier this season, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, RC Buford and Gregg Popovich frequently mentioned family in their tributes, not only referring to Duncan’s family, but the Spurs’ organization as a whole. Popovich spoke with Duncan’s mother and sister. To Parker and Ginobili, Duncan was like an older brother. Buford saw Duncan as a consummate family man. It was heart-warming to see Popovich, notoriously gruff, speak about how he brought carrot cake to Duncan’s hotel room before every away game, not because Tim requested it, but because the coach cared.
The continuity and family focused management principles of the San Antonio Spurs is part of the “culture” the Nets aspire to build. In a podcast interview with Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Marks said, “Family is number 1. Over the course of a summer or maybe a season, (the players) will realize it’s all about your family…little things along the way that I think will help our players. You know, it’s a grind of a season so anytime they get to be home with their wives, loved ones, it’s important.”
So far, improvements have been made to better accommodate the Nets players and their families, from a remodeling of the family areas, to close monitoring of players’ diets. Marks’ vision entails a “player first” mentality. The treatment of players is holistic, reaching down to the nitty-gritty details.
Sean Marks knows that the profession of “NBA player” reaches far beyond the confines of the practice facility and the arena.
Details, details, (D-League) details
The attention to detail displayed by Marks and his staff has been eye opening. This includes improvements to the family room, players’ diets, and player facilities. But the attention to detail has been evident in the Nets’ roster moves.
The often-neglected part of the Thaddeus Young-Caris LeVert trade was the second round pick included in the deal. While second round picks are usually trade filler, they are crucial for an asset-deprived team like Brooklyn. As a reminder, the Nets will not have their own second round pick until 2020. The Pacers’ pick has an interesting protection, protected 45-60 until 2022. The pick is essentially reverse lottery protected, only being conveyed if the Pacers miss the playoffs. While a minor detail on the day of the trade, it may have some important implications. If the Pacers wanted to trade another second round pick before 2022, they would need to compensate the Nets. This little detail gives the Nets a chance to come away with a useful player in the second round.
The same attention to detail was seen in the Tyler Johnson and Donatas Motiejunas offer sheets. The Johnson offer sheet was signed under the Arenas provision. Because Miami matched the offer sheet, they will pay Johnson $20 million for the final two years of his deal, a high number under any salary cap. If Miami did not match, Brooklyn would have paid $12.5 million over four years. The Johnson contract also includes a trade kicker, making a potential trade for Johnson even more difficult to manage.
Similarly, the signing of Motiejunas was done with crucial timing and guarantees. Motiejunas signed on December 2, past the deadline for players to be traded in-season. Additionally, Motiejunas’ second year salary would become fully guaranteed by March 1st. If the Rockets decided to not pick up Motiejunas’ second year, they would have paid him $7 million for less than 20 games. The contract essentially forced the Rockets to make a costly two-year commitment to Motiejunas, a player Daryl Morey would have likely dealt for another asset. Yes, the Motiejunas and Johnson (and Crabbe) offers left the Nets empty handed. But it gave clarity to the detail of the Nets’ cap machinations and contract manipulation. With another year of cap space, it will be interesting to see the creativity of the Nets front office with this summer’s free agents.
The Nets’ D-League (soon to be G-League sponsored by Gatorade™) affiliate, the Long Island Nets, has been a ground for experimentation. This season, Chris McCullough has pulled double duty, Yogi Ferrell broke out, and the roster has been a carousel. Yes, development has still been key for the young Nets, with Chris McCullough, Egidijus Mockevicius, Trahson Burrell, and Boris Dallo getting the necessary reps to warrant a second look from NBA teams. But the Long Island squad has also been a place for scouting as well. Assistant GM Trajan Langon has acquired talent with upside in RJ Hunter, Prince Ibeh, and Cliff Alexander. These acquisitions put the Nets at an advantage, having the chance to develop and watch these players firsthand. The Nets are leaving no stone unturned, using all of their resources to evaluate talent.
Character, communication and chemistry
Earlier, I mentioned Sean Marks’ willingness to take calculated risks. While he has gambled on overlooked talent, Marks has passed on players with perceived attitude issues or “me first” mentalities. The negative attitude of a single player can radiate, affecting the entire team, no matter what the talent level. A toxic attitude usually spells bad news, no matter what the sport. Two 2016 free agents, Rajon Rondo and Dion Waiters, reportedly were interested in playing for Brooklyn. Those two players are notorious for playing or acting selfishly. The Nets passed on both of them, opting to sign high-character veterans. While signing those players may have made a difference in the win column, their presence could have caused locker room rifts.
In another interview with Adrian Wojnarowski, Marks mentioned targeting “competitive, high character individuals” for the club. The signings of high character veterans checked that criteria. Trevor Booker, Luis Scola, Jeremy Lin, and Randy Foye were praised for being outstanding teammates at previous stops. Randy Foye can often be seen speaking to Isaiah Whitehead on the bench, advising him as he adjusts to the grind of the NBA. Even Greivis Vasquez, while only a Net for less than 5 games, influenced the young players. While the on-court production of the veterans may be limited, their contributions, character, and leadership reaches beyond the game film that I’ve compiled way too much of.
The presence of coach Kenny Atkinson is another sign of the culture and communication Sean Marks strives for. Aside from being a developmental guru, Atkinson can be considered a players’ coach, working with his players closely, rather than being a totalitarian. Atkinson can often be seen on the practice court shooting with players. The relationships Atkinson has forged with players throughout his time as an assistant in New York and Atlanta reflect how highly respected he is. Jeremy Lin, the Nets’ premier free agent signing, has credited most of his success to Atkinson’s belief in his abilities. Atkinson was the key for Lin even considering Brooklyn as a free agency destination. Atkinson has also received high praise from several current and former Hawks in Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Paul Millsap. In Atkinson, the Nets have found a leader that is focused on both everyday improvements and the long-term outlook. For a team so deficient in assets compared to the rest of the league, the presence of a coach that encourages players to expand their games, rather than limiting them to specific roles is an underrated aspect of a season marred with disappointment.
Where does he go from here?
This season, on paper, has been a disaster. The Nets’ plan to bring in young players backfired, and several players have been inconsistent at best. The team has suffered through momentous losing streaks and disappointing losses. But Sean Marks’ vision still remains the same. Managing the Nets was never about giving the Boston Celtics the lowest draft pick possible. Nor was Marks’ plan to allow the young guys to run wild. “We’re going to do this systematically,” Marks said. “We’ll be doing this strategically and see where our players get made.”
When Sean Marks stepped in as General Manager of the Brooklyn Nets 366 days ago, everyone knew that remodeling the franchise was going to be an uphill battle. Marks made it clear that his vision for the Nets required patience, essentially starting a new franchise. Marks’ first moves completely revamped the front office and the roster, hiring young, innovative minds and signing high-character talent. Although it isn’t exactly “The Process,” the Brooklyn Nets’ “Progress” ideally, is improvement that occurs incrementally everyday. There may be setbacks and hardship along the way, but the foundation of a winning franchise is being built, down to the most minute of details. The future is open wide.