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Patience is Paramount – Billy King’s first year with the Nets

Sean Marks recently celebrated his one-year (and one year and a day) anniversary of becoming Brooklyn Nets GM. In his first year, the Nets have struggled mightily. Marks made bold offseason moves, some of which have panned out, and some that have flamed out. There were also some missed connections (Hey, Yogi Ferrell.) With the trade deadline approaching, Marks will be tested once more. If Marks’ job were to be evaluated solely by the Nets’ on-court success, he would receive low ratings all around. But, as we know, Extreme Makeover: Franchise Edition of the Brooklyn Nets will take time. (Side note: the mid-2000’s had some fantastic home/vehicle improvement shows: Trading Spaces, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Pimp My Ride, Monster Garage, etc.)

It’s often a mistake to judge a general manger’s transactions immediately. When the Golden State Warriors traded Monta Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks for Andrew Bogut, owner Joe Lacob was booed tremendously.  Three seasons later, the Warriors became champions with Bogut as a key defensive presence. In 2013, Billy King, Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry, seemingly adding “super role players” to a team that had won 49 games the previous year. This was the general sentiment felt by Nets fans after that trade. Three years later, many of those fans may be too embarrassed to acknowledge their Nets fandom.

I generally use the “three-year rule” for fully assessing any transaction. Instant analysis is the norm for NBA coverage. Certain moves may look great as the WojBomb mushroom cloud dissolves. But in the long run, these same moves may end up being horrific even a season later, especially for the Nets. Perspective is the best cure for split-second hot takes.

Let’s take the WaveRider (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is awesome this season) to the summer of 2010. “California Gurls” by Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg is the #1 song, and Toy Story 3 is killing it in cinemas. After a horrific 12-70 season, New Jersey Nets GM Rod Thorn stepped down. Thorn’s final moves as Nets GM were promising. Avery Johnson was hired as head coach, at that point holding the highest winning percentage of all NBA coaches. The Nets drafted Derrick Favors and Damion James in the 2010 NBA Draft. Thorn signed Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, and Travis Outlaw after striking out on LeBron James and all the other major free agents of that summer. Mikhail Prokhorov took full control of the Nets, becoming one of the richest owners in sports.

Enter Billy King. King entered a strange position, inheriting a team right after the NBA Draft and free agency. Let’s take a look at King’s major moves during the 2010-2011 season.

August 11, 2010 – In a 4-team deal, Courtney Lee was traded to the Houston Rockets. The Nets acquired Troy Murphy from the Indiana Pacers.

Then: Trading for Troy Murphy signaled that the Nets wanted to make a run at the playoffs. They traded 3rd year guard Courtney Lee for the veteran Murphy, who was coming off of a strong year, averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds per game with the Pacers. Lee was unhappy with his role, going from an NBA Finals team in his rookie year, to a 12-win team as a sophomore With Avery Johnson as coach, some expected him to be Dirk-lite for Avery Johnson’s Nets, providing floor spacing for Brook Lopez. Shoutout to Nets Are Scorching! 

3 years later: The Troy Murphy trade was a disaster even before the Nets’ first game in Newark. Jersey native Murphy injured his back in training camp, forcing him to miss the preseason and several games at the beginning of the season. Upon his return, Murphy couldn’t replicate his Indiana success, shooting less than 40% overall, and 17% from three. He was never the same player, retiring two seasons later.

Opening Night Roster

Starters: Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw, Joe Smith, Brook Lopez

Bench: Derrick Favors, Kris Humphries, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Terrence Williams, Damion James, Stephen Graham

Inactive: Troy Murphy, Ben Uzoh, Quinton Ross

Then: With Avery Johnson as new head coach, the Nets were looking to compete. Brook Lopez was entering his third season and was ready to break out. Derrick Favors had unlimited potential as a rookie. Terrence Williams entered his sophomore season after a strong end to his rookie campaign. Damion James was NBA ready. The Nets signed young, overlooked talent in the offseason. Travis Outlaw was Mr. Fourth Quarter. Anthony Morrow was a deadeye shooter. Jordan Farmar was a young two-time NBA Champion with the Lakers. Johan Petro had moves. The Nets’ core (seemingly) had upside.

3 Years Later: Two 2009-2010 Nets survived the move to Brooklyn – Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez. The rest were out of the league, becoming NBA journeymen, or for Derrick Favors, becoming modern day Karl Malone by the time the Nets relocated.

December 15, 2010 – Traded Joe Smith and a 2nd round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers. Traded Terrence Williams to the Houston Rockets. The Nets acquired Sasha Vujacic and a 2011 Lakers and 2013 Rockets first round pick.

Then: The Nets gave up on Terrence Williams early in his sophomore season, but were able to acquire a first round pick for him. The Nets stole from the Lakers, acquiring a young player in Sasha “Two Time Champion” Vujacic and a Lakers first round pick for a soon-to-retire Joe Smith and a second round pick.

Three years later: Remember when first round picks could be acquired for expiring contracts? Now they’re more valuable than elite offensive centers. The assets acquired by the Nets were quickly traded. Terrence Williams and Sasha Vujacic were out of the league by 2013. The two first round picks the Nets acquired were dealt in the MarShon Brooks and Joe Johnson deals, respectively. They became JaJuan Johnson and Shane Larkin. Ironically, Larkin and Darius Morris, the Nets’ traded second round pick, donned Nets uniforms in Brooklyn.

February 23, 2011 – Traded Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, and two first round picks (2011 Nets and 2013 Warriors) to the Utah Jazz for Deron Williams.

Then: The Nets acquired a bonafide top-10 player and arguably the best point guard in the league in Deron Williams. Although questions persisted on Williams’ attitude stemming from the sudden resignation of Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan, the Nets were universally praised. Compared to the package the Knicks surrendered for Carmelo Anthony, the Nets seemingly acquired Williams at a discount. Williams was averaging 21.3 points and 9.7 assists per game, a shoo-in All Star.

3 years later: Derrick Favors blossomed into a consistent player for the Jazz, and is a key part of that team today. Trading Williams allowed the Jazz to rebuild, drafting young players and (slowly) building a perennial playoff team. The two first round picks became Enes Kanter at #3, and Gorgui Dieng, via the Warriors, at #21, two useful role players.

For the Nets, Deron Williams was a symbol of the team-wide dysfunction in the Billy King era. He underwent one of the most rapid superstar declines ever, going from an All-NBA point guard, to a liability in the 2014 playoffs. The desperation to appease Williams, and the fear of losing him in free agency led King to make shortsighted moves. While Williams’ decline may not have been predictable, it was another case of bad luck for the success-hungry Nets.

February 23, 2011 – Traded Troy Murphy and a 2012 second round pick to the Golden State Warriors for Brandan Wright and Dan Gadzuric

Then: A seemingly minor salary dump on the same day as the Deron Williams trade. The Murphy trade in the offseason obviously ended up being a disaster. The Nets front office did not want to buy Murphy out themselves, even though Murphy was in the last year of his deal. So Billy King and the front office paid the Warriors a second rounder to do the favor. The Nets acquired former lottery-pick Brandan Wright, a long, athletic, but oft-injured big man. They were able to take a look at a former lottery talent in exchange for a second round pick, retaining his bird rights. It was a low risk, possibly high reward move.

3 years later: Brandan Wright did not re-sign with the Nets after playing 184 minutes in a New Jersey uniform. Wright blossomed after signing with Dallas, becoming a valuable reserve. Dan Gadzuric played only 2 NBA games after his Nets run. The trade throw-in, a 2012 second rounder, became Draymond Green at #35. While the Nets may not have selected Green (they drafted Tyshawn Taylor at #41), the second round of that draft featured several solid NBA players. Jae Crowder was selected one spot before Green, and familiar names Khris Middleton, Will Barton, Quincy Acy, Justin Hamilton, Mike Scott, and Kyle O’Quinn were drafted after Green. It’s unclear if the Nets front office ended up kicking themselves after seeing “throw-in” Draymond Green become an All NBA player.

The Nets finished 24-58 that season, and 22-44 in their next and final season in New Jersey.

What does this all mean?

Most sports fans are all about instant results. Especially as New Yorkers, Nets fans aren’t used to slow development. The mere thought of someone walking slowly down subway stairs could be rage inducing. So it’s natural for fans to want to evaluate Sean Marks’ performance instantly. After seeing so much turmoil as a Nets fan, think three years could fairly judge a front office transaction. Moves that looked like steals may become failures, or vice versa. With this current Nets team, a transaction may not pay dividends next game. It’s for the future.

All the transactions in Billy King’s first season looked like Net wins, acquiring young talent, draft picks, and a superstar in exchange for mostly unproven assets. Yes, hindsight is 20/20. But three years later, all the assets acquired were flipped, minus Deron Williams. Nets fans know the story there. In just a few seasons, the perception of several trades can go from universal praise to contempt.

With that said, it still may be too early to judge the moves Sean Marks makes. With the Nets’ 2016-2017 opening night roster, the only way they could have contended for a playoff spot is if every player made a major leap, or if several Eastern Conference teams imploded. The Thaddeus Young trade was met with both criticism and praise. The Nets won’t fully know if the price they paid for Caris LeVert was worth it until 2-3 years down the line. The same could be said for the hiring of Kenny Atkinson, among other transactions.

The Brooklyn Nets have a clear plan for the future. Yes, this season has been frustrating, depressing, soul-crushing, you name it. But it may still be too early to call Marks’ (or Atkinson’s) tenure a failure. As fans, we don’t know what happens in practice. We don’t see daily improvement. We don’t know how beneficial the veterans have been to the development of younger players. And, most importantly, we haven’t seen the team quit on court yet. While it may be natural to want to scrutinize every transaction the minute news is broken, a more long-term view is important. The coaching decisions and player issues Nets fans have endured throughout this season may turn around. Moves that seem puzzling may become clearer down the line. As the Nets learned the hard way during Billy King’s tenure, perspective and patience are paramount.

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