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The Long Road Back: How The Brooklyn Nets Are Returning To Relevance

John Geliebter - USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, someway, Sean Marks has brought the Brooklyn Nets out of basketball purgatory. Now, the franchise faces another critical offseason.

Last week, nearly four years to the day after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Boston Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets traded Brook Lopez to the Los Angeles Lakers for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov. Lopez, of course, was the last remaining member of that Big 5 that never was. He survived the disintegration of Brooklyn’s “superteam” and the win-less, pick-less, hopeless few years since. That Boston trade will go down as one of the worst deals in NBA history. It’s no exaggeration to say the Nets traded everything – draft picks, expiring contracts, their whole damn future – for nothing. 

Billy King, the Nets then-general manager, was duly fired in January 2016. Sean Marks, his replacement, is doing his best to pick up the pieces. It’s been an eventful offseason in the NBA already. Two top-15 players have been traded. With Paul George seducing 29 hungry front offices, that number will soon be three. Beneath all that noise, Marks is steadily making Brooklyn relevant again.

The acquisition of Russell was a coup. Presented with a perfect storm in Los Angeles – new management, the need to unload Mozgov, and the impending arrival of Lonzo Ball – Marks pounced. Russell was the second pick in the 2015 Draft, essentially making him one of the lottery picks Brooklyn surrendered to Boston. Lottery picks are hard to acquire in the NBA.

People thought it was embarrassing when Brook Lopez became the Nets’ all-time leading scorer in April. It wasn’t embarrassing. Lopez broke that record only because Marks held onto him long enough to extract the best possible deal. I openly advocated trading Lopez last offseason. I was wrong. Marks was right. And he got D’Angelo Russell. 

At this point in his career, Russell is more entertaining than he is productive. He comes from the Curry-Lillard School of Point Guarding, where off-the-bounce threes and scintillating dribble moves are standard curriculum: 

Russell is just 21 and he has time to mesh substance with style. He finished in the 42nd percentile as a pick-and-roll ballhandler this past season, which is woeful, but he shows veteran patience when probing the paint. There’s a ton of untapped ability there that Nets coach and noted point guard whisperer Kenny Atkinson can coax out: 

Russell also shot 33 percent on pull-up threes last season, which will likely improve with more reps and better shot selection. He shoots an easy ball, plus his 6’5” height makes it difficult for defenders to close out. The kid has all the tools of an elite offensive guard; it’s just a matter of putting those tools to use.

Beyond the Lopez-Russell deal, the Nets have been savvy in their dealings. Last summer, Brooklyn signed Jeremy Lin, a public relations deity who also happens to be decent at basketball. At the trade deadline, the team flipped Bojan Bogdanovic for a first-round pick to one of the few teams desperate enough to give one up. Then the Nets used that pick on Jarrett Allen, a fluid and rangy center who could’ve gone in the lottery. 

There’s nothing brilliant about all this. It’s pretty conventional fare. But after a while, a bunch of common sense decisions can get you where you need to go. Common sense is why Marks dealt Thaddeus Young for the 2016 draft pick that turned into Caris LeVert. The Nets were 5.1 points per 100 possessions better with LeVert on the floor last year. And common sense is why Marks took fliers on Trevor Booker and K.J. McDaniels. The former has blossomed into a stretchy four with legitimate trade value, while the latter may have saved his NBA career in Brooklyn.

These are under-the-radar, unspectacular assets that Marks managed to scrounge up to improve his team. Marks showed his commitment to improvement last offseason when he pursued Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson in restricted free agency. The Blazers and Heat matched Brooklyn’s offer sheets, but the message was clear: without draft picks to use, Marks will target high-upside youngsters who can help the team win now and in the future.

Intelligently, the Nets may also take in salary from teams looking to pursue free agents or duck the luxury tax. That may mean snatching Ryan Anderson from the Rockets, Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart from the Celtics, or Danny Green from the Spurs. Those players are solid and can help Brooklyn climb up the Eastern Conference ladder. 

In a way, the Boston trade has been a blessing in disguise for the front office. Without any way to tank, Marks is free to pursue decent free agents, absorb salary dumps, and build a legitimately interesting roster. It’s rare to see a team this bad act so liberally in its transactions. Marks doesn’t have to worry about padding the loss column, and if the losses pile up anyway, he can at least see what sticks.

Conventional wisdom says the Nets will target literally every free agent with a bit of upside come tomorrow’s free agency window. That’s probably not true. The team has no chance of snatching Otto Porter away from Washington or Nerlens Noel from Dallas. Marks will be precise with his offers in order to maximize the probability of getting his guy. Tim Hardaway Jr., Joe Ingles, and Nikola Mirotic all make sense as restricted targets. Unrestricted crowd-pleasers Dion Waiters and Danilo Gallinari would also fit well. And with upwards of $25 million in space, the Nets can take on low-cost reclamation projects like Ben McLemore or Jared Sullinger

It’s possible this maneuvering fails. If Russell or LeVert pops, or the Nets grab an impact free agent, they may be too good to get a top three selection in the 2019 Draft, when they finally have their own pick. On the flipside, they may still suck, and have too much salary committed to a terrible team. But do Nets fans really want to resign themselves to ineptitude?

It’s hard to buy in to a team with no ambition and no draft picks. Plus, this is Brooklyn we’re talking about. The potential for excitement in a market that enormous and basketball-crazed is sky high, and the Nets should try to maximize that opportunity. Lin was a start. Russell was a good second step. All indications point to a franchise that wants to improve, not one committed to a 25 percent chance at the top pick in 2019.

Whatever path he chooses, Sean Marks has made the Nets a big player in the trade and free agency markets. When those “2017 Offseason Winners and Losers” articles come out, the winners will be predictable: Houston, Minnesota, Philadelphia (Philly doesn’t get Markelle Fultz without Billy King’s trade, by the way), and whoever lands Gordon Hayward. Right behind that crew is the Nets. And with D’Angelo Russell in tow, Marks has another shrewd move or two up his sleeve.  

The Nets may be quiet, and they may not be good for another half-decade, but they’re no longer a laughingstock. In all seriousness, that’s one hell of an accomplishment.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Brian Kang.

What statistical category did D'Angelo Russell lead the Lakers in last season?
Created 6/29/17
  1. Points per game
  2. Free-throw percentage
  3. Threes made per game
  4. Steals per game

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