Inside the Brooklyn Nets' attempt to rise from the ashes

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Thursday, August 3, 2017

The night before their last game of the season, the Brooklyn Nets' traveling party commandeered a private room at RPM Italian in Chicago for a mandatory dinner. Irina Pavlova, then president of Onexim Sports and Entertainment Holding and liaison between the team and Russian ownership, stood to address the group.

She had note cards. She looked nervous. Kenny Atkinson, the team's rookie head coach, suggested she take a shot of vodka.

Pavlova, who knew she would be leaving the Nets, held back tears as she finished, according to sources in the room: "In my seven years here," she said, "this is the first time it feels like a team, and not just 15 guys on a roster." One player started a classic Hollywood slow clap that crescendoed into a raucous ovation.

Those 20-win Nets were perhaps the happiest, tightest-woven terrible team ever. That was Phase 1 in Sean Marks' plan as general manager: wipe away years of infighting, ignore the wreckage of a trade that built a contender elsewhere, and mold a culture of work around hungry young players and workaholic coaches. It might take at least a half-decade to crack .500 that way, and years longer to reach 50 wins -- if the Nets get there without bottoming out again.

"We signed up for this," Marks said. For now, he has the backing of an ownership whose impatience buried the Nets in one of the deepest holes in the history of sports.

"We are ready to be patient," said Dmitry Razumov, the Nets' chairman and main U.S. representative of Mikhail Prokhorov, the team's owner. "We went the other way, and failed miserably." Ownership would accept a 25-win season in 2017-18. "That would be fine," Razumov said, "if the young guys make progress."

Marks cemented his vision this summer by flipping Brooklyn's closest thing to a franchise player, Brook Lopez, for D'Angelo Russell; absorbing DeMarre Carroll's anvil of a contract to snag two draft picks; and making a huge -- and cap-clogging -- bet on Allen Crabbe. Without picks, Marks found other tools to pry young players.

The Nets will still be bad, even as tanking sweeps the Eastern Conference. Lopez's transformative 3-point shooting was their only reliable source of offense as Jeremy Lin battled injuries and workload restrictions that come with Brooklyn's extensive investment in sports science.

But they should win a little more over the next two seasons, right in time for the 2019 draft, when they finally own their pick. They have discussed tanking ahead of that draft to land the blue-chip centerpiece they lack. "It came up," Atkinson said. "There is a faction out there that thinks it is what we should do."

It is not the plan. If the team improves, the Nets will be fine picking eighth or sixth or 10th when the penalties from the 2013 Boston disaster -- a trade in which they dealt away three first-round picks -- expire. "I don't think it is in the cards to tank," Marks said. "The goal is to compete and win games." If their youth doesn't develop, they may end up tanking in 2019 by semi-accident. They just won't reverse course to engineer it.

"I don't think tanking helps us," Razumov said.

The Nets hope their young core is eventually attractive enough to draw interest from star free agents, though swallowing Crabbe's monster deal could make it hard to carve out max cap space before 2020. "We hope free agents say, 'We want to play with those young bucks,'" Marks said.

That was the plan in Philly when Sam Hinkie, then the Sixers' GM, dumped Jrue Holiday's deal on the same night Boston swindled the Nets: collect young guys, build excitement, and pounce in free agency when the pups are ready to win.

The Sixers can tempt veterans with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric. The Nets have Caris LeVert, a polarizing point guard the Lakers bailed on early, and more draft debts. Culture is a nice talking point to sell when you're losing. Even if it's real -- and it held the Nets together last season -- it doesn't lead to wins without elite talent. What happens if Marks gathers just enough to be mediocre -- and no better?

"Once they win, they will get everyone they want," said Luis Scola, who played part of last season with Brooklyn. "But all those other things don't matter until you have a good team."

As the league descended upon Toronto for All-Star Weekend in February 2016, the Nets were leaning toward hiring Bryan Colangelo over Marks, according to sources familiar with the process.

During All-Star Saturday night, Razumov and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, then Marks' boss, had a long talk in the chairman's suite inside the Air Canada Centre, according to several sources. Buford's message was clear: The Spurs might not grant their assistant GM permission to take the job unless he would get to do it his way. Several other executives, including Bob Myers, the Warriors' GM, also praised Marks in chats with Razumov that weekend, sources say.

Less than a week later, Marks had the job -- and a mandate.

Other candidates might have proceeded differently: sell free agents on the glitz of a big city, and build competitive teams that would bridge the gap until the Nets had their picks back.

(The Nets banked on the hum of the city to close on Atkinson, though he needed no such convincing. He was out to dinner with Marks, Pavlova and Razumov the evening after his interview when someone suggested they ditch the restaurant and head to Barclays Center for a Duran Duran show. A black SUV whisked them there. They sipped wine and watched from the owner's suite before an impromptu midnight trip to the rooftop of the Nets' practice facility, with pristine views of the Manhattan skyline. "At night," Atkinson said, "the views are even more spectacular.")

Why endure the humiliation of coughing up top-three picks if you could buy your way toward .500? Instead, Marks ignored the Boston deal. It was a sunk cost. "We never talk about it," Atkinson said. "It's the elephant in the room. It's like it never happened."

Razumov has only one regret about the infamous deal: giving the Celtics a last-minute concession to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017 -- the draft between two others in which Boston would own Brooklyn's pick outright. "We miscalculated in the heat of the moment," Razumov said. "But we were all excited. [Former GM Billy King] may have had doubts, but they were not spoken."

The league has since discussed banning pick swaps between drafts in which a team already owes its pick to other teams; the tweak has been on the competition committee agenda, but has not been debated yet at length, sources say.

King has not talked much since the Nets fired him in January 2016. He released a brief statement to ESPN: "I wish Mikhail and Dmitry good luck going forward. No need to look backwards, as they have a new direction that they have chosen."

That direction did not involve filling cap space with George Hill-level veterans. That strategy could have produced fun 42-win seasons, but no young talent. Facing embarrassment liberated Marks to build the Nets' post-Boston-trade future now.

He traded good players for picks that became LeVert and Jarrett Allen. Lopez morphed into Russell, one of the most intriguing "second draft" prospects ever. Instead of signing veteran free agents, Marks chased younger restricted types -- Otto Porter, Tyler Johnson, and Crabbe. When teams matched, Marks used vacant cap space to eat unwanted contracts and extract picks as his price.

"He walked the only path he had," one rival GM said.

For that path to lead anywhere beyond mediocrity without a tanking detour, one of Marks' long-shot bets must pay off. A castoff like Spencer Dinwiddie must become their Danny Green. A pick in the 20s has to pop.

The Nets overpaid for a pick likely to fall in that range -- Toronto's 2018 selection -- in swallowing the $29 million left on Carroll's deal, but there was no better use for money they had to spend to reach the league's minimum team salary. (The Nets may hope they can rehabilitate Carroll and flip him, but that seems optimistic.)

LeVert looks like a steal at No. 21 if foot problems are behind him -- a crafty, multi-positional ball-handler who should grow into a decent 3-point shooter. He has a veteran's change of pace in his pick-and-roll game, a quick first step to attack switches, and good vision:

Still: He does not project as a tentpole star. Russell did before two years of bad vibes, worse defense, and off-court chaos had Magic Johnson discarding him in favor of "a leader" and a point guard "players want to play with."

"I think guys enjoyed playing with me," Russell said. "Now I'm going to make sure they do instead of not really taking it into consideration." He dismissed worries about his off-court lifestyle. "I think it's under control, but I never thought it wasn't."

Betting on Russell was a no-brainer. He has a chance to be a star on offense. He should be able to hit 3-pointers off the dribble, crucial for drawing double-teams on the pick-and-roll that unlock everything else, and he reads the floor well. He has good size and insists he will defend better.

"I wanted to play defense in L.A.," Russell said, "but I felt like I had to score every chance I got for us to be relevant."

You won't find a better candidate on a rookie contract the Nets might have targeted with Lopez and their willingness to digest an unwanted mega-deal (Timofey Mozgov's). Under-22 high-lottery talents with solid NBA track records rarely become available -- particularly point guards. Jusuf Nurkic looked like a brooding beast before Portland rescued him. The Sixers and Nets had brief talks surrounding Nerlens Noel, but Brooklyn made it clear it would not trade much for anyone it could pursue in free agency, league sources say.

Surrendering the pick that became Kyle Kuzma in the Russell deal is a mild disappointment; the Lakers were desperate to open cap space, with Brooklyn among the only suitors willing to swallow dead money.

The July whirlwind strengthened Brooklyn's position. The cap fell far below projections. Teams that spent big in the summer of 2016 were staring down tax payments in 2018 and beyond. Many would need to shed money, and the Nets stood as one of only a couple realistic dumping grounds. They could execute one last, ultra-predatory version of the Carroll deal -- and snare a better pick.

Days before the Crabbe trade, Marks acknowledged his leverage. "The proposed deals just keep getting better," Marks said of salary dumps. "So why not wait?"

The Nets instead played their last flexibility chip on Crabbe -- and extracted zero picks for saving the taxed-to-oblivion Blazers almost $45 million. They undid what most executives considered a lucky break in Portland matching Brooklyn's offer sheet for Crabbe a year ago. "Would we have liked a pick?" Marks asked. "Sure. But this is what it took."

The Nets offloaded Andrew Nicholson's $6 million-a-year contract, leading some to crow they had turned Crabbe into a $12 million player. The costs go deeper. The Nets could have held their space for an inevitable dump-deal that would have brought in another first-round pick. They likely could have sent out Nicholson in that same deal, or stretched his remaining salary over seven seasons -- as Portland is doing.

They could have signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year deal instead of tying up cap space on Crabbe through 2020. Depending on what happens with Lin and other free agents, the Nets may be out of the salary-dump game until then.

A lottery-protected first-round pick is more valuable on Brooklyn's timeline than last season's version of Crabbe. Marks knows that huge contracts for non-stars can turn into anchors. "If you sign the wrong guy to $15 million or $20 million," he said before the Crabbe deal, "they might become untradeable."

Crabbe showed minimal growth last season beyond his sizzling jumper. The Nets are counting on Atkinson's killer player-development staff to round out Crabbe's game -- he's only 25 -- and on the ripple effects of that jumper. Only Houston generated more open 3s than Brooklyn's go-go offense last season, per The Nets hit just 35 percent, fifth worst in the league.

Adding one perimeter marksman, along with good health for Lin, might offset the loss of Lopez's shooting. Lopez dragged opposing rim protectors far away, unclogging the lane for Brooklyn's slashers. His drift outside freed Atkinson to try Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a total non-shooter, as a small-ball power forward, and even use him as a pick-and-roll screener as Lopez chilled in the corner.

The alignment worked. Hollis-Jefferson is long-armed and feisty enough to bang with bigs. The Nets tightened their defense after the All-Star break, and outscored opponents with Lin, LeVert, Hollis-Jefferson and Lopez on the floor together.

Hollis-Jefferson will open camp as the starting power forward, Atkinson said, with Mozgov presumably in Lopez's spot. Spacing will be tight. Trevor Booker is honing his 3, but we've seen that movie before.

Carroll can supply shooting at power forward; if he plays well, he could usurp Hollis-Jefferson's starting spot. As of now, there will be a fierce competition between five players -- Russell, Lin, Crabbe, LeVert and Carroll -- for three starting jobs. (The bet here is on the Lin-LeVert-Crabbe trio, with LeVert's grip the shakiest.)

That is a good problem for a team that gave too many minutes to fringe players. Flaws aside, Crabbe and Russell are legitimate rotation guys. Shifting sub-replacement-level minutes to borderline starters can have an explosive compound effect. Wagering on Crabbe also shows the Nets feel some pressure to improve.

"There is a limit to how much dead money you can take," Marks said. "You end up with a roster of 21-year-olds and dead salary."

"We need to show progress," Atkinson said, "out of respect for ownership."

Win a little, and the culture might mean something on the broader market. Word will trickle out about happy moods and healthy bodies. The Nets provide the VIP sports science treatment to every roster player. They invested heavily in reliable technology, from Delos wobble boards that measure balance and power to lower-body exercise machines that highlight muscle fatigue that may require rest.

Atkinson and Marks put almost everyone on a minutes restriction. Players found the quick hooks frustrating at first, especially when they were hot, but eventually they got used to it because Atkinson was transparent about what was coming. Older players felt fresher. "I could play another five years doing what they do," said Randy Foye, who spent last season in Brooklyn.

Every player does individual skill work before and after practices -- "vitamins," in Brooklyn's adopted Spurs parlance. Chefs prepare customized meals. The Nets will experiment with game-day Amtraks from Brooklyn to nearby cities instead of arriving late the night before. Players fill out daily questionnaires about sleep, soreness and diet. "They even track the color of your piss," Joe Harris said.

Scola will take the questionnaires with him when he plays in China next season. Several young players now lift weights after games, and follow the team's recommended offseason regimen. That is what the Nets want: for players to take ownership, and discover patterns in how diet and sleep impact performance.

The goal is to be involved without smothering. Paternalism can be alienating. Atkinson has a big staff, but fights his instincts to beef up. "You could hire someone just to teach left-handed dribbling," he said, "but you don't want players to walk into a coach every time they turn the corner."

The team is threading the needle, players say.

"Everything is about the players," Foye said. "But they are not going to follow you around. You are an adult."

Adults have families, and Marks followed the Spurs' model in allowing players to bring spouses and kids on the team plane -- within reason. The team encourages players to dine on the road together, and the regulars eventually even roped Lopez -- a road-trip homebody -- into their meals. After the team's last home game, players and their families gathered in a lounge at Barclays to watch a video montage of season highlights. It featured photos and clips of team dinners, children sleeping on planes, and wives mingling. Veteran players had never seen anything quite like it. It represents what Brooklyn wants to be: serious but welcoming, a place adults want to play.

"It was a proud moment," Marks said. "The wins and losses weren't great, but we are starting to develop something."

In the end, only wins and losses matter. The Nets are still bad, with no obvious path to greatness. They may need to bottom out again to open one. They may even be sneakily designed to do that in 2019. Either way, it could take a decade to recover from past mistakes. Those who got in on the ground floor hope to witness what would be one of the greatest turnarounds in sports history.

"I want to be there for the good part," said Foye, who would be open to returning as a coach or front-office executive down the line.

Prokhorov and his team want to be there, too, despite constant rumors of a sale. Prokhorov is still marketing only a minority stake in the team, Razumov said.

"Hope," Razumov said, "never dies."