By Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post
It was only 17 months ago that the Brooklyn Nets hired Sean Marks to become their general manager. At the time, the job looked hopeless. The franchise was staring at three drafts where it wouldn't have control of its first-round pick, and a terrible roster with little long-term upside to speak of.
But then Marks got to work. And in those 17 months since he took the job, the Nets have undergone a remarkable transformation. Only one player who was on the roster when Marks arrived - forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson - remains on it today. A new coach, player development guru Kenny Atkinson, was hired. Three first-round picks have been acquired in trades, and one of them was used to help acquire D'Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. Four offer sheets have been handed out to restricted free agents, although all of them were matched by the prior team, most recently when the Washington Wizards kept Otto Porter Jr.
The result is a Nets team that has been exceedingly active, has become exceedingly interesting and heads into the 2017-18 season with a roster worth watching.
Brooklyn's latest move - likely its final significant one in a hectic offseason - came Tuesday, when it sent forward Andrew Nicholson, who was acquired from the Wizards along with a first-round pick in exchange for Bojan Bogdanovic in February, to the Portland Trail Blazers for guard Allen Crabbe.
Remember those four restricted free agent offer sheets the Nets handed out? Crabbe's contract was one of them. And, because Portland matched, the Nets avoided giving him a four-year, $75 million contract last summer - one of many bloated deals in the free agency feeding frenzy that was the 2016 offseason. That was hailed as a lucky break for Marks.
He clearly disagreed. The Nets acquired Crabbe on Tuesday, adding an extra $12-13 million to their books for each of the next three seasons. It was a surprising move - not because of Brooklyn's lack of interest, but because it allowed Portland to get out of luxury tax purgatory by shedding Crabbe's salary, and because the Nets didn't extract another asset (like yet another first-round pick) for doing so.
Trading for Crabbe falls in line with the strategy Marks has employed since arriving in Brooklyn: Using his team's cap space and salary flexibility to bring aboard either talent or other team's unwanted contracts with assets attached to them.
That approach has allowed the Nets - because they're among the dregs of the league and remain unable to attract stars in free agency - to start restocking its roster and draft-pick stashes. Now Brooklyn has Russell, Caris LeVert (its first-round pick last season), Jarrett Allen (its first-round pick this season), and both a first and a high second-round pick in 2018 the Nets acquired from the Toronto Raptors in exchange for taking on DeMarre Carroll and the two years and more than $30 million remaining on his contract.
In total, Marks's approach is the kind of deliberate one the Nets didn't take earlier this decade, when Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the rest of the organization's leadership was hellbent on seeing an immediate winner in Brooklyn. The result was a series of short-term moves with costly long-term ramifications - most famously the deal that brought Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets from the Boston Celtics in exchange for control of Brooklyn's first-round pick every year from 2014 to 2018.
So instead of the Nets finishing among the worst teams in the NBA the past two seasons and netting top picks to begin the rebuilding process, Marks instead watched the Celtics have the third and first overall picks, respectively, in his first two drafts. Thus, Brooklyn had to take a different approach - one that's allowed the Nets to collect some intriguing pieces during Marks's tenure.
The big bet here is clearly on Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft. When the Lakers landed the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft, and the world knew they would take UCLA star Lonzo Ball to become their point guard of the future - Russell, also a point guard, became expendable.
Russell is a talented player who has shown flashes of brilliance on the court, averaging 15.6 points and 4.8 assists last season, and he won't turn 22 until next February. But he's already created plenty of doubters through his first two NBA seasons for a variety of reasons - most of which were summed up in this savage quote from Magic Johnson at a news conference after the Lakers moved on from Russell last month.
"D'Angelo is an excellent player," Johnson said. "He has the talent to be an all-star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with."
That's where Atkinson comes in. The Nets will lean heavily on their head coach, who made his bones as a workout coach, to mold Russell into the kind of talent he was expected to be coming out of Ohio State two years ago - the kind of talent the Nets desperately needed to find to jump start their rebuild. They'll also hope he can turn some of the team's other young prospects, including LeVert, Allen, Hollis-Jefferson and second-year guard Isaiah Whitehead, into long-term parts of Brooklyn's future.
The presence of those young talents will make Brooklyn a watchable team next season in a way they weren't for much of the past 17 months. And the presence of veterans alongside them - including Jeremy Lin, Timofey Mozgov, Crabbe and Carroll - will allow the Nets to have a puncher's chance of finishing several spots higher than the third-worst record in the NBA they had two years ago and the league-worst 20-62 mark they had last season.
Because the Nets don't have control of their pick for one final year because of that never-ending Celtics deal, they - unlike every other team at the bottom of the incredibly weak Eastern Conference standings - have no reason not to try to win every game next season. That, along with the upgraded talent pool, could have the Nets in a position to make that final pick they give away a less valuable one than was expected.
Either way, with the moves he's made, Marks is clearly playing the long game. The only big-money free agent contracts he's offered have been in those four restricted free agent offer sheets. Veterans Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young were traded for assets. The contracts of Carroll, Crabbe and Mozgov - Brooklyn's three highest-paid players, all of which could be described as salary dumps for the team on the other side - will alone combine for just less than $50 million the next two seasons and up to $35 million in 2020, tying up precious cap space that could've been used in other ways.
But it's all part of a clear plan Marks has implemented from the moment he arrived in Brooklyn, and inherited a team that had gone far too long without having one. It's one that doesn't come without risks - the Nets have one top-20 pick (Russell) among their young players, and have put a significant dent in their cap space through 2020.
None do, though. And, at least so far, it appears this one has put the Nets on a path toward respectability and stability in the ever-weakening Eastern Conference.
Given where the franchise stood 17 months ago when Marks took over, that's a position they'll gladly accept.