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GM Sean Marks has created light at the end of tunnel for Nets

Portland Trail Blazers guard Shabazz Napier drives to

Portland Trail Blazers guard Shabazz Napier drives to the basket against New Orleans Pelicans forward Cheick Diallo in the second half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, March 27. Credit: AP / Gerald Herbert

The Nets’ cupboard was bare when Sean Marks took over as general manager in February 2016, thanks to the infamous 2013 deal by former GM Billy King that unloaded a treasure trove of first-round picks to the Celtics for over-the-hill stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

But after 29 months of wheeling and dealing that exemplified his philosophy of being creative and strategic with every move, Marks has created light at the end of a long, dark tunnel for the Nets’ organization. He has put the elements of a young core group in place and has positioned the Nets for a major step forward in 2019 by replenishing their store of draft picks and creating the potential for a league-high $70 million-plus in salary-cap room.

It would take too long to recite the litany of trades and signings Marks has made, including the addition Saturday of Trail Blazers point guard Shabazz Napier, who signed a two-year deal that includes a team option for the second year, according to an NBA source. It’s more efficient to explain that starting power forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the only player remaining from the roster Marks inherited.

The Nets had no first-round picks in 2016 and 2018 and had agreed to swap first-round picks with Boston in 2017. But Marks swung deals to acquire first-round picks in 2016 (No. 20 Caris LeVert), 2017 (No. 27 Kyle Kuzma) and 2018 (No. 29 Dzanan Musa), parlaying the Kuzma pick as part of a package to acquire D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft. Marks also took current starting center Jarrett Allen with the No. 22 pick from Boston in 2017.

In the process, Marks has made tough decisions, trading away franchise scoring leader Brook Lopez as part of the Russell deal. Late Thursday night, the Nets traded Jeremy Lin to clear room to take a salary dump from Denver that netted forwards Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur plus a 2019 first-round pick protected 1-12 and a 2020 second-round pick.

Marks still has a couple of roster spots to fill for the 2018-19 season, but for now, the likely depth chart looks like this:

PG: Russell, Spencer

Dinwiddie, Napier.

SG: Allen Crabbe, LeVert.

SF: DeMarre Carroll,

Joe Harris, Musa.

PF: Hollis-Jefferson, Faried, Arthur, Rodions Kurucs.

C: Allen, Ed Davis.

Of those players, the likely core group consists of Russell, Crabbe, LeVert, Hollis-Jefferson and Allen along with rookies Musa and Kurucs. Dinwiddie and Harris, who are the gems of the developmental program headed by coach Kenny Atkinson, also could be part of the long-term picture. Napier, who had his best season in 2017-18, averaging 8.7 points and shooting .376 from three-point range, might work his way into the equation.

Can the Nets take another step forward from their eight-win improvement (28-54) last season? Much depends on the continuing evolution and maturity of Russell, Crabbe, Dinwiddie and LeVert in the backcourt. Allen has the same challenge in the frontcourt, and while free-agent acquisition Davis is on a one-year deal, his reputation as a clubhouse leader is such that he might be a candidate to remain.

Some fans might be rooting for the Nets to tank in the coming season to improve their draft position, but that’s not the way Atkinson coaches or the way to develop a young core that believes in the organizational motto of “Brooklyn grit.”

Tanking also is not a good way to attract elite free agents who will be available in 2019. The Nets must show they are a solid young team on the verge of a breakout in order to attract stars in their prime for the two maximum salary spots they will have.

Under-30 unrestricted free agents who’ll be available include Jimmy Butler (player option), Kevin Durant (PO), Kyrie Irving (PO), Khris Middleton (PO), DeMarcus Cousins, Tobias Harris, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Mirotic, Klay Thompson, Nikola Vucevic and Kemba Walker.

As for the 2019 draft, the Nets will have two picks if the Nuggets’ pick falls between Nos. 13-30. If it’s a top-12 pick, the Nets reportedly will get the Nuggets’ unprotected No. 1 in 2020. So the Nets can add top-tier talent in the short term to whatever elite free agents they sign next summer and to the youthful core they are developing.

Signs of progress have been difficult to discern because the Nets’ record in two seasons under Marks and Atkinson is 48-116. But the rebuilding job Marks has performed, laying a foundation from the ground up in just over two years, has been nothing short of masterful.

New York Sports