It might be the most unenviable task in all of sports, but the Brooklyn Nets are committed: They’re doing a true rebuild in the most difficult sports market in the country, and they have no intention of wavering from that path.
“The season will not be measured in wins and losses,” general manager Sean Marks said Tuesday afternoon at the Nets training facility. “It will be measured by the progress of our players.”
Of course, this isn’t anything all that new for the Nets, who haven’t had a winning season in two years and sold the farm to the Celtics in the blockbuster Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade — the one that backfired cataclysmically and cost the Nets control of their first-round draft picks until 2019. What is new, though, is that the entire organization appears to have bought into the ideology, and that includes owner Mikhail Prokhorov, whose win-at-all-costs mentality has previously dominated his six-year tenure.
“Our owners know exactly what the expectations are, so they’re 100 percent on board, they’ve been on board all summer long,” Marks said. “This is not going to be something that’s turned around in two or three months . . . We want something that’s done strategically and systematically, [to] build a strong foundation.”
The Nets offseason strategy appeared geared toward attracting “high-character” players with possible untapped upsides. That list included Jeremy Lin, who hasn’t been a consistent starter since the 2012-13 season, and Greivis Vasquez, who’s coming off ankle surgery. They gave a shot to Anthony Bennett, chosen first overall in the 2013 draft and considered one of the biggest busts in league history. And they also traded Thaddeus Young to claim Caris LeVert in the first round of this year’s draft. LeVert’s talent has never been questioned, but his durability has — he’s had three foot surgeries in the last three years and the Nets are slowly easing him back with strengthening work.
The latest ESPN projections have the Nets with 29 wins this year — nine more than last year’s total.
But it’s clear that Atkinson believes that they have the potential for more. They had the second-worst defense in the league last year, and he said growth in that area will be a major focus. (Atkinson’s previous home, the Atlanta Hawks, had the second-best defense in the NBA.) The group of players they’ve assembled will lend itself to unselfish basketball: the linchpin of the system Atkinson eventually wants to put in place.
“I think it’s not easy to overachieve in the NBA, but if there is a way to do it, we can do it with great team defense,” he said. “On the offensive side of the ball, it’s the same thing. We’re going to have to share the ball, hopefully be a high assist team, a team that plays together.”
It doesn’t hurt that the Nets have assembled a crew that has a lot to prove, perhaps none more than Lin, the de facto star, along with Brook Lopez.
“I think he feels a little slighted that he is not considered a better defender, so we need to hold him accountable there,” Marks said, perhaps referring to a recent report that the Knicks passed on Lin in free agency because they considered him a defensive liability. Marks, too, has something to show in his first time in the big chair.
“It’s really fun when you get a chance to build something with the right people,” he said. “The building of this is something that I’m excited for.”