In Philadelphia, the years-long rebuild famously was called “The Process” by former general manager Sam Hinkie, who ultimately was unable to survive all the losing it took to gain high draft picks and valuable trade assets.
The Nets went about it a different way the past three seasons under general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, who focused on building what could be called “The Culture.”
The contrast is what makes the first-round playoff series between the 76ers and Nets that gets underway Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center so intriguing.
The Sixers have an All-Star-caliber lineup that includes draft picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and trade acquisitions Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The Nets made a big trade for D’Angelo Russell but then traded for late first-round picks to get Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen and developed castoff free agents Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris.
As Jared Dudley sees it, the Nets had no choice because the previous administration traded away a raft of No. 1s to the Celtics. “They didn’t have their picks, so they had to figure out another way, and the good thing was they had their security to be able to do it,” Dudley said after practice on Thursday.
“Kudos to them getting guys like Rodions [second-round rookie Kurucs], Caris LeVert, taking on a contract like [Timofey] Mozgov to get D’Angelo . . . Philly, I can’t say they got lucky. They did it strategically in the sense they took Joel Embiid when he was hurt and they took Ben Simmons when he was hurt. They made a couple of good trades, and now here you go.”
This is the first season since the ill-fated 2013 trade with Boston that the Nets had their original first-round pick. After LeVert suffered a dislocated ankle and the Nets fell to 8-18 in the early going, they might have been tempted to tank in a year when Duke star Zion Williamson is coming out. But that level of losing would have been antithetical to the Nets’ culture.
“When we were 8-18, there was no talk of tanking,” Atkinson said. “We didn’t have to worry about any of that other kind of noise. That was part of the reason that we succeeded. We didn’t have any of those distractions. There was just that one singular message: ‘Compete.’
“No one around here was happy with 8-18. If you’re tanking, people say, ‘OK, no big deal.’ But it was like, ‘Man, 8-18, we need to do better.’ There was internal pressure, a pressure to improve what we were doing.”
Three years into the Nets’ rebuild, their roster strength is such that it would have been difficult to tank. Their depth wouldn’t permit it to work.
“I just think we would have been too good to be in that bottom five,” Dudley said. “You would have been seven to 10 [in the draft order]. Also, Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson have told [the media] and told us to build. To do a 360 on that, you lose credibility around the league, especially with the big-time free-agent class.”
In the end, the 76ers and Nets have arrived at the same playoff junction. To be sure, the third-seeded Sixers are a clear favorite over the underdog Nets, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a native of Chester, Pennsylvania, who is the only player left from when Marks became GM, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I feel like we went about it our way, and they believed in it and then we believed in it,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “At the end of the day, you’ve just got to trust it and keep going through it. I feel like if we can overcome that adversity, then you know it is light on the other side.”
76ers vs. Nets
Game 1: Nets at 76ers,
Saturday, 2:30 p.m., ESPN, WCBS (880)
Game 2: Nets at 76ers,
Monday, 8 p.m., YES, TNT, WFAN (660)
Game 3: 76ers at Nets,
Thursday, 8 p.m., YES, TNT, WCBS (880)
Game 4: 76ers at Nets,
April 20, 3 p.m., YES, TNT, WNSH (94.7)
*Game 5, Nets at 76ers,
April 23, TBD
*Game 6, 76ers at Nets,
April 25, TBD
*Game 7, Nets at 76ers
April 27, TBD