For the better part of three seasons, Nets general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson repeatedly have said the NBA “is a players’ league.” That mantra was the driving force behind their quest to position themselves perfectly to steal the free-agent show with a recruiting coup that netted Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan virtually the instant the market opened two weeks ago.
It wasn’t a matter of just getting a chance for a sales pitch. The way Marks and Atkinson explained it when they spoke to the media last Tuesday in Las Vegas, it was Durant, Irving and Jordan who essentially made their decisions independently, put a structure in place for what they wanted to join the Nets and then left it to Marks to work out the details.
Marks and Atkinson credited players who are part of the Nets’ young core group — Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen — for their role in selling the organization. “I think all the free agents, they looked at it and said those are guys we want to play with,” Atkinson said. “You know how this league works. It’s a very small circle. I think our returning players and our guys from last year and even the year before, they deserve most of the credit for all those guys wanting to come here and play.”
Marks said top-tier free agents such as Durant and Irving undoubtedly spent the past year evaluating their options. “We’ve seen it before with players wanting to team up, wanting to play together,” Marks said. “A lot of that was done without us really having to do a whole lot to be brutally honest . . . This is really a players’ league. It’s about taking advantage of that and using it to your benefit. With this particular opportunity, they wanted to play in Brooklyn.”
The notion that Marks had no back-channel communication with top free agents or their representatives in advance is hard to fathom. But there is nothing to prevent players from competing teams talking among themselves, and that is what appeared to happen for the Nets.
Dinwiddie formed a friendship with Irving when the two took the same summer class at Harvard a year ago. Obviously, Irving, Durant and Jordan already were close friends and 2016 U.S. Olympic teammates who had discussed playing together. LeVert has a relationship with Durant extending back three years to when he underwent foot surgery with Dr. Martin O’Malley, a Nets team physician who previously repaired a Durant foot injury. Durant reached out to LeVert to reassure him, and they began training together on occasion.
So, those associations existed among the players, and Marks and Atkinson already had laid the groundwork for the Nets’ culture and style of play. The Nets also put the emphasis on winning to attract free agents, jumping from 28 to 42 wins and a playoff berth.
But to get two maximum-salary free agents, sacrifices had to be made. The first came during the NBA Finals when Marks traded Allen Crabbe to the Hawks as the first step toward clearing $69 million in salary-cap space. It was clear the Nets were prepared to part with All-Star D’Angelo Russell and his $21 million cap hold to get the cap room necessary for Irving and Durant.
Some critics have said Dinwiddie, by recruiting Irving, effectively eliminated Russell. But judging Marks and Atkinson by their actions, they endorsed that path to landing Durant, who is one of the NBA’s top three talents. Otherwise, they could have stopped the process because Russell was a restricted free agent.
“We looked at everything on our board,” Marks said of the options open to the Nets. “We’d be silly not to. That’s one of the benefits of restricted free agency. We’ve invested a lot of time into D’Angelo, and he’s invested a lot of time into us. He proved it, he improved, he developed. He’s a heck of a young man.”
Atkinson added, “We had a lot of excellent options, so that made it an exciting debate. D’Angelo had a heck of a season, which makes these decisions even harder.”
The moment Durant posted his choice of the Nets on Instagram, it was a matter of wrapping up contractual details and various trades to produce the end result. Durant likely will miss next season while recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, but there is no escaping higher expectations.
“I’ll tell you we’re not going to use it as an excuse,” Atkinson said of Durant’s injury. “We’ve added some really good players, and our goal is to continue to rise.”