Faced with an impossible task when he took over as general manager of the Nets in February of 2016, Sean Marks has turned them into a winning organization faster than anyone could have predicted. Shrewd trades and free-agent signings, on-target drafting and skillful player development by coach Kenny Atkinson resulted in the sixth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference with a 42-40 record in just their third season.
Now that Marks and Atkinson have built such a promising foundation, it begs the question: Will they come? Will any of the top-tier free agents in a super-talented market come to New York and venture into Brooklyn, or is that a bridge too far?
Following their first-round playoff loss to the 76ers, several players expressed confidence that the perception of the Nets has changed in such a positive way that they can attract a marquee star. Marks wasn’t permitted to discuss specific players when he spoke with reporters on Thursday, but he agreed the Nets are well-positioned to make the most of their projected $30 million in salary cap space.
“I think the process that we went through this year can only help,” Marks said. “It goes back to really establishing an identity and establishing that we’re going to go out there every night and our guys are going to compete.
“It’s going to attract free agents. People are going to want to play here. They’re going to want to play for Kenny. They’re going to want to play in Brooklyn. They’re going to play for this ownership group. I think we have a lot of things going for us.”
Although top stars Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, either of whom would fit the Nets’ needs perfectly, have been projected to go to the Knicks and Clippers, respectively, there is reason to believe the Nets can get in the conversation for either one.
Asked if he feels pressure to land a big fish, Marks said, “That’s the challenge. If the right player is available, obviously, like any other team, we’ll target those guys. For us to even have these conversations, that’s exciting.”
The other major question Marks faces is how he expects to handle negotiations with his own All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell, who will become a restricted free agent on July 1 but could be signed to an extension earlier. The 23-year-old Russell is coming off a career season, but he’s not a perfect analytical fit and the consistency of his decision-making and shot selection ebbs and flows.
“He’s an effective-type player,” Marks said. “Maybe he doesn’t necessarily fit one particular analytics mold…He’s obviously one of our more talented players. You said we’ll have decisions. D’Angelo is going to have decisions, too.”
That last comment hinted at the notion the Nets might not want to offer a maximum-salary deal, but if he receives a max offer as a restricted free agent, then he must decide where the grass is greener. Given the nature of the culture Marks and Atkinson have built, some might wonder how it would play in the locker room if they don’t sign Russell.
“It’s something we have to keep navigating and see where it will go,” Marks said. “As of right now, he’s a Brooklyn Net. That hasn’t changed…I think D’Angelo knows how we feel about him.”
Another key player who is eligible for an extension of his rookie contract is Caris LeVert, who was the Nets’ best player early on before suffering a dislocated right ankle and came back after a difficult rehab process to finish as their best player in the playoffs.
“We were all impressed with how he bounced back, how he competes on a daily basis,” Marks said. “We see the competing on the floor. What I don’t think we all see is how he competes in the weight room, in the performance area and how he takes care of his body. We’ll address Caris at the right time.”
The time is right for the Nets and Marks to move into a new phase of development where expectations are higher and the pressure to win is much greater. That’s what he signed up to do.
“We’re not satisfied,” Marks said. “We know that this is just sort of that one rung in the ladder that we continue to climb here, and it’s a step in the right direction.”