When Sean Marks was hired as general manager of the Nets five years ago, he took over a franchise that was almost entirely devoid of assets, including first-round draft picks in 2016 and 2018 and a swap of the 2017 pick that cost the Nets control of the No. 1 overall selection. From that barren landscape, he had to build the organization from the ground up.
Fast forward to this season, and the unimaginable has happened. Some have suggested the roster assembled by Marks might be the most talented in NBA history with "Big 3" superstars Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden along with former All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin joining the cast as role players, not to mention a deep supporting cast featuring talented shooters Joe Harris, Landry Shamet and Tyler Johnson, the veteran savvy of Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan and all-purpose player Bruce Brown.
Suddenly, the Nets are viewed by many as favorites to win the NBA title, but there is a competing narrative they somehow are tainted because Durant and Irving came as free agents in 2019, Harden forced a messy trade to the Nets this season and Aldridge and Griffin negotiated buyouts. Some decry the lack of "home-grown" talent, but in fact, the groundwork laid by Marks five years ago and the shrewd moves he has made since then suggest he should be the runaway winner for NBA executive of the year.
Harden recently scoffed at the notion the Nets somehow have gamed the system to build an unfair advantage. "I thought that was the goal," Harden said. "The narrative always changes. We’ve got to get healthy to get this train going, and at the end of it all, we’ll see what they say."
Harris is one of two players remaining from that first season under Marks along with Spencer Dinwiddie, who has missed all but three games this season while recovering from knee surgery. He credits the family-style culture established by Marks along with the positive vibe and enthusiasm the Nets always displayed under former coach Kenny Atkinson for attracting such high-powered talent.
"Obviously, Ky and Kevin took notice of that, and then you come to a place like Brooklyn with an opportunity to build something special where it’s never been done before," Harris said. "All those things kind of factor into one another and made it a very desirable place. We add Kevin and Ky to the mix and the culture stays the same, but obviously, there is a lot more talent. I think more talent intrigues other talent to come as well."
Harden turned down a two-year extension worth $100 million to force the Rockets to trade him. Both Aldridge and Griffin gave up millions in their buyout packages to sign with the Nets for the veteran’s minimum.
The Nets have this one window of opportunity to go all-in for an NBA title, and so Marks made the toughest decision of his career to cash in the value he built in terms of developing Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen when the opportunity to obtain Harden presented itself.
"When we traded for James Harden, we gave up some really good young players and draft picks — tons of them," first-time head coach Steve Nash said. "We got two guys in the buyout market that had great careers and are still able to contribute. It’s not like we did anything illegal. The idea of this league is to put together the best team you can put together."
The decision Marks made to part ways with Atkinson, who deserves credit for the development that built the value to attract top free agents, was a tough one, but both agreed it was the right move. Marks’ decision to hire longtime close friend Nash looks risky from the outside, but Marks previously indicated his conviction was absolute because he had seen firsthand what Nash did as a player to help run the Suns when they were teammates.
Obviously, Durant and Irving signed off on that move, just as they did on the Harden trade, according to multiple sources familiar with the collaborative philosophy embraced by Marks, who engages with his players almost daily, especially the stars driving this process. Harden recently said he consulted with Durant, in particular, before he was traded to the Nets.
Since joining the Nets, Harden has emphasized his playmaking while sacrificing his scoring. Durant recently said all the Nets’ big-name players understand they "have to check their egos."
Some have suggested the mercurial Irving might be the determining factor in how the chemistry develops. But he made a huge commitment to the team he grew up rooting for in New Jersey and a commitment to Durant when they chose the Nets. He also has received support from the Nets after calling on them last season to add more talent, and the joy with which he has played the game in front of family and friends this season is palpable.
All the pieces are close to falling into place for the Nets. Harden currently is out with a hamstring but is expected back within two weeks or so. Even Dinwiddie is a possibility to return by playoff time and has made it clear on his social media that is his goal.
When Harden first joined the Nets, he described the possibilities for them as "scary hours." That anticipation only has continued to build, and it all is the result of brilliant design and execution by Marks to assemble what might be an historic team.