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  • Writer's pictureErik Slater

How Sean Marks rebuilt Brooklyn and claimed New York

It's February 2016 and the Brooklyn Nets are hosting the New York Knicks.

There is little intrigue to the crosstown "rivalry" with expectations for both New York teams low. The Knicks are 10 games under .500 and the Nets are off to an abysmal 15-40 start.

Fans scuffle into the half-empty Barclays Center just in time for tipoff. Brooklyn announces its starting five of Donald Sloan, Wayne Ellington, Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young, and Brook Lopez.

Knicks fans overwhelmingly make themselves known during the pregame introductions.

Brooklyn jumps out to an early lead and controls the game throughout, led by Lopez. Nets fans take what joy they can out of the win, but it is well-known that the team is heading for one of the worst records in the league.

In the midst of another lost season, Brooklyn announced the hiring of a new general manager from San Antonio named Sean Marks. The Nets had fired GM Billy King and head coach Lionel Hollins a month earlier.

Marks had worked his way up the ranks with the Spurs, starting as a basketball operations assistant and eventually being named assistant GM. Upon his arrival in Brooklyn, with virtually no young talent or draft capital, Marks was inheriting the worst situation in recent NBA history.

For a Nets fanbase that had lost all faith in the previous front office, Marks represented a fresh start. However, given the situation he would enter, hope was limited.

In spite of this, Marks began Brooklyn's ascension back to competitive basketball envisioning an organization with a scrupulous staff in all facets of operations.

His first move was to hire Kenny Atkinson as head coach. Atkinson spent four years with the Atlanta Hawks under Mike Budenholzer, earning praise for his player development.

In the coming months Marks would surround himself and Atkinson with a multitude of young, hungry basketball minds, naming Trajan Langdon assistant general manager and Adam Harrington director of player development. Langdon had been a scout with Marks in San Antonio and Harrington was Kevin Durant's trainer and shooting coach in Oklahoma City.

"I have a clear vision of what I'd like to implement here," Marks said. "It'll be built through a solid, strong foundation, systematic process. You can bring in a star player, but if he doesn't fit with the vision with where you're going, that can derail a system as well. So, whoever we bring in here, they're gonna play team basketball."

With a new front office and coaching staff in place, Marks began to formulate his plan to bring Brooklyn back to relevance. Without any of his own first-round picks, Marks understood the need to get creative:

"Draft picks are one way to build a team, but there are several other places and other ways to do it," he said.

In his first offseason as general manager, he signed restricted free agents Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson to offer sheets, but both were matched by their respective teams. On draft night, Marks traded Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers for the 20th pick and drafted Caris LeVert. The young swingman out of Michigan was seen as a lottery talent but dropped due to injury concerns.

Marks showed a keen eye for identifying overlooked talent, signing Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie from the G-League. The general manager continued to replenish Brooklyn's draft capital, trading Bojan Bogdonavich to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline for a 2017 first-round pick.

As expected, the first season of the Marks-Atkinson era did not show immediate returns. Brooklyn finished with a league-worst 20-62 record. Despite this, young players like LeVert, Harris and Dinwiddie showed promise in their first season with the team.

In the summer of 2017, Marks returned to his restricted free agent strategy, signing Otto Porter Jr. to an offer sheet only. The Wizards matched. He then made his biggest move yet, trading Brook Lopez and a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for D'Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov.

Russell's tenure with Los Angeles was plagued by off-court issues, particularly an incident involving teammate Nick Young. However, Marks saw a talented 21-year-old guard who was hungry for his next chapter.

Brooklyn found it's Lopez replacement in the draft, selecting Texas center Jarrett Allen with the 22nd pick. Allen, a rim-protecting big with a 7'6" wingspan, fell to the Nets after being mocked in the mid-teens by most draft analysts.

Marks continued his shrewd offseason by adding a first-round pick from the Raptors in exchange for absorbing DeMarre Carroll's contract.

The Nets improved by eight games the following season with several players taking major steps forward. Brooklyn's player development staff, led by Atkinson and Harrington, worked wonders in adding to the skill sets and confidence of Dinwiddie, Harris and LeVert.

Carroll also had one of the best seasons of his career, proving valuable on the court and in the locker room. A culture had begun to form in Brooklyn.

Noticing his team's trajectory, Marks moved into the 2018 offseason with a vision. The 2019 free agent class would be among the best in history and Brooklyn would need to clear cap space to be competitive in the market.

He traded Timofey Mozgov and two second-round picks to the Charlotte Hornets for Dwight Howard, who was later bought out. The deal would clear nearly $17M for the following offseason, enough for two max slots.

With his eye on the 2019 free agent class, Marks made yet another savvy move to add to Brooklyn's draft capital, taking on Kenneth Faried's contract from the Denver Nuggets for a 2019 first-round pick. He also received Darrell Arthur in the deal, who he promptly flipped to the Phoenix Suns for Jared Dudley and a 2021 2nd-rounder.

Brooklyn added two more young prospects in the draft, selecting Dzanan Musa 29th overall and Rodions Kurucs 40th overall.

With a young roster and financial flexibility, players around the league began to take notice. Jimmy Butler named Brooklyn as one of his three preferred destinations upon demanding a trade from Minnesota.

The 2018-2019 season marked the turning point in Brooklyn's rebuild. Following an 8-18 start, a players-only film session led by Jared Dudley sparked the young team. The Nets would go on to win 20 of their next 26 contests, propelling themselves into the playoff picture.

Brooklyn earned the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference with their gritty, unselfish style of play that earned praise around the league.

D'Angelo Russell emerged as an All-Star and Caris LeVert may have done the same if it weren't for a midseason injury. Joe Harris led the league in three-point shooting. Spencer Dinwiddie cemented himself as a legitimate guard in the NBA. Jarrett Allen was among the top rim protectors in the league and Rodions Kurucs exceeded expectations in his rookie season.

Marks' vision was taking form and Brooklyn was making its way into the spotlight.

"It started with us trying to build something that has a foundation, something that hopefully will have long-term success from the ground up," Marks said via Anthony Puccio. "The way we've built this is based off what we were given to start with. That goes back to the development coaches, scouts, analytics group that's found and acquired people to come up with creative positions."

Following a midseason extension for Dinwiddie, Marks needed to make one more move to open his second max slot. He did so by trading Allen Crabbe and two first-round picks to the Atlanta Hawks for Taurean Prince.

Despite Brooklyn's success, young core, and cap space, the rumor of the 2019 offseason was that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were destined to team up for the Knicks. The allure of Manhattan and Madison Square Garden trumped what Brooklyn had been building in the eyes of many.

Despite the noise, Marks let his work do the talking, trusting that free agents would take notice of what the Nets had built. It wasn't long until Brooklyn was creeping into the Irving-Durant conversation too much for Knicks fans' comfort levels.

Several reports began to emerge across the media that Brooklyn was Irving's preferred destination. Over the next few weeks, those reports gained credibility from sources around the league.

The question was, would Kevin Durant take notice of Brooklyn the way Irving had? Would everything that Sean Marks had built be enough to change the narrative of New York basketball in Durant's eyes?

The world got that answer on Sunday when Durant announced that he would be joining Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan in Brooklyn. The decision sent shockwaves through the basketball world and Marks' vision had come full circle.

The Knicks have not won a championship since 1973 and the last 19 years have brought just one playoff series win. When the Nets moved to Brooklyn in 2012, they saw an opportunity to cut into a Knicks fanbase that had been established for generations.

Now, with an exciting style of play and young generation of fans who have never seen the Knicks win, Durant's decision could change the perception of New York basketball and put Brooklyn in the national spotlight.

Irving, Durant and Jordan will join Brooklyn's supporting cast with the opportunity to bring a championship to New York City. The Nets have arrived and their emergence is a testament to the work Marks and Atkinson have done over the last three years.

They did it the right way. They didn't tank. They didn't look for the quick fix. Marks was more concerned with establishing a fierce, team-oriented winning culture that would be attractive to players throughout the league.

New York City is up for grabs. With a new generation of young fans that love star power, the Nets are ready to stake their claim.

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