By Steve Lichtenstein
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Maybe Joe Johnson sent a text message telling him it really isn’t that bad here.
More likely it was Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s Godfather offer that lured Sean Marks, at the time a rising executive in the San Antonio Spurs’ organization, to take on the daunting task of fixing the Nets.
According to Thursday’s statement from the team, the Nets hired Marks to succeed Billy King, who I assume will now be reassigned to his home office, as general manager.
Marks reportedly agreed to a four-year deal after negotiating through Wednesday night. Less than 24 hours earlier, some in the media indicated that Marks would turn down the Nets’ offer, leading to Prokhorov’s lame joke, “I’ve never heard this (Marks) name before,” at Wednesday’s unveiling of the Nets’ luxurious practice facility in Brooklyn.
Prokhorov’s sense of humor aside, it was a terrific week for this woebegone franchise. The Nets secured their first choice as GM, they forever rid themselves of all things New Jersey by opening the practice facility, and they didn’t do anything stupid prior to Thursday’s trade deadline.
Of course, it was helpful that the NBA didn’t schedule any games for them this week.
Now that the All-Star break has concluded, reality is at the scorer’s table ready to check back in as the Nets will take on the rival Knicks on Friday night at Barclays Center.
The 14-40 Nets are in for a rough slog toward the end of this season. The team is still quite lousy. They probably did not have any opportunities on Thursday to upgrade the roster in the short term and they certainly did not need to rush into anything in the first five hours Marks was on the job.
However, it will be interesting to watch how Marks begins to implement his vision that so impressed Prokhorov in their meetings that it allowed him to leapfrog the other qualified candidates (reportedly former Phoenix and Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo, Denver assistant GM Arturas Karnisovas, and Houston VP of basketball operations Gersson Rosas).
The configuration of a basketball team had always seemed to be on Prokhorov’s back burner since he purchased the team in 2010, well behind marketing and public relations concerns. The Nets were known for stargazing, as opposed to winning.
Prokhorov routinely touts that he is willing to spend whatever it takes to obtain the best and the brightest for his American toy. In reality, he often overpaid for big names with little value to show for his largesse.
The 40-year-old Marks was reared in a different culture. After an 11-season career as an NBA player, he hooked up with the Spurs, an organization that has mastered the art of winning, starting with a stint as GM of their D-League affiliate in Austin in 2012.
Sure, the San Antonio dynasty was built on the foundation of the transformational Tim Duncan, but the Spurs have been able to sustain their success as he’s aged and relied upon him less through the acquisition and development of overlooked players. Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Danny Green were not lottery picks or expensive free agents.
The Nets are betting that the experience Marks gained as an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich and as assistant to GM R.C. Buford will be transferable to Brooklyn.
That depends on whether Prokhorov has truly learned from his past mistakes.
Prokhorov offered up a mea culpa to both the media (at Wednesday’s press conference) and to the fans (in a released statement) for the team’s poor strategic decisions since the move to Brooklyn. The question is whether he will actually yield the requisite power to allow Marks to change the way the Nets do basketball business going forward.
We’ll have a better idea in the offseason, when the Nets will have more than $40 million in salary cap space to offer to free agents.
In years past, Prokhorov went after the biggest names who had no interest in coming to Brooklyn. After the spurns, King went to the trade market and blew the future on aging and underachieving players.
The hope is that Marks will use the cap space more judiciously. The Nets have so many needs, one or even two big-ticket signings of sub-elite players will leave them well short of their goals. In addition, he should value the skills (3-point shooting, defensive versatility) that true contenders load up on as opposed to old-school, one-on-one players that make up the core of Brooklyn’s current roster.
Center Brook Lopez and forward Thaddeus Young are two such players. Though they are both putting up strong numbers this season, their flaws put them in conflict with “The Spurs’ Way” of playing the game.
Lopez has below-average mobility, which gives him trouble when dealing with the uptick in athleticism and shooting range of opposing players at his position around the league. Young is a tweener-sized power forward who would be deemed a “stretch 4” if he could only bump his 3-point shooting a good 15 points over his current 22 percent.
Though neither was shipped out of Brooklyn on Thursday (Young was reportedly the object of the Raptors’ affection), will Prokhorov stand in Marks’ way should he opt to blow everything up in the summer and start from scratch?
The Nets could probably recoup some first-round draft picks that they gifted to Boston in King’s failed 2013 blockbuster trade for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. The Celtics own the Nets’ 2016 and 2018 selections and also have the right to swap slots in the 2017 draft.
There’s also the matter of finding a permanent coach to replace interim Tony Brown, who took over on Jan. 11 after Lionel Hollins was axed in the same “reset” that cost King the GM seat.
The Nets have naturally leaked every big name on the market to this job, including former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy. Even University of Kentucky coach John Calipari has not disappeared from some experts’ speculations.
The big bets are being placed on Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, who not only has a relationship with Marks, but also coached a team Prokhorov once owned in the Russian professional league.
Whoever is chosen has to come with Marks’ blessing, as opposed to the confusion over who was responsible for the Jason Kidd debacle in 2013. Some in the media have asserted that Kidd was forced on King by Prokhorov’s Russian inner circle (i.e. chairman Dmitry Razumov and board member Sergey Kushchenko). King has never corroborated that version of Nets’ history.
In the meantime, Marks has work to do. He needs to carefully evaluate what he has in his inventory.
There is some good news: 2015 first round draft pick Chris McCullough is back in action a year after incurring an ugly knee injury while at Syracuse. The Nets also announced on Thursday that fellow rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the athletic wing they acquired in a trade with Portland on draft night, will begin to practice after missing 10 weeks with a fractured ankle. He will then be reevaluated in two weeks. Markel Brown and Bojan Bogdanovic are looking to continue their improved play that was evident during the run-up to the All-Star break.
As for the veterans, while Johnson has stated that he is not looking for a buyout, the Nets were reportedly exploring one for enigmatic center Andrea Bargnani. Even if the 7-foot gunslinger sticks around, he should be glued to the bench for the remainder of the season in favor of younger players like Willie Reed, Thomas Robinson and McCullough.
For the first time in a long time Nets fans can look towards the future without having to recoil in horror. Thank you Mr. Prokhorov, for again opening your wallet for our benefit.
Now please get out of Marks’ way.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1