By Steve Lichtenstein
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As the Nets were winding down their season from hell, many experts who get paid to speculate were adamant that the meddling from owner Mikhail Prokhorov and his inner circle would prove to be an obstacle in the necessary rebuild.
New general manager Sean Marks surely wouldn’t have enough power to make the most crucial decisions, they surmised.
When Brooklyn announced on Sunday the hiring of Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Kenny Atkinson as its new head coach, the news sent shockwaves to those who expected at least three weeks of rumors and leaks related to every “big name” available.
Wait, you mean the Nets weren’t going after Tom Thibodeau?
Or Jeff Van Gundy?
And where was everyone who swore that Nets CEO Brett Yormark’s reported cozy relationship with John Calipari would be enough to lure the University of Kentucky kingpin to Brooklyn?
Marks eschewed such customary business practices of prior regimes and instead stealthily wooed what the Nets said was their top target.
Atkinson, who will continue to serve under head coach Mike Budenholzer until the Hawks are eliminated from the playoffs, may or may not be the Nets’ salvation. He has never led an NBA team, but he does come to Brooklyn with rave reviews.
Atkinson is well respected around the league for his development skills. While he was with the Knicks, he was credited by point guard Jeremy Lin, now a Hornet, for helping him go from an unknown Ivy Leaguer to full-blown Linsanity. Hawks All-Star center Al Horford also swears by Atkinson.
What matters most is that the Nets appear to be settling in for a long-term clean-up, with Marks in firm control. As opposed to the quick fixes (blockbuster trades that mortgaged future assets, Jason Kidd, etc.) that, according to certain media reports, were at minimum egged on by ownership toward former general manager Billy King.
Those blunders left the Nets, who finished the regular season with the NBA’s third-worst record at 21-61, bereft of their own first-round draft pick until 2019 (the Celtics have the right to swap picks in 2017).
That’s not an easy sell to any highly regarded applicant, especially with so many better current and potential coaching vacancies to be filled this offseason.
The 48-year-old Atkinson could have easily waited this out, but Marks, who was plucked from the San Antonio front office in February to replace the humbled King, was able to close the deal with a man well-versed in the “Spurs Way,” thanks to Atkinson’s four years under former San Antonio assistant Budenholzer.
Marks must have also done an impressive selling job on Prokhorov. The Russian billionaire has for the most part laid low (even before his offices were raided by Russian authorities last week), while Marks has begun, um, rehabilitating the franchise.
In addition to interim coach Tony Brown, Marks let go vice president of public relations Gary Sussman and trainer Tim Walsh, both long-time employees, on Friday. Assistant general manager Frank Zanin stepped down in early April after Trajan Langdon was hired a month earlier to be Marks’ right-hand man.
Marks still has a new D-League team to build from scratch (Ronald Nored, a 26-year-old former Celtics assistant, was named head coach on Friday), a scouting staff to revamp, and modernizations of everything from training to analytics.
And that’s before we even get to players.
Brooklyn has only six players under contract for next season, assuming, among other moves, Marks buys out the remaining $6.3 million on point guard Jarrett Jack’s final year of his deal for $500,000. The Nets could have more than $40 million in salary cap space.
For a change, don’t expect them to use it all at once.
As tempting as it may be for Prokhorov to look to overpay for a name at the top of the Barclays Center marquee, I am hopeful that Marks will be able to maintain the aura of patience that now permeates the organization.
The current theory is that Brooklyn will look to rebuild around its frontcourt tandem of Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough just completed intriguing, although injury-plagued, rookie seasons and bring much-needed youth and athleticism to the roster.
Marks desperately needs to acquire a point guard, though it is too soon to speculate as to who he might be able to persuade to come to Brooklyn.
There may be pressure applied from fans who want Lin, who is a free agent after this season and has the above-mentioned ties to Atkinson.
Except that such a signing — placing marketing concerns over basketball values such as 3-point shooting and the ability to guard multiple defenders — wouldn’t fit the new script.
Marks seems to have a requisite understanding of the modern NBA. Unless he has a chance (and he doesn’t) to land a transformational player such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, he won’t dole out max contracts as consolation prizes.
Remember, almost every team will have significant salary cap space this summer due to the league’s TV windfall that kicks in next season. Instead of blowing the Nets’ entire wad of available cap space in one summer, Marks may wait if the right player(s) aren’t committed to signing in Brooklyn.
While I don’t expect the Nets to trade up in the draft, Marks will invest heavily in overseas scouting to find hidden gems in the draft’s second round, where the Nets own the 55th overall pick (after a swap with the Clippers) this year and can purchase others.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Nets won’t be rebuilt in a year. The Atkinson hiring is a sign that at least they won’t be using the same blueprint.
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