By Steve Lichtenstein
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As Nets general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson were giving the media their takes on the state of this tortured franchise Tuesday, all I could think about was a variation of the tree-in-the-woods puzzle.
If a culture change does indeed occur within an NBA team during a season where just about every expert is projecting ignominious results, will it be heard around the league?
In other words, can Brooklyn become a prime destination for high-level players on opposing teams while Marks and Atkinson are painstakingly rebuilding the right way from the ground up?
It has been a sharp descent for the Nets these last few years, and, according to Las Vegas, the odds are about 50/50 as to whether they’ll show any improvement in the standings over last season’s dismal 21-61 mark.
According to Marks, everyone in the organization, including the usually impatient owner Mikhail Prokhorov, is on board with the low expectations for this season.
“The season won’t be measured entirely by wins and losses,” Marks said. “It will be measured by the progress that’s made throughout the season — the buy-in from our players.”
To that end, Marks has re-shaped much of the organizational chart since his hiring in February, when he took over the mess left behind by former GM Billy King.
Marks has stacked the Nets’ sparkling new practice facility in Brooklyn with a diverse “Performance Team” to prepare the players for the grind of the NBA season. Zach Weatherford, a former Navy SEAL human performance manager, was added as the Nets’ director of player performance in June. Dan Meehan, who cut his teeth in the faraway world of Australian Rules Football, took over as the strength and conditioning coach, while physical therapist Aisling Toolan was lured from the Hospital of Special Surgery.
Though training camp won’t begin until next week, most of the Nets players — from veteran center Brook Lopez to rookie draft picks Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead — have been at the facility for much of the summer to take advantage of the Performance Team’s various programs.
“These guys are in the gym on their own,” Marks said. “It’s not Kenny and I calling and waking them up at seven o’clock and saying, ‘Hey, come on in, we’re working out today.’ I love the fact that it becomes player-driven and they hold each other accountable.”
Marks added, “The benefits that we’ll see is hopefully establishing the habits of these guys — especially the young guys, but the old guys, too. It starts now. It doesn’t start in a rehab sort of phase; it starts with the pre-hab, what can these guys do ahead of time in order to manage the rigors of an NBA season.”
The training department wasn’t the only area that was overhauled in the offseason.
When Marks went searching for a new coach in May, he made the right call to zoom in on Atkinson, who had a well-regarded player development record in previous stints as an assistant with the Knicks and Hawks.
It was in New York where Atkinson worked with an obscure point guard named Jeremy Lin, who subsequently mesmerized the city with Linsanity for a few glorious months.
Five years later, Lin has come almost full circle back to Atkinson, signing with the Nets in July as a free agent. Though no longer on the NBA roster bubble, Lin still has a lot to prove before others acknowledge his legitimacy as a starter.
Atkinson is eager to get back to working with him.
“This is a little different deal,” Atkinson said of Lin, who mostly came off the bench with Charlotte last season. “Now you’re kind of the quarterback — you’re the Eli Manning — so it’s a different level of responsibility and I think it’s new to him.”
Whether or not Lin and the younger players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough, Sean Kilpatrick, LeVert and Whitehead can take the next step will go a long way in determining the Nets’ future.
Brooklyn does not possess its own first-round draft choice until 2019, so it’s betting that Atkinson will be the second coming of Brad Stevens, the Celtics coach who in a short period nurtured a group of unheralded young players and, with a few key additions via trades and free agency, molded them into Eastern Conference contenders.
These next few years will be an interesting experiment for Brooklyn. It’s the antithesis of the go-for-broke spending strategy Prokhorov and King tried — and failed — before pulling the plug in February.
According to Marks’ plan, word of the culture of player development will spread, making the Nets’ pitch to the upper level of future free agents more than just about Brooklyn hype. They will be patient before making the big splash, however, preferring to add a few pieces each year and moving the needle slowly towards respectability first and then contention.
Will it work?
A skeptic would note that it’s hard to win consistently in the NBA without a superstar. The league-wide collusion these days between the top-tier players, who often forgo maximum deals in order to pool their talents with other elite players to form superteams, makes it that much harder for the league’s dregs to rise without a top draft pick.
The Nets could have more than $40 million in salary cap room next summer (if they renounce cap holds), but oodles of space did nothing for them in July, when Lin was their only significant signing.
They’re going to need to win a bit more to attract better players. But without many high-quality players, they won’t win much, certainly not this season.
Which sort of brings to mind a different conundrum: the chicken and the egg.
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