It’s October 2012 and the Brooklyn Nets are playing an exhibition game in Atlantic City — 130 miles away from their new home in Brooklyn. The teams go back-and-forth as a pocket full of fans begin a chant: “Brooo-klynnn”
It was intimidating for the away team. It was “cool” because it replicated a chorus in Fabolous’ rap song.
It was organic.
It was everything those Brooklyn Nets were not.
They made it clear that they wanted to go into Brooklyn with a bang. With billboards of Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z outside of James Dolan‘s office. With overpaid stars.
Anything to make Brooklyn a thing
The Nets started its first season in Brooklyn with a star-studded roster, led by Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. They trademarked “Brooklyn’s Backcourt” for Williams and Johnson, as they held the hyped-up press conference outside Brooklyn Borough Hall. Head coach Avery Johnson was fired 28 games into the season after a 14-14 start.
First round exit, which meant they needed to get “tougher” because 49 wins wasn’t enough. Nothing was ever enough.
You know the script: They traded four unprotected picks to the Celtics for out-of-shape and out-of-prime players in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. They hired Jason Kidd straight out of retirement to replace Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo.
“Everybody knows about that trade,” Brooklyn’s 20-year-old cornerstone, Jarrett Allen, laughs while explaining the importance of an organically-built team more than four years later. “From a fan’s perspective when you made the trade in 2013 it’s like, ‘OK we’re bringing all these pieces in, now we have all these superstars but is there really a connection there?'”
It all felt forced and as Allen said, there was no connection to the fanbase. It all happened too quickly for anybody to even enjoy and by time that even happened, James and the Heat knocked the Nets out of the playoffs. They were left with no picks, no cap space and few playoff victories to show for what they tried to buy. Needless to mention, zero free agents wanted to play there.
Prokhorov’s five-year plan had suddenly turned into one of the biggest failures in NBA history and they had to dig their way out.
That’s when Sean Marks was hired
It’s February of 2016. Lionel Hollins and Billy King had officially been axed, and it was time for Dmitry Razumov to introduce new GM Sean Marks to the media. Razumov explains how he was “proud” of the hiring and later echoes something the Nets probably should have done from the start:
“We didn’t rush.”
In other words, they didn’t hire the big name. They hired the right guy.
Marks briefly explained his plans:
“I have a clear vision of what I’d like to implement here. 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,” he explained.
Marks’ first hire was Kenny Atkinson, an assistant coach from the Atlanta Hawks, known for his player development. It wasn’t about making the splash hire like Kidd. It was about building a team without skipping steps.
Without forcing greatness.
“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. “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.”
The Nets formed an identity on the court and in the front office. They hired Natalie Jay, a sports lawyer with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and a law degree from Harvard, to handle the cap. They brought in Andrew Baker, a lawyer to also serve as “Director of Contract Management.” They hired Zach Weatherford, a former leader of the Navy Seal Human Performance Team, to man the Performance Team.
When Marks took over, the Nets had three scouts. The Nets don’t reveal how many scouts they have, but by count, that number has more than tripled to this day. The team with zero draft picks, few assets and no cap space, suddenly built an identity.
They were going to do things different.
They were going to do it their way
It’s the summer of 2016 and Kenny Atkinson and his assistants are in the gym with their young players, working out and practicing alongside them. It became the identity of the team on the court, no matter the (lack of) talent they had nor the circumstances they were playing under: They were always going to play hard.
As you could imagine, it was an unsuccessful campaign in the first year and they didn’t have their pick.
They hit big with low-risk acquisitions like Joe Harris but failed on young hopefuls like Anthony Bennett. Marks put down big offer sheets for marginal players such as Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe and Otto Porter Jr. All teams matched.
‘We had cap space, it was just about how we used it,” Marks said.
So, they tried building through the draft, through their vision, their extensive scouting. And so, he turned Thaddeus Young into Caris LeVert, taken with Indiana’s 20th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. They acquired Spencer Dinwiddie from the G League.
They traded fan-favorite Brook Lopez and a first-round pick for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov. They took Jarrett Allen with the 22nd pick in the 2017 Draft.
And suddenly things started shifting. They had young players developing, cap space opening and a homegrown culture growing. They improved by eight games the following season and entered the 2018-2019 season with some hope.
And for the first time in a long time, the Nets and its fans had a team to get behind.
Because it was their own
“It’s great that you had the pieces [in 2013] and maybe the connection wasn’t there because Brooklyn was still new, but with the team we have now, we feel like we weren’t just adopted. We weren’t forced in there, they picked us to be here and now the fans are watching us grow, almost in the same sense as their own kids,” said Allen.
It goes with the culture Marks and Atkinson instilled. They’ve preached things like family, continuity, chemistry and hard work around HSS Training Center — their state-of-the-art practice facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
It’s a luxury they didn’t have when they first came to Brooklyn. Several players lived in New Jersey because that’s where the practice facility was. Others lived in New York, so they could be close to Barclays Center.
“It’s different now,” said Marks. “Our players all live here, they’re all eating at the same restaurants, walking the streets and so forth. Those things are unique. When you have 17 guys living in Brooklyn, living the lifestyle, the culture, I think the fans absolutely assimilate to that, have something in common with them which is the way it should be. After all, we’re all one Nets family.”
The Nets have become one of the hottest stories around the NBA. They’re in year three of the “rebuild” and players, agents and other NBA types are taking notice into what they’re building. It comes after they fell into the basement of the Eastern Conference following an eight-game losing streak. They answered the losing with a seven-game win streak, which put them right into the playoff conversation for the first time in over four years.
No big names. No big hires
Marks has hit gold with quite a few “homegrown” players. In terms of the draft, Allen is one three diamonds in the rough. The other is his most recent — a second-rounder from Latvia named Rodions Kurucs, who has been vital in Brooklyn’s turnaround at just 20-years-old.
Then, of course, his first pick ever: Caris LeVert.
LeVert, 24, has missed most of the season due to a dislocated foot, but there’s no doubt he’s become the poster boy for the organization. Prior to his injury, he was averaging 18.4 points per game with two game-winning shots in 14 games.
It all started with him.
“It’s special, man. It’s definitely special for us to be the fit for the reconstruction of the organization. We just need to keep going in the right direction,” said LeVert. “It’s a new thing we have going here. Like I said, it’s special. Coming to Brooklyn with a bunch of young guys drafted by this team, we feel like we’re all here to grow together. We hangout, we eat together… it’s definitely special.”
There are others, too. Dinwiddie never really settled anywhere he went. He was drafted by the Pistons, but suited up in 46 games the first two seasons of his career, averaging a little over 13 minutes per game. He was traded and then waived by the Chicago Bulls and spent the rest of his time with the Windy City Bulls, their G League affiliate. That’s when the Nets made him their own and eventually signed him to a three-year deal.
Joe Harris is another name that comes to mind. He was drafted by the Cavaliers, where he spent most of his time playing for the Canton Charge. Nets’ assistant coach Bret Brielmaier was an assistant in Cleveland before joining Atkinson’s staff, and figured Harris might be a good piece to develop. After two years with the team, Harris’s work ethic and improvement stood out so much that the Nets signed him to a two-year, $16 million deal.
Finally, there’s 23-year-old Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who some would call the youngest veteran in the league. He’s the only player left from the Billy King era, precisely the final pick before King’s departure. He’s seen it all and he’s been through it all — a lot of losses and finally a year with some winning.
You can even include D’Angelo Russell in the mix, who the Nets acquired at just 21-years-old after two seasons with the Lakers, where nothing but dirt was thrown on his name. The Nets took him in and he quickly became the early first-round pick they never had.
The Nets haven’t seen much success since their move to Brooklyn. The baby was force-fed the first three years and it led to a bad reputation, ugly departures and years of being the laughing stock of the NBA. Some would say they were in purgatory with no signs of leaving.
And yet, slowly but surely, the Brooklyn Nets are in the conversation again. And it isn’t happening because of a blockbuster trade, big free agent signing or anything that would be considered a “quick fix.” They’re 23-23 46 games into the season — the first time they’ve been .500 at this point since 2012-2013.
It’s happening because they let it happen naturally, just like the “Brooo-klynnn” chant that started in Atlantic City. Just ask the longest tenured Net.
“The fans are starting to believe in us because of what we’ve built here. We’re playing good ball and we have our own draft picks… It really feels like the stars are beginning to align here.”