Sean Marks’ Brooklyn Nets Are At A Bit Of A Question-Filled Crossroads

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Anytime that the Oklahoma City Thunder play the Brooklyn Nets these days it’s a big deal for basketball fans in Aotearoa. Steven Adams, the nation’s finest export, going up against the team whose general manager is none other than Sean Marks, the nation’s first ever NBA player and the trailblazer for what Adams has achieved. A couple fellas who’ve made their name by staying true to their cultural values. Hard-work, sacrifice for the team, no egos… very different careers but each hugely successful in their own right, especially considering where they came from.

Steven Adams already gets his own weekly roundups here. This one is about Sean Marks. As he comes up to the three year anniversary of taking the GM’s gig in Brooklyn (mid-February) he’s got the team looking very different to what it did when he arrived... almost to the point where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. He played his wicked games with restricted free agents. He dished out the most worthwhile contracts on his inherited roster. He gambled on unproved players with high upsides. He played his hand cleverly with cap space. He picked wisely in the draft.

All of which has led us to this point and it’s a confusing crossroads as far as Sean Marks’ next move is concerned. All this forward momentum, even in the darkest times, but now they’re facing a bit of uncomfortable stasis. Against the Thunder it was all sweet as when the players wandered back into position for the final quarter. Up by 18 points against one of the form teams in the league and looking good. D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie were both making plays. Joe Harris was scoring well. Allen was holding his own nicely against Steven Adams. All players whose presence in Brooklyn owes to Sean Marks’ work in the front office, by the way.

And then Paul George went to work.

Swish went one three. Swish went another. Emboldened by that he started driving to the hoop and scoring through contact. He made his free throws. He scored from all over the court, absolutely sizzling and that lead began to shrink and shrink and shrink. Down to ten. Down to six. Down to four. Down to one…

It was unbelievable. Paul George is one of the best players in the game when he’s clued in and very few folks are capable of taking over in the fourth and doing what he did here. That sustained playmaking is what separates the All-NBA talent from the rest of the best. But like… look how wide open he was here!

This is where the Nets are at right now. They’re a decent team playing quick and active basketball but they have no idea how to close out a game. This was their eighth defeat in a row. Dallas, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Utah, Memphis, Washington, Cleveland and now Oklahoma City. There are some good teams in there but there are just as many that aren’t. Five of those defeats have been by six points or less. When it came to crunch time against OKC they couldn’t figure out where to find a bucket to save themselves, getting outscored 39-19 in that final frame.

You can’t isolate one single issue because it’s always more complicated than that but the Nets do have a lot of young and inexperienced players who haven’t learned the tricks of the trade yet. They simply don’t have that experience to close out games where every possession matters. Those are things you can only learn one way, no matter how good the coaching. And there are questions about the coaching for sure, about whether Kenny Atkinson’s commitment to the pace he wants to play and the type of shots he’s drawing up fully suit the players at his disposal on this roster, but ultimately it’s all a natural learning curve that they need to work through.

It’s also a learning curve that’s been made a whole lot steeper by Caris LeVert’s injury. It was late in the first half of a defeat against Minnesota about a month ago when he went down in a collision with Josh Okogie trying to attempt a chase-down block. It was a bad one. Not quite as bad as it first feared, when names like Gordon Hayward and Paul George were thrown out there, but he won’t be back any time soon.

LeVert has the honour of being the first player that Sean Marks drafted (sort of, it was a draft day trade with Indy for Thad Young). He’s also his biggest success. Spencer Dinwiddie is a useful player that the Nets sort of discovered while the D’Angelo Russell reclamation project is going nicely. Jarrett Allen is a serious big man talent who is just getting better and better. Allen Crabbe’s been a bit average but Joe Harris is hitting shots and looking sharp. But Caris LeVert has been The Guy. Through the first few weeks of this season he was averaging 18.4 points per game on 47.5% shooting and that’s despite a drop in three-point accuracy so you know there was more to come. He was the go-to shooter when it mattered. He was the facilitator. He was the best player on the roster. From a risky option with the 20th overall pick to a potential franchise cornerstone. That, right there, is what Sean Marks was brought here to do.

This from Zach Lowe’s profile on LeVert just after the injury: “The Spurs had been eying LeVert for months, wondering whether he might slip to them. In February 2016, the Nets hired Sean Marks, San Antonio's assistant general manager. Brooklyn did not have a first-round pick and did not control their picks in 2017 or 2018, either -- remnants of their disastrous 2013 trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Marks interviewed LeVert anyway. Flanked by coaches, trainers, and mental performance experts, Marks peppered LeVert with tough questions. Marks would not reveal specifics, only that the Nets were interested in how LeVert might respond to their intensive sports science program -- minutes restrictions, close monitoring of every aspect of his health.

"He didn't shy away from any of it," Marks said. "He owns everything. I've missed games. I understand the risk you'd be taking. We came away saying we loved his makeup -- the humility and the honesty. There was no question he was going to max out his talent, and to me, that is always the defining question."”

Then he was injured and a team already struggling through the necessary lessons of professional basketball was left to do so without their best player and main scorer. They were 6-7 when Caris LeVert got hurt, right on the fringes of the playoff standings in the East. Including the T-Wolves game that they went on to lose they’re 2-11 without him. Light and day, man.

Which leaves Sean Marks in that proverbial crossroads of previous mention. See, the team that he inherited had no future. Billy King had traded that away in the disastrous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade. But that shadow lifted last draft. Next year, for the first time since Sean Marks got the job, his team will have full control over their draft pick. No sending it to Boston. No pick swap with Boston. All Brooklyn. And at a time when several of the teams stuck in the great tank race of recent years have turned the corner with their superstars in place (Philly, Dallas, Lakers, Sacramento, etc.), there’s room at the bottom again for those that fancy it.

The dilemma for Marks comes with the fact that they’ve made serious progress over the last three seasons. Each time they’ve gotten better and better. Would it be counterproductive to tank now, despite the incentives? Is there a trade that might turn things around instead? Can he sit back and allow the current decline to continue? Should there be more pressure on Kenny Atkinson’s job? Does Atkinson need to adjust the system without LeVert and put more focus on Jarrett Allen? Would a tank affect their credibility in free agency when they’ve finally got both cap space and a decent roster to attract a few of those folks? Is Marks too long-term focussed to bother with any of these questions? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

What’s frustrating is that in Marks’ first full season he signed Jeremy Lin to control the floor and he got injured, playing 33 times in total and kinda spoiling the experiment. Last season he had the exact same problem but doubled as Jeremy Lin played just one single game and D’Angelo Russell only played 35, devastating the backcourt. It’s hard to say how much that’s affected the trajectory of the Brooklyn Nets but now once again he’s suffered a serious backcourt injury.

In many ways LeVert’s injury removes all those questions about the team because it’s a built-in and completely legitimate excuse. What’s a coach supposed to do without his best player, right? Only the Warriors are doing anything in that situation, no other team in the league can handle it. And they way they’re playing without him the high draft pick will take care of itself. But what needs asking is whether Sean Marks is willing to chill on that hill and waste the season based on twelve and a half promising games with Caris LeVert.

There you go, another question. Just as Marks and Atkinson have to deal with another backcourt injury. And the Nets are staring at another depressing season if things don’t change. For the first time under the Marks/Atkinson regime the Nets feel like they’ve stalled. Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world though.

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