It was the summer of 2013, and two franchises – the Nets and the Celtics – infamously went in different directions.
After “the trade,” the Celtics, make no mistake about it, thrust themselves into rebuilding mode. At that point in time, they had a barren roster, and they were not a free agency attraction.
Their first franchise defining move to combat the abyss of rebuilding? They hired Brad Stevens due to their belief that he could be masterful at player development.
Stevens excelled at just that. In his first 2 seasons (2013-2014 and 2014-2015), he worked hard to foster the development of a young group of players that included, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Evan Turner, Tyler Zeller, Jerryd Bayless, Jared Sullinger, and Jordan Crawford.
Brad’s development legitimately created results. The 2014 Celtics exceeded expectations winning 25 games. The 2015 Celtics were on pace to again exceed expectations and win 32 games until the Isaiah Thomas trade propelled them to 40-42, and a playoff berth.
Throughout those formative seasons of the Celtics rebuild, a theme emerged: Brad Stevens was a player development wizard. Evan Turner played his best under Brad. So did Avery Bradley, and more famously Jae Crowder (a bit player before arriving) and Isaiah Thomas (a reserve before arriving).
Brad did not care how flawed a player was before he got him. Or how lowly regarded. Or if his former team cast him away. Once he got him he made every effort to maximize him.
As a result, by year two of his coaching tenure, the defining aspect of his Boston Celtics was clear – they were not the most talented but they played hard, and players improved.
(FASTFORWARDS TO 2017-2018)
Doesn’t this all sound familiar, Nets fans? It should. In Kenny Atkinson’s first two seasons, he has been, in my humble opinion, nothing short of fantastic at player development, just like Brad before him. Look at what Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris were before Kenny worked with them. Look where DeMarre Carroll’s career went before he reunited with Kenny. Look at the growth we are seeing in Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and even Tyler Zeller.
Kenny has maximized the players he has. And just like the 2015 Celtics (especially before the Isaiah trade), the 2018 Nets are a young, feisty group that plays hard for its coach, has players on the upswing, and often surprises more talented teams.
With the comparison made, it comes time for a significant point: look how the Celtics responded to Brad’s player development.
Despite investing significant time and energy in player development, and even seeing that development lead to quality playoff results in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, the Celtics never became too attached to their players. Rather, they looked for and found upgrades Over time.
Just look at the roster turnover. The 2017-2018 Celtics have just four players from 2016-2017. And they have just one player from 2014-2015 – Marcus Smart, who is a potential candidate to be traded.
Simply put, the Celtics never said “we developed these players, and therefore we must keep them going forward.” Rather, the Celtics capitalized on their development by building trade value, and by making the organization attractive to bigtime free agents. Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder were acquired for minimal trade packages. The Celtics built their value, and turned them into Kyrie Irving. Other player development created a strong perception of the organization and when it become feasible to add Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, Boston bid farewell to guys like Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk.
Simply put, you don’t HAVE TO pay guys you developed to make good on the work you did.
Not should you. The Celtics could have a Isaiah-Bradley-Crowder-Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown core and filler around them, relying on players Brad develops to contend. Why did they refuse that outcome? Because their playoff results in 2016 and 2017 show that, barring Tatum or Brown immediately blossoming into superstars, the Celtics would have been in no mans land, nothing but a speedbump against elite playoff teams, for the foreseeable future.
And now where do the Celtics sit? Atop the easy, built around Kyrie Irving. For the first time, they look like an authentic title contender.
It is true that the 2015 Celtics had more future assets than the 2018 Nets. As a result, for the Nets to become contenders, they will need to be more creative, more patient, than the 2015 Celtics were.
But just because Billy King’s wreckage requires that Marks execute this as a five year project rather than a three year project, does not mean that shortcuts should be taken. As Marks likes to say, no skipping steps along the way.
Like the Celtics, Marks would be remiss to commit to a core of players not good enough to win a title, simply because the Nets invested time to develop them and the Nets are a feel good story. Feel good stories stop feeling good when you are capped out and unable to approach title contention.
Russell, Dinwiddie, LeVert, Allen, RHJ, Crabbe, Okafor, Harris, et al – this is a fun group of good, high character people. It is also a group that, without substantial, superstar level upgrades, is not good enough to compete for a championship. So the worst thing Marks can do is start handing our contract extensions, robbing the Nets of the flexibility they need to get those players (by losing cap space, not getting picks for the players, and drafting higher than they would in 2019 with less talent).
That is not said to be harsh. Check the cores of current contenders (Warriors, Cavs, Rockets, Celtics, Spurs, perhaps Thunder and Raptors), and the cores of some burgeoning up and comers (Sixers, Wolves, etc). The Nets simply do not have enough talent right now to be in lockstep with those franchises – and you need that talent to win big.
Pay this core, and enter a future built around this group and your upcoming picks, and the current feel good vibes will be swallowed by a future of mediocrity.
Some of this might sound harsh. After all, the Nets have built a bond with their players. They are, truly, a family. But the NBA is also a business. There is nothing wrong with telling players “we love you, but it is also our job to do what we must for the Nets. That means that while you are here we will do everything to make your time wonderful and make you a better player. But at the same time, if an opportunity to become better comes along, we do need to seize it.”
Sean Marks has gotten the Nets through the initial, easier part of the rebuild. He’s traded veterans, changed the culture, found his coach, and shed dead weight.
Now, the harder part – the attempt to return to contention – approaches. Marks now must make harder decisions on how many current players he can commit to without losing future flexibility.
He would be wise to avoid keeping anyone for sentimental reasons just because the Nets developed them.