Nets Rebuild A Raging Success: What Did We Learn?

Kevin Durant! Kyrie Irving!   Sean Marks brought a top 15 player in NBA history, and one of the premier players of his generation, to the Brooklyn Nets.  The rebuild is officially complete.

So what did we learn?  The beauty of rebuilding projects is that, with each new one that succeeds, a retrospective can reveal things we did not know about team building.  A new wrinkle that teams explore.  A new strategy.  And, in some cases, ripple effects on the league.  The 2008-2010 Miami Heat rebuild, for example, was revolutionary: before that, we did not see teams attempt to lure superstars through a personal relationship developed with them by an in house player.  Now, this is commonplace.

So, when it comes to the Nets, what did we learn?  And, what ripple affects might their rebuild have on the rest of the league?

Let’s dive in.

LESSON 1: EARLY ON, ACQUIRE AS MANY YOUNG PLAYERS AS POSSIBLE.

At the beginning of the rebuild, Marks acquired as many young players as he could get his hands on, despite limited resources.  Obviously, some performed better than others: D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and Rodions Kurucs played well.  Archie Goodwin, KJ McDaniels, Anthony Bennett, and Justin Hamilton were not as good.  The Nets were creative in adding these players, whether it was eating a bad contract to take on Russell, scouring the G League for Dinwiddie, or the like.

This strategy also entailed the swings Marks took on restricted free agents, in Allen Crabbe, Tyler Johnson, Donatas Motiejunas, and Otto Porter.  The idea was clear — we will do anything we can to add young talent.

Clearly, not every young piece panned out.  But no GM hits on every chance on a young player that he takes.  The idea was volume: if you invest in as many young players as you can, some will hit; stick with the hits and move on from the misses.  The result here?  The young core we saw in 2018-2019.

 

LESSON 2: CAP SPACE IS NOT JUST A WAY TO SIGN FREE AGENTS, AND A GM MUST UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH HIS CAP SPACE IS WORTH:

This was obviously a signature of the rebuild.  Russell was acquired by eating dead money, in the form of Timofey Mozgov.  Even Allen quietly was obtained with dead money — Bojan Bogdanovic was not fetching a first rounder himself, but the Nets got a first rounder for him (which became Allen), by eating Andrew Nicholson’s deal.  The salary dump to eat DeMarre Carroll’s (at the time) dead money yielded Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa.  And the Nets obtained a 2020 second round pick, and a 2019 first round pick (which pick was dealt for a 2020 first round pick, and 2019 second round pick, which became Jaylen Hands) by eating Kenneth Faried’s dead money.

The strategy was clear: we know (circa 2016, 2017, and 2018) that we are not a free agent destination due to our record and rebuilding stage.  So rather than sign C class free agents, why not use our salary cap space as a vehicle to add young players and draft picks, by taking on contracts other teams do not want.

Of course, the most effective use of cap space by Marks was in 2019.  But it should be noted that he used his cap space well in his previous three summers.

 

LESSON 3: BE PATIENT AND WAIT FOR THE RIGHT DEAL.

Throughout the rebuild, Marks patiently waited for the right opportunity to strike on deals.  By finding the most desperate teams, you secure the best prices.

The Mozgov trade with Charlotte, and the Carroll acquisition, were stark examples of this.  With Mozgov, Marks did not rush to move him.  Instead, he bid his time and found the perfect suitor: a team in the unique position of being able to add Mozgov, yet simultaneously avoid the luxury tax through the acquisition (since the Hornets, by dumping Dwight Howard, evaded the tax).  Because the deal benefitted the Hornets by getting them out of the tax, the Nets had leverage to pay a lower price in picks for offloading Mozgov than the market rate would normally be.  Carroll, similarly, was secured from a Raptors team desperate to save money off the luxury tax, and to offload Carroll.  That resulted in the Nets gaining more for Carroll in pick compensation than they may have in a similar money dump around the league.

 

LESSON 4: ESTABLISH A STYLE OF PLAY TO SPEED UP PROGRESS IN THE FUTURE:

Early in the Nets rebuild, Kenny Atkinson was not shy about installing a three pointer heavy offense, built around a lot of ball movement and pick and roll.  The Nets, in the first year of the rebuild and parts of the second, lacked the personnel to actually win that way.  To be candid, they probably win more games each year if Atkinson, instead, ran an offense geared to the strengths of those rosters.  Many fans voiced concern about that.

Atkinson did not do that, and the Nets are better off for it.  By installing his motion offense in year one, Atkinson laid the groundwork for the 42-40 season he oversaw in year three, and for next year’s team.  When it came playoff push time last year, the Nets holdover players like Russell, Dinwiddie, and LeVert did not need time to adjust to a new system.  Rather, because Atkinson installed the system in year one, they knew how to play in the system and were ready to go, rather than learning a new system.  If Atkinson installed a system in years one and two geared to those previous rosters, maybe the 20 and 28 win Nets would have been a tick better.  But the 42 win Nets — and the 2019-20 Nets — would be worse off for it.

 

LESSON 5: LET SUNK COSTS SINK.

When Marks did not spend money on veteran upgrades in the summer of 2016 or summer of 2017, he received a substantial amount of flack from various corners of the Nets fanbase.  The frustration came from the Boston trade.  The premise?  “We need to win.  The pick is going to Boston.  If we do not win, we will be giving a lottery pick to Boston. That is embarrassing.”

Marks was wise to treat the fanbase well, but at the same time, ignore that frustration and treat the Boston trade like it never existed.  The idea was an economic principle: Marks did not fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy.  The sunk cost fallacy occurs when in business, a person refuses to concede that a failed investment will not work, but keeps pouring money into the investment to try to revive it.  The usual result: the failed investment continues not to work, and the person only falls deeper in a hole.  The smarter approach is to accept that the sunk cost failed, let it sink, and move on.

As to the Nets?  Marks could have chased wins in 2016 and 2017, in an attempt to justify the 2013 Boston trade by winning games, and thus avoiding a high pick going to the Celtics.  He could have “microwaved” a 45 win team, as Zach Lowe has said on ESPN.  That would have meant signing a bunch of C class free agents the past few years.  If the Nets did that, they would not have the solid young talent they currently have, and would likely be heading into 2019-2020 with the 10 pick, and a bunch of vets.  Hello 35-45 wins and no hope.  Essentially, Marks would have hurt the future by trying to right the past.  Accepting that the Boston trade was a failure was infinitely smarter.

Which goes to another point.

 

LESSON 6: REBUILDS REQUIRE CONTROVERSIAL, UNPOPULAR DECISIONS, AND AT TIMES, EMBARRASSMENT.  BUT YOU MUST MAKE THOSE TOUGH DECISIONS. 

The worst thing any franchise can do is cave to public pressure for certain moves to be made.  At the end of the day, all fans really want, is to win.  Goodwill earned with popular, but bad, decisions, is fleeting. Goodwill earned with good decisions – even if those decisions are unpopular when made – is lasting.

It was not popular when Marks largely eschewed free agency in 2016 and 2017.  It is forgotten today, but it was not popular when Marks traded Thaddeus Young for a late first, then took LeVert, a player mocked in the second round.  Nor was it popular to deal Bogdanovic for a draft pick.  Or, for many, to deal Brook Lopez for Russell – that decision was polarizing, if not outright unpopular.  And lastly, Marks’ hoarding of assets at the 2019 deadline instead of getting a 4, was met with much scrutiny (that too, was the right decision – assets are at a premium, and all an Anthony Tolliver would have done last year was maybe get the Nets 1-2 regular season wins, followed by the same first round loss they experienced).

Something tells me that Marks has been forgiven.

 

LESSON 7: INSTILL A CULTURE, AND DO NOT FORGET ABOUT THE VETERANS

This is an area where yours truly must offer a big mea culpa.  During much of the Nets rebuild, I panned the Nets for much of their public emphasis of the importance of building a culture.  I dismissed it, at times as a cover for a lack of talent, and at times as a marketing technique to divert the Nets fanbase from the team’s record.

Boy, was I wrong on this one.  You learn something from every rebuild.  And this is an area where Marks taught me a lot.

The Nets, it cannot be disputed, have built a quality culture that players want to be a part of.  At the micro level, you can tell that players on the team, like Dinwiddie and Harris, want to return to work every day.  At a macro level, we know about the vast wealth of resources provided to players, be it medical professionals, performance training, the coaching staff, and the like.

However, culture goes further than that.

For starters, look at Durant and Irving.  They could have committed to other teams, but they chose the Nets.  This happened because both players believe the Nets can take them where they want to go: to a championship.  I do not have the audio, but Dwyane Wade was on the Woj pod within the last year or so.  He discussed that the Heatles chose Miami, because they felt other suitors were not strong enough to bring them what they wanted.  Sure, the Heatles chose one another – but they also chose the Heat culture.  KD and Kyrie chose one another, too – but they also chose the Nets culture.

The culture work of most importance?  That, despite this being a rebuild before June 2019, Marks and Kenny Atkinson never forgot about the veterans.

Luis Scola. Jared Dudley. Mozgov.  Carroll. Ed Davis.  Throughout his tenure, Marks has made it a point to acquire high character veterans with strong reputations, to provide his young players with teachers to show them how to be pros.  But Atkinson did not stop there.  Rather than write their vets off as the products of salary dumps or roster filler, Atkinson carefully thought about how he could maximize each on the court.  Carroll, Dudley, and Davis all helped the Nets make the 2019 playoffs; Scola and Mozgov had nothing left, but it was not for Kenny’s lack of trying.

This had a big impact on the Nets organization.  Often in a rebuild, veterans, and young players not deemed priorities, get disregarded, and leave with bad things to say.  The Nets, on the other hand, invested in everyone, from Russell and LeVert down to Greivis Vasquez and Bennett.

This is a small league.  Players talk.  Agents talk.  Through all of the turnover under Marks, only three departed players have had anything negative to say about their experience: Lin, Faried, and Mozgov. That matters.  And I suspect the reason so many players left happy, is because their development was never dismissed as unnecessary or unimportant.

 

LESSON 8: DO SMALL THINGS FOR PLAYERS THAT ARE OF LITTLE COST TO YOU

Last year, the Nets signed Tahjere McCall to a ten day contract despite having no real interest in him on the roster.  They did this to provide him with service time and money he would not otherwise have received.  This summer, the Nets accommodated a sign and trade with the Spurs concerning Carroll, to facilitate the Spurs and Marcus Morris agreeing to a contract.  These are not the only examples of the Nets doing small, altruistic things for players that do not really cost them much.

Do these little favors pay dividends?  Maybe, maybe not.  But they cannot hurt.  And that is why you do them.

 

LESSON 9: FIND YOUR MOMENT, AND SEIZE IT

I do not believe that in 2016, Marks planned a star free agent chase for 2019.  The pacts he gave to Porter, Johnson, Crabbe, and Motiejunas went into the 2020s.  If he were planning in 2016, or even the summer of 2017, for the summer of 2019, he would not have done that. He was thinking the build would be slower.

I think Marks’ decision to fast track to 2019, came at the end of the 2017-2018 season, when the Nets, carried by younger players, went near .500 over the final quarter of the season.  I think that run got Marks to believe that if his young players developed, and if that development was bolstered by replacing the lower fringe veterans around them with decent NBA players, that a playoff run, or “jump year,” as Kenny called it, was possible.  The Nets then worked to maximize talent in the roster, but with expiring contracts, so that they had cap room in 2019.

Culture plays in here, too.  It is easier to get the veteran buy in the Nets got when you have a reputation as a franchise that takes care of all of its players, including your vets, as I described above.

Without a doubt, Marks took a risk with his plan.  Marks eschewed a top five pick in the 2019 draft, and the chance to launch a rebuild with higher end young talent in the summer of 2019, to take a shot in free agency.  That risk was magnified by dealing a net of three draft picks (two firsts and a second), to unload Crabbe and Mozgov.  If Marks struck out, the Nets would have been in no mans land, with a 42 win roster, no high end pick, multiple picks out the door, and no high end import to take the next step.  They could have responded by tearing it down, but the rebuild would be delayed to 2020, not 2019.  Or they could have tried to build a contender around Russell, but that would have required him to take a leap from very good player to superstardom – I personally believe the chance of that level of leap from him, is less than 50%.

These are all concerns I pondered, privately and publicly.

Alas, Marks, indisputably, played his hand correctly.  He identified his moment to grab superstars, and he seized it.

The best GM’s earn their titles, by showing that their methods are not only prudent, but can result in the acquisition of elite talent, the building of the league’s top 5-10 teams.  Marks got the Nets there in three years.  He deserves every word of praise he gets.

 

RIPPLE EFFECTS — THE NBA LANDSCAPE: WILL WE SEE MORE OF AN APPETITE FOR GOING ALL IN, AND LESS OF AN APPETITE FOR LONG REBUILDS?

Nobody knows what affect this summer’s moves will have on the NBA, long term.  But we can certainly speculate.

After the Celtics trade, the NBA responded to the Nets’ plight by being very resistant to dealing first round picks.  Simply, teams wanted to avoid the same situation.  However, the Nets rebuild took just three years, and their playoff drought was only four years.  Projections of a decade long rebuild were way off the mark.

This could have ripple effects.

First, teams may be more willing than before to go all in, like the Nets did.  Surely, the decline of the Warriors is the biggest contributor to teams like the Clippers and Rockets going all in this summer (the Lakers are just the Lakers).  But seeing a team go all in and fail spectacularly, yet quickly pick the pieces up, surely offers a secondary reason: “even if this goes belly up, we can just dig out like Brooklyn did.”

A second ripple effect?  Owners seeing a rebuild expected to last this long, be this quick, may be more reluctant to greenlight 5-8 year rebuilding projects.  Again, the Nets would be a secondary reason.  The first reason would be that stars have been moving from roster to roster, every 2-4 years.  If the purpose of a rebuild is to get stars, can owners be sold on 5-8 year rebuilding projects, for a 2-4 year window?  Alas, the Nets offer another reason to speed the timeline: “They dealt every pick for five years and rebuilt in three, why should my rebuild take 7 years?”

 

Maybe the Nets rebuild will be discussed ten years from now.  Maybe it won’t.

But hey.  Either way, we got Kyrie and KD. Enjoy it!

 

 

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