How Sean Marks Built the Brooklyn Nets from Cellar Dwellers Into a Superteam

Mar 24, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Sean Marks general manager of the Brooklyn Nets talks at a press conference announcing the Long Island Nets D League team before the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

In February 2016, Sean Marks took the reins of a suffering Brooklyn Nets franchise that had nothing going for it. Lackluster talent. None of its own first-round picks. No hope.

Saying the Nets possessed the worst situation in professional sports would not have been the slightest exaggeration.

However, Marks was unfazed. Trade by trade, signing by signing, he dug the Nets out of what seemed like an inescapable hole caused by a plethora of poor decisions by ownership and former General Manager Billy King – most notably the infamous trade that brought Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn.

And now, five years later, Marks built a superteam that boasts three superstars in Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. More importantly, the Nets look poised to make a run at the first NBA championship in franchise history.

Let’s take a look at how Marks got them here.

The Foundation

Jan 1, 2018; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert (22) and guard Joe Harris (12) react in the third quarter against Orlando Magic at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports
Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

As the Celtics used Brooklyn’s pick to select future All-Star Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Marks, and the Nets had to think deeper.

First, they traded Thaddeus Young – coming off a season in which he averaged 15.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game – to Indiana for the 20th pick in the draft. This was the beginning of how Sean Marks built the Brooklyn Nets.

And then they locked in on Michigan product Caris LeVert.

While LeVert’s talent was clear, his health was a major cause for concern. He missed most of his final two seasons at Michigan, undergoing three surgeries on the same foot. But his upside was apparent, and Marks locked in his first draft pick as general manager of the Nets.

Next, Marks set his sights on free agency. Considering the franchise’s dire state, it was a safe bet that no marquee free agents would be making their way to Kings County – so the Nets had to aim for some diamonds in the rough.

Enter third-year shooter Joe Harris, who boasted a healthy career average of under 2.5 points per game.

Harris joined the Nets on a two-year deal worth $2 million after spending just over one season in Cleveland. A foot injury cut his 2015-16 campaign short, prompting the Cavaliers to trade him to Orlando to obtain salary cap relief. The Magic waived Harris upon acquiring him – making him a free agent, which he would remain until Marks and the Nets came calling.

Marks’ only other notable signing during the 2016 offseason was Trevor Booker. Despite spending just one full season in Brooklyn, Booker’s endlessly high motor was essential to establishing the gritty culture that Marks and newly-hired coach Kenny Atkinson strived to piece together.

That was just about it for Marks’ first offseason at the helm; however, he made two midseason moves that helped shape Brooklyn’s future. One was dealing Bojan Bogdanovic to Washington for the first-round pick that eventually became center Jarrett Allen.

The other was waiving Yogi Ferrell to sign guard Spencer Dinwiddie – much to the displeasure of many Nets fans.

Just like that, Brooklyn had a young, fun team that was capable of keeping games close and giving stronger opponents a run for their money if they took the Nets lightly.

But with that being said, the wins didn’t come right away. Those took a little while longer.

The Breakthrough

Jan 18, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard D'Angelo Russell (1) and Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie (8) high five during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the offseason of 2017, the Nets made their biggest trade since the fateful Boston deal that put them in such a poor position in the first place, acquiring former No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell from the Lakers in exchange for Brook Lopez – the Nets’ all-time leading scorer. Russell – only 21 years old – was immediately deemed Brooklyn’s franchise player.

Yet, he didn’t live up to expectations right away. Injuries derailed his first season with the team, as he missed 34 games and posted a career-low 25.7 minutes per contest.

Thus, Russell entered the make-or-break 2018-19 season set to become a restricted free agent in the upcoming offseason. Combined with LeVert and Dinwiddie, the Nets would be led by a talented trio of guards.

Cue the fireworks.

Surrounded by locker room veterans DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis, and Jared Dudley, the Nets’ young talent was able to flourish.

It was not always smooth sailing. The team endured an early eight-game losing streak – seven of which came after LeVert suffered an ugly leg injury. But Brooklyn instantly flipped the switch, racking up seven straight wins to bring its record to 15-18.

In January, the Nets surpassed .500 for the first time all season. In February, Russell was named an NBA All-Star – Brooklyn’s first since Joe Johnson in 2014.

And in April, the Nets clinched their first playoff berth since 2015.

After beating the 76ers in Game 1 of the first round, the Nets dropped four straight, effectively ending their season.

But the foundation had been built. Something special was brewing in Brooklyn. NBA fans all over the world had been put on notice.

And they weren’t alone.

The Superstars

Jan 23, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (sitting) and guard Kyrie Irving (foreground) look on during the first half against the Miami Heat at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the offseason following Brooklyn’s 2019 playoff run, Marks had a decision to make.

Should he sign Russell – who put together a stellar season and became a fan favorite in Brooklyn – to a max contract? Or should he pursue an upgrade?

The answer was a no-brainer.

The ultimate goal – for Marks and every other NBA executive – is to win championships. So when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving come calling, you answer the phone.

Reeling in Durant and Irving was a win for Brooklyn that went beyond the basketball court. Sharing a city with the lauded New York Knicks – who also heavily pursued the duo – meant that the Nets were not considered a hot free-agent destination. Marks built a young, playoff-caliber roster from scraps while simultaneously establishing a culture that attracted marquee free agents to the organization. That is what set the Nets apart.

A few years after the Nets bottomed out with the worst record in basketball and none of their own draft picks to lean on, Marks turned them into a legitimate championship contender.

But he wasn’t satisfied.

The Cherry On Top

Mar 1, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) dribbles in the second half against the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Sure, it would have been gratifying to win a championship with the players who were integral pieces to the rebuilding process.

But the NBA runs on superstars. So when given the opportunity to acquire James Harden, Marks could not pass up on it.

LeVert, Allen, and an abundance of draft picks highlighted the package required to reel Harden in. Just like that, the NBA’s next elite trio came to be.

As a result of the Harden acquisition, Dinwiddie and Harris are Brooklyn’s only two original foundational pieces that still play their home games at Barclays Center.

Some fans love the trade. Some fans hate it. All fans understand the Nets’ substantiality rostering three perennial superstars considering the dark place the franchise resided in just a few years ago.

The Nets currently sit atop the Eastern Conference. If they win the NBA Finals, Marks is likely a lock to win NBA Executive of the Year. If they don’t? Well, he should win it anyway.

After all, Marks built a superteam out of the worst position in professional sports.

When life gives you lemons, right?

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5 responses to “How Sean Marks Built the Brooklyn Nets from Cellar Dwellers Into a Superteam”

  1. […] Brooklyn Nets have a stellar offensive team this season. James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and Joe […]

  2. […] offensive skillset is genuinely unmatched. Irving’s Nets are clear title contenders this year, and he will look to add on to what is already a masterful resume. A surefire Hall of […]

  3. […] offensive skillset is genuinely unmatched. Irving’s Nets are clear title contenders this yr, and he’ll look so as to add on to what’s already a masterful resume. A […]

  4. […] to win it all this year. They have more firepower than arguably any team we’ve ever seen. Their big three of James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant are unmatched on the offensive end. However, they do have some shortcomings that could allow them to be beat come […]

  5. […] a few games they could have won. Because of this, their record suffered, and they paid the price. They drew a brutal first-round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, who picked apart Boston in five games in a series that was never […]

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