For decades, the Nets couldn’t fill their seats. Even when Knicks fans were wearing paper bags over their heads, the Nets were never much of a draw. But thanks to its three controversial stars, Brooklyn has transformed from a laughingstock to the betting favorites for this season’s NBA title.
“We’re not going to shy away from what our expectations are. But you have to own it in a humble way knowing that we haven’t done anything yet,” says Sean Marks, the general manager who has overseen the Nets’ transition from the bottom to the top.
The obvious expectation in Brooklyn is to win at least one championship with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving headlining the team and a deep roster behind them featuring veteran former All-Stars.
But another goal is sustainable success. Teams with title hopes often need to dump future picks and young players to maximize their roster, compromising the ability to focus on the future. Indeed, the Nets gave up nearly every first-round draft pick they could for Harden last season. But they have still managed to invest in the youth, with a group of up-and-coming talent behind their group of veterans, and new coaching hires, like David Vanterpool and Kyle Korver, who can help bring out the best in players found far outside the draft lottery.
Player development “is deep in our DNA here,” says Nets head coach Steve Nash. “It’s very easy for an organization to get sidetracked with a mature group trying to win at the highest level. But the way the organization is set up, player development is a central part of this culture because of where we started when Sean took over.”
The developmental pipeline might also prove necessary if Irving isn’t available. On Tuesday, ESPN reported that “hope is waning” in Brooklyn that Irving will get vaccinated. If he doesn’t, he won’t be allowed to play in the Nets’ home games, or practice at the team facility in Brooklyn, because of a vaccination mandate in the state of New York. Nets players who spoke with The Ringer seem unmoved by Irving’s vaccination status. Vaccine holdouts have caused an uproar in corners of the internet, but the Nets themselves don’t seem like a distracted group. Not yet, at least.
“It’s definitely out in the Twitterverse more than it is in our locker room, without a doubt,” Marks says. “All I can tell you is what he’s told everybody: It’s a private matter, and he needs to talk to the right people and figure out in his close circle what he wants to do.”
If Marks seems unshaken, perhaps that’s because he’s had to try to make a winner out of far less than merely two generational superstars before. In 2016, Marks left the Spurs to run a Nets franchise that had been gutted by the infamous trade with the Celtics. But he took what he learned from six years of sustainability courses while playing, coaching, and working in the front office under Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford, and applied it to a team based in one of the most attractive markets in sports.
“Do I want to be the Spurs? No,” Marks says. “I mean this in the nicest way. That is one of the greatest franchises in all sports. I think everybody would try and model themselves on. … That’s the pinnacle. But we’re trying to keep this true to what our group is.”
The Spurs built a dynasty by working the margins to overcome its small market, but Brooklyn has instant appeal—and not just with stars. Ring-chasing veterans will sign there for the minimum, just as Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, and James Johnson did this past offseason.
But the Nets got to this point, on the precipice of title runs with three of the biggest stars in the game, by finding and developing talent just like the Spurs did. Late first-rounders Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert helped make the Nets attractive enough for Durant and Irving to choose over the Knicks, and then those younger players were included in the Harden trade. Years ago, the Nets took a chance on Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie after they underwhelmed to start their careers in Cleveland and Detroit, respectively. Now, both of them are making nearly $20 million annually, Harris still with the Nets and Dinwiddie now with the Wizards. Perhaps their latest rebuilding project, Bruce Brown, a 6-foot-4 guard who plays like a big on offense, will be in for a big payday next offseason.
Brooklyn’s track record for finding talent is growing, and the latest finds by Marks and their scouting department, led by Jeff Peterson and B.J. Johnson, have also shown promise. The Nets still have their 2019 second-rounder, Nic Claxton, a highly versatile defender, and a pair of rookies in energetic big man Day’Ron Sharpe and go-to scoring guard Cam Thomas. Thomas, in particular, could see extended minutes as a rookie during stretches without Irving.
“If you don’t know Cam, just know he’s a bucket-getter,” Sharpe says. “He never seen a shot he didn’t like. Kobe’s his favorite player. He’s got the same mentality he’s got. Need a bucket, you give it to him.”
Thomas is the most promising young player on the roster. In high school at Oak Hill Academy, he averaged 31.5 points as a senior and graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer. As a freshman at LSU, he was fourth in the nation in scoring. After Thomas won co–summer league MVP in August, Irving reached out to compliment his mature skills on offense. They connected over their mutual love for Kobe, and Irving has since served as a mentor. During one practice, Irving brought the ball up the court and dribbled seamlessly into a pull-up 3. Later, Thomas asked how he creates so much separation with the move, what he watches for, how he transitions into the shot, his footwork, everything. “It’s really art,” Thomas says. “It’s amazing to look at.”
Thomas is a sports junkie. He grew up playing fantasy football with his friends, watching First Take, and absorbing hours of live NBA games and highlights. His mom, Leslie, a former high school basketball player, would send him highlights with moves that he should learn. Often, it was a Kobe video. During the pre-draft process, she’d send him highlights of guards using their floaters, calling it the most important shot in the game. Clips included his other favorite player, and now his new teammate, Harden.
Thomas wants to learn about playmaking from Harden, knowing he was a score-first player who improved his passing as he got older. After being asked to score at every level, Thomas needs to be more of a distributor while playing with so much talent around him. For most of the summer, he trained at Integrity Hoops in Los Angeles, working on decision-making and reading the floor.
“Being able to see the play before it happens, communicating as the point guard, really just him seeing plays ahead—that’s amazing,” Thomas says. “The way he tricks defenders into fouling him, the way he uses his body, stops and goes back, changes pace, honestly, I think he’s one of the top five most creative players ever.”
When asked to name his top five, he first listed Kobe, then his three superstar teammates, and then Nash walked by. “He’s pretty creative,” Thomas says with a laugh.
The Nets had Thomas ranked in the teens on their draft board, a range where many teams expected him to land. After falling to pick 27, he’s an early candidate for the steal of the draft. If things turn sour with Irving, Thomas could be his successor. But the plan is for the 19-year-old to develop behind the scenes. For a player with that much scoring talent, he couldn’t be in a better place to learn. “We joke, our best player-development coaches are Kevin, James, and Kyrie,” Marks says. “We’re all learning from guys who have those types of experiences.”
Even though the Nets have a lot of veterans, it’s a quiet group. It’s hard for Irving to lead when he’s away from the team so often. Durant is more of a leader by example. Harden is the most vocal veteran. He’s loud in the gym, directing people around, offering feedback, and setting his example. “We don’t have real demonstrative guys or confrontational people,” says Harris. “James understands the game so well that when he speaks, obviously everyone is going to listen. … Because of his IQ for the game, we essentially have another coach out there.”
Some NBA executives think Brooklyn’s Achilles’ heel is that Harden is their leader. He doesn’t exactly have the best reputation, and unlike his two costars, he’s yet to win a championship. But even if they don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, young Nets players seem to appreciate what they have in Harden. During one practice in San Diego, Sharpe says he made a mistake on his defensive assignment on a flare screen set by the offense, which is usually set near the wing to spring free a shooter. Sharpe chased the shooter, but Harden told him right after the play that in those situations the big man is supposed to take the player setting the screen in case they slip to the rim, rather than hurry to the perimeter.
“People say he doesn’t defend, but when he be out here, he talks on defense. In rotation, he be talking to guys,” Sharpe says. “He took a charge the other day. You don’t see too many doing that.”
At training camp, Brown drove to the rim, but Harden rotated over and took a charge right outside of the restricted area.
Setting a tone resonates with Sharpe, the 29th pick. The big man routinely outhustles his opponents with sprints from end to end, and rotates attentively to alter shots inside. On offense, he’s a willing passer, strong finisher, and sturdy screener—all complementary traits valued for a superstar-laden roster. After a recent practice, he could be seen working with Nets assistant Amar’e Stoudemire. Sharpe has a tougher road than Thomas to regular minutes because of Brooklyn’s immense frontcourt depth. But part of building a sustainable winner means planning for all scenarios. Claxton will be a restricted free agent next summer.
Last season, Claxton established himself as one of the league’s most versatile bigs, switching 8.2 screens per game, more than any other player, according to Second Spectrum. That’s despite playing under 20 minutes per game. When he did switch, the Nets defense allowed only 0.77 points per chance, one of the best marks in basketball. This summer he gained 10 pounds to get to 225, and he hopes the added weight will help him as an interior defender, rebounder, and at-rim finisher.
“I’m always sharpening my tools,” Claxton says. “When you’re playing on a team with three of the best scorers to ever play the game, you take that sacrifice to win a championship, do whatever you have to do, and star in your role.”
Claxton was effectively a point guard in college at Georgia. He often ran the offense, by either bringing the ball up the court or running a pick-and-roll against a set defense. He rarely gets those chances for the Nets, but there’s still plenty of time for it to be used in the NBA.
The Nets flipped Allen and LeVert instead of paying them. Dinwiddie also left, via a sign-and-trade to Washington. Claxton will require a similar decision. The rest of the Nets’ bigs are on the back end (Aldridge, Millsap, Griffin) or the beginning (Sharpe is only 19) of their careers. Claxton is the only one they can count on to help now and years down the line. Staying healthy and proving he can produce while playing over 30 minutes per game would help Brooklyn’s argument for paying him, and also increase his value in a fairly shallow 2022 free-agent class.
“We gave a lot in the Harden trade. We’ve had to give away some picks and lost some of our flexibility in terms of building in the future. But there are other ways to do it,” Marks says. “Staying flexible with sustainability means making sure you actually sign the right contracts at the right time, and you don’t overcommit to people that maybe aren’t max players.”
After signing Durant to a four-year extension this offseason, the Nets have guaranteed contracts for only him, Harris, Thomas, Sharpe, and Jevon Carter beyond this season. Harden, Irving, and Patty Mills have player options. Harden is expected in league circles to re-up with Brooklyn. Irving’s future is less certain until he provides a vaccination card. Almost every other player under contract can become an unrestricted free agent next season. The coming year will be pivotal in determining who will stick around long term.
“It’s to be seen how good we are,” Nash says. “We have to find a way to be solid on defense without sacrificing firepower on offense.” Last season, Brooklyn posted a historically high offensive rating but was 22nd in defensive rating. The defense coasted before waking up in the playoffs. For potential postseason series, the Nets could use another wing who can drain 3s and defend at a serviceable level. Whether it’s Claxton, a rookie, or second-round picks, they have some pieces to do shopping for new additions. But nitpicking overlooks the big picture: This team is stacked.
“We got a deep team that can play in a variety of ways,” Durant says. “If we want to play big, I think we can do so. If we want to play small, we have lineups to do that as well.”
Durability is a bigger concern. Durant looked to be at his peak powers last season, but he still has an extensive injury history. Harden has suffered nagging injuries and run out of gas many times in the past. Irving could miss half the season because he won’t take a vaccine, and he’s also gone through his share of injuries. Aldridge was forced to retire soon after joining the Nets last season because of an irregular heartbeat. Players old and young from Griffin to Claxton have also missed time.
The Nets have as good a shot as any team to win the title, but the combustibility factor is also high. San Antonio was always steady, always consistent. The bright lights that drew some players to Brooklyn also attracted higher-profile problems. Marks’s goal is to bridge the divide between his old franchise and his new one, and combine the best of both.
“It’s not rocket science. I’m not sitting here going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got the secret sauce to how we do this, this, and this.’ There is none of that,” Marks says. “You invest in people, you bring the right people in here, that are all empowered to drive your culture forward. That’s going to right the ship a lot when things start getting a little choppy.”
Durant and Irving chose Brooklyn over New York, partially because of the culture Marks built. The Nets are now hoping that the same infrastructure can withstand all the advantages and troubles that come with their newfound star power.