Behind the scenes with new-look Nets: 'We got stars without mortgaging everything'’

Behind the scenes with new-look Nets: 'We got stars without mortgaging everything'’

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Behind the scenes with new-look Nets: 'We got stars without mortgaging everything'’

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When the Brooklyn Nets hired Sean Marks as their general manager in 2016, the job was considered one of the most challenging positions for an incoming executive. The team was in salary-cap hell, with very limited flexibility and draft picks (thanks to their trade with the Boston Celtics).

Just three years later, Brooklyn has completely changed the way they’re perceived around the NBA and managed to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to long-term deals. This solidifies the Nets as one of the biggest winners of this offseason and as a legitimate championship contender in the coming years.

In addition to Durant and Irving, the Nets also acquired DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler and Garrett Temple among others this summer, while keeping key up-and-comers like Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer DinwiddieJoe Harris and Rodions Kurucs.

How did the Nets change their culture and put themselves in position to land stars? Where does Brooklyn go from here? HoopsHype talked to current and former Nets players about the team’s transformation.

LANDING KEVIN DURANT AND KYRIE IRVING

Dinwiddie has said that he and Irving started talking last December, with Irving mentioning that New York “might be real fun next year.” Sensing an opening, Dinwiddie tried to sell Irving on the Nets over the New York Knicks. It helps that Brooklyn was closer to contending, winning 42 games and finishing sixth in the East last year (whereas the Knicks were an NBA-worst 17-65).

Dinwiddie and Irving have been friendly since high school, but they weren’t very close until recently. Dinwiddie told HoopsHype that their bond strengthened after they hung out at All-Star Weekend in 2018. Then, they both happened to sign up for the same business course at Harvard in the fall of 2018.

Some players may not have been open to recruiting a star who plays the same position as them and who will inevitably affect their limelight and touches. However, Dinwiddie said that never even crossed his mind.

Spencer Dinwiddie: “It just depends on what’s important to you. When I got in here, I said that I wanted to win championships. That’s the truth. I just want to win.”

Garrett Temple: “Honestly, I had an idea that Kyrie would be going to Brooklyn and I knew they had a great young core coming back too. That had a lot to do with my decision to sign there. I didn’t know KD was going to sign, but I had an idea that it was a possibility – that he could be going there. That factored in as well.”

Wilson Chandler: “I’d heard that Kyrie wanted to go to New York; I just didn’t know if it would be New York or Brooklyn. I knew there was a chance that they might get him. KD was more of a surprise. But then again, you kept hearing that those guys wanted to play together for a while, so it wasn’t that surprising after Kyrie signed.”

Spencer Dinwiddie: “I mean, the media had been telling everybody that Kyrie and KD wanted to play together. To be on that shortlist of teams, I kind of knew there was a chance [we’d land Durant]. But I don’t know KD personally, so I can’t sit here and tell you that I knew he was coming for sure or anything like that. He’s his own man and makes his own decisions. But when he made his decision, I was extremely, extremely, extremely happy.”

Trevor Booker (who was one of Marks’ first signings in Brooklyn): “Around four or five years ago, I used to hear rumors about KD going to Brooklyn; I just didn’t know how true they were. But this summer, it finally happened. It was something that players had been discussing for a while. He had the ties to Jay Z and there were rumors circulating. I don’t know if it’s always been in the back of his mind or what, but he and Kyrie and DeAndre chose a great organization.”

Garrett Temple: “I talked to Kyrie on July 2 and he told me that he put together a list of free agents that he wanted to play with. I don’t know who else was on there, but he told me that I was on his list. He said he knew what I brought to the table and he enjoyed competing against me. Obviously, I’d have to guard him every time we played against him, so he knows what kind of competitor I am and what I can do. We had a great conversation after we had both committed.”

Sources told HoopsHype that Irving had conversations with a number of free agents, including some who didn’t ultimately end up in Brooklyn like Thaddeus Young and Iman Shumpert.

Brooklyn Nets GM Sean Marks. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

CHANGING THE CULTURE AND HOW THEY’RE PERCEIVED

Back in February, Dinwiddie was a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast and said he would “do anything within the rules and not considered tampering to get guys to come to Brooklyn.” He also shared his free-agency pitch that he’d give a star who was interested in the Nets, citing the organization’s family atmosphere, player-first approach, fun environment, terrific coaching staff and excellent performance staff.

After making these comments, fans outside of Brooklyn laughed at him for believing that a star would consider the Nets. Little did fans know, he and Irving had begun talking a few months earlier and Brooklyn would soon land two superstar free agents. Dinwiddie got the last laugh.

Spencer Dinwiddie: “It shows that our program as a whole took a huge step forward – one that I don’t think many people thought was possible. Even when you and I talked about it previously on the podcast, people were mocking me! I was very upfront and said, ‘Hey, I’d welcome stars with open arms,’ but everybody laughed at it. The reaction was, ‘Alright, that sounds good, but it ain’t going to happen.’ I guess it just makes this experience that much sweeter (laughs).”

That player-first, family-first environment that Marks and Kenny Atkinson have built since arriving in Brooklyn helped win over Irving and Durant. The duo also liked the Nets’ style of play, the young nucleus and the team’s performance staff. The fact that Brooklyn was a playoff team last season and closer to contending was also a factor.

Spencer Dinwiddie: “I think the best part about this organization is that it’s all family-first and player-first. They go out of their way to make sure that your whole family feels special. That stuff really goes a long way with players. When your family is happy and feeling comfortable in the city, that positively affects your mood. Your home life is important, and they do a great job of taking care of that. I’m not surprised that people were attracted to this organization, especially now that we’re winning a bit.”

Trevor Booker: “What separates Brooklyn from other teams is that they really take care of their players. Everything is family-oriented too. They’re going to make sure you and your family members are straight. If there’s anything you need, they’ll get it for you. They want each player to feel comfortable, so you can just focus on basketball. That’s what sets them apart. I’ve been in organizations where they don’t care at all about your family and it was terrible. I played for a few organizations like that and I didn’t enjoy my time there because I’m all about family. To them, it was all about business. You come in and do your work. That’s it. You realize how fortunate you are when you’re with an organization that caters to the players and really cares about the family members. The Nets organization is top-notch. The management team and staff do everything the right way. ”

Spencer Dinwiddie: “They always get guys who fit their methodology and work really hard. Every person on this team brings their hard-hat every day. It’s nice when you have a bunch of hard-working guys who are going to give it their all every day and you don’t have to worry about [whether everybody is putting in work]. We all love going to work every day and it’s a very positive work environment.”

Trevor Booker: “They bring in the right guys who fit their culture, and other guys see it and they want to be part of it too. They do a lot of homework on every single player and if he isn’t someone who fits their culture, they won’t bring him in. Each of the guys they brought in this offseason fits their mold. Sean comes from the Spurs, so you know how he does things. The Spurs are one of the best – if not the best – organizations when it comes to culture.”

Garrett Temple: “I’d heard a lot about what the Nets have done organizationally over the last three years. I’d heard a lot of great things about Sean Marks. I know he has the San Antonio ‘touch’ since he’s part of that tree. I know how San Antonio operates and prepares their executives. I’d also heard a lot of great things about Kenny Atkinson. I reached out to Jared Dudley, my good friend and former teammate from Washington, because he played under Coach Atkinson in Brooklyn last year. I asked him what he thought about Brooklyn and everyone there, and all the stuff I heard about Brooklyn as an organization is that they’re amazing and only continuing to get better. That had a lot to do with my decision. With Sean and Kenny running the team, you know you’re in good hands.”

Wilson Chandler: “When they did the Boston trade, people called them crazy and all that. Now, they’ve bounced back really well from that. Last season, they had a great year and this summer, they were able to capitalize on that by landing KD and Kyrie and DeAndre in free agency and making smart trades. They did a really good job of adding talent next to the young guys that they already had in place, who proved that they can win last year. Now, this looks like an amazing team. We have a great coach in Kenny Atkinson too. We were on the New York Knicks together; Kenny was the assistant coach who always worked me out. That’s my guy.”

Dinwiddie and others in the Nets organization admit that landing Irving and Durant over the Knicks makes this summer even more satisfying. The rivalry between these two teams has become even more intense since the Nets relocated to Brooklyn.

Spencer Dinwiddie: “My mentions have been crazy. The Knicks fans say that they’re always on my mind or that they didn’t even want KD anyway because he’s hurt. I’ve pretty much heard every negative thing you can imagine about Kyrie, KD and myself. It’s just them being salty. The funniest thing is that nothing I said about them was based on emotion. All I said last year was, ‘We’re going to be better than you guys,’ and they lost it. It was funny. After seeing how enraged they got by the truth, I was just like, ‘Shoot, if that’s how it’s going to be, I might as well just keep saying the truth!’”

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

MAKING SACRIFICES TO COMPETE FOR TITLES

Reports have indicated that Durant and Irving took less money to create this super-team in Brooklyn, signing for less than the max so that Brooklyn could afford Jordan’s four-year, $40 million contract. This impressed their teammates and sets the tone that everyone must make sacrifices.

Garrett Temple: “That was amazing. It really solidified what I already thought about them. Honestly, at first, I didn’t even know that they had taken a pay cut. But that just shows you that they’re about winning first and foremost. It’s great when your best players – your leaders – have that mindset.”

Wilson Chandler: “That shows they want to win and they want to build a great roster with the right group guys around them – guys who can play off of them and who can complement them. It tells you how badly those guys want to win. KD has done this before. This is, what, his third time taking less than the max? These are guys who know what it takes to win at the highest level. Sometimes, sacrifices are necessary.”

Spencer Dinwiddie: “I think it shows their commitment and dedication to their friend and to winning. They didn’t take less money to bring in a slouch, obviously. DeAndre Jordan is a phenomenal center who has been an impact player in this league for a very long time. He also deserves credit – he took less money to come here too. The three of them took discounts not only to play together, but also to transform the face of Brooklyn basketball and try to win a championship.”

Once Durant and Irving committed, the players recognized that Brooklyn’s trajectory drastically changed.

Spencer Dinwiddie: “Everyone understands how this shifts what we’re doing. We’re not just a sixth, seventh or eighth seed anymore. We aren’t just a young group trying to improve. We’re trying to put our stamp on the NBA as a whole. I think anytime you’re able to pair two of the most dynamic people in the entire league together, you have a shot at winning a championship. We have that. We also have a really well-established, All-Defensive-Team center in DeAndre Jordan and a bevy of young talent. Really, as long as we mesh and jell together, I don’t see why we can’t compete. I mean, I know that’s exactly why those guys came here. They’re here to win championships. To do that, we need to have chemistry and we need to keep improving every day, but nobody on this team is going out there with anything else in mind. We aren’t trying to be okay; we’re trying to be great.”

Wilson Chandler: “We can definitely be one of the best teams in the league when healthy.”

Garrett Temple: “Talent-wise, culture-wise and experience-wise, this is going to be the team where I have the best chance of winning a championship. I’m really excited. We have a chance to go really far, going off how we look on paper. But obviously it all depends on what we do once step onto the court. We have a lot of new faces, so it’s going to be important for us to mesh. We plan on starting that process quickly. We’re going to work out together as a team in L.A. for a few weeks. I’m planning to go out to Brooklyn a lot earlier than usual too. We have a lot of guys who are ready to compete, and we’re actually competing for something really big here.”

In recent weeks, Brooklyn’s new players and coaches have been meeting and getting to know each other. “It’s been really organic,” Temple said.

Spencer Dinwiddie: “We’ve all had the introductory conversations and stuff like that. With Kyrie, I’ve known him for a while, so those conversations have been a little more in-depth just because we’re already friends. But we’re all communicating and feeling things out, and there’s a lot of excitement.”

While everyone is talking about how good Brooklyn could be when Durant returns, the current group feels they have enough talent to make a deep playoff run this year too (especially considering the East seems wide open).

Wilson Chandler: “Adding KD makes us so much better, but he’s obviously out for the year and that’s tough. But the team around Kyrie – all of the other guys I’ve been talking about – is really good. All of those guys can score. They can defend. They’re athletic. We literally have everything we need… We’re a team that could make a lot of noise this year.”

Spencer Dinwiddie: “I think the parity around the NBA is the most fun part about this whole situation. If you look around the league right now, you’d say that most [contending] teams have two-and-a-half stars. They have their two bona fide guys and then they have a third guy who may be kind of a star but if you look at the public perception, he’s not widely considered one of those guys just yet. I think that parity is going to make this season very interesting. If you look at the Lakers, for example, they have two-and-a-half stars; they have LeBron [James], Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma. A lot of teams around the NBA are in a similar spot. I think everybody is going to [go all-in] and try to get to a point where they can compete for a championship. A lot of teams will be in the mix. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Playing alongside superstars like Irving and Durant makes each role player’s life significantly easier.

Garrett Temple: “It makes an amazing difference! It makes things a hell of a lot easier! When you have guys like Kyrie and KD that the defense has to constantly focus on and maybe even put two defenders on, you’re going to get a lot of open shots. It’s just a matter of you stepping up and knocking them down. And those are guys who have stepped up in big moments and thrived in that championship atmosphere, which is obviously great for us. Spencer also plays really well with the ball in his hands and can create. Caris can create. That’s the best thing about this team: it’s not just one guy who can create off the dribble; we have three or four guys who can create off the dribble really well. It’s going to be great.”

Wilson Chandler: “Having those guys helps a lot. Those guys attract so much attention on the offensive end. They can pretty much do anything, so you have to game-plan for them and teams may send two – sometimes even three – guys at them. We’re going to get so many open shots.”

Spencer Dinwiddie: “Temple is a veteran player who has shot the three-ball well and he’s going to bring some stability to our backcourt just in general. Outside of Kyrie, the rest of the backcourt – like myself and Caris – is considered young and we don’t have that experience. He’s going to be a welcome addition. With Chandler, he can shoot the three-ball well and he pairs nicely with DeAndre Jordan or Jarrett Allen. That’s going to be huge for us. One of the places we lacked was rebounding out of the four spot and some shooting out of the four spot. Jared Dudley was obviously great for us in terms of veteran leadership, but some of the physicality down low is where we kind of got hurt in the playoffs. By adding DeAndre, Garrett and Wilson, we think that we’ve definitely improved and we’re giving ourselves the best chance possible to win.”

Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert. (Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)

A WIDE-OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP WINDOW

While the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers moved young players and a ton of first-round picks in order to acquire superstars this summer, the Nets were able to add Durant and Irving while keeping some of their young pieces and draft picks. (They did have to give up D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade with the Golden State Warriors).

Brooklyn hopes that their championship window stays open longer since they still have developing players on the roster and didn’t go all-in on short-term success.

Spencer Dinwiddie: “One of the craziest things about this ‘rebuild’ is that we got two stars and a third semi-star and we didn’t have to mortgage everything to do it. We still have Rodi [Kurucs], we still have Jarrett [Allen], we still have Caris [LeVert] all on rookie deals. Joe [Harris] and myself are only 26 years old. We’re not very old.”

Wilson Chandler: “We have so many great young players. [Caris] is amazing and was looking so good before his injury and then came back strong too. Allen is a great defensive player, a great rim protector. Spencer is amazing and should’ve been in the race for Sixth Man of the Year. Taurean [Prince] is really talented. A lot of the great pieces that we have around [Irving and Durant] are guys who will just continue to grow.”

Garrett Temple: “Kyrie just turned 27, so he still has another four or five years in his prime. The rest of the guys are so young – Spencer, Joe, Caris (who’s a really talented young guy), Jarrett. Then, you add in DeAndre, who’s a great vet, and KD coming back next year… There’s a lot to look forward to with this team.”

Spencer Dinwiddie: “We’re excited about this team’s window. The future looks bright.”

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