A year ago Sean Marks likely imagined spending this Fourth of July weekend basking in Brooklyn’s success, reveling in whatever achievements—Finals appearance, championship, whatever—his superstar-stocked team reached. The ’21–22 season was supposed to be the culmination of a three-year journey, a dream realized. Instead, it has devolved into a nightmare.
The Nets are publicly unraveling. Kevin Durant has asked for a trade. Kyrie Irving opted in to his contract, largely because the desperate Lakers were the only team interested in doing a sign-and-trade for him. Last summer, Marks confidently declared that contract extensions for Irving and James Harden would be done before the beginning of training camp. “Signed, sealed and delivered,” Marks said. Today Harden is gone, while Durant and Irving could be next out the door.
It has been six years since Marks took the GM job in Brooklyn and make no mistake, his decisions this summer will define his tenure. It’s been a relatively smooth ride for Marks until this point. He inherited the NBA’s Titanic, a reeling franchise rerouting its draft picks, and succeeded with it. He mined talents like Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie late in the draft. It was Marks, along with Kenny Atkinson, who elevated D’Angelo Russell. He took a team from 21 wins to the playoffs in his third full season, turning the Nets, not the Knicks, into the New York team of choice for Durant and Irving in free agency.
Yet a title, once seemingly within reach, has never seemed so far away. Marks can’t be held responsible for the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s no strategy to prepare for a citywide vaccine mandate and no script for what to do when Irving decided to ignore it. Irving’s absence, and the fallout from it, poisoned the Nets’ season before it started.
Yet mistakes were made. There was Atkinson, canned 62 games into the ’19–20 season, let go before Durant ever played a game for him. Atkinson could have been succeeded by Jacque Vaughn, the deeply respected veteran who went 7–3 filling in for Atkinson in the COVID-19-interrupted season. Instead, Marks tabbed Steve Nash, the ex-MVP whose relationship with Durant—Nash spent some of his post-playing days parachuting into Golden State to work as a freelance assistant—helped land him the gig. It was a splashy, if not stunning, hire. Nash has been fine, serviceable, but in last season’s playoffs it was Ime Udoka, an ex-Nets assistant, coaching circles around him.
There was the trade for Harden. Harden had his moments in Brooklyn, particularly early, when Harden emerged in 2021 as a leading candidate for MVP. But Harden quickly soured on Brooklyn—Irving’s unavailability last season reportedly frustrated him—and even before that Harden, one of the NBA’s premier scorers, looked like a player who lost a step. With Harden the Nets got greedy. They wanted stars and were willing to sacrifice valuable role players (Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert) and a cache of draft picks to get one. Harden played less than a full season’s worth of games in Brooklyn. Allen emerged as an All-Star last season in Cleveland where LeVert, a steady 17-point-per-game scorer, joined him. Marks landed Ben Simmons in a Harden swap last February, recouping some draft capital as well, but Simmons has not played a game for Brooklyn and with the Nets suddenly open for business it’s possible he never will.
Instead of presiding over a championship-level franchise, Marks is now faced with deconstructing one. He has set a high price for Durant—two All-Star-level players and a bucket of draft picks, sources familiar with the Nets price told Sports Illustrated—though getting it could prove difficult. Massive hauls are often a product of desperation. The Clippers needed Paul George to sign Kawhi Leonard in 2019, which is why the Thunder were able to extract Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and five first-round picks for him. Minnesota needed a defensive anchor to backstop a team with a pair of budding superstars, which justified sending four first-round picks to Utah for Rudy Gobert last week.
Is there a team that needs Durant? Phoenix might. Chris Paul is aging, and the Suns don’t seem interested in giving Deandre Ayton the max contract he is looking for. Toronto would certainly offer a couple of its young players and a stash of picks. Beyond that, the market is murky. Complicated, too: NBA rules say a team cannot have two players on rookie max-level extensions acquired by trade. The Nets have Simmons, which takes other players (Bam Adebayo, Andrew Wiggins) out of the mix.
There’s a bolder move, one Marks may be forced to consider. Don’t trade Durant. The Nets were viewed as a title contender before Durant’s trade request ignited a firecracker in the front office; SI Sportsbook had Brooklyn at plus-600, trailing just Golden State for the best odds to win a championship. There’s no market for Irving, not unless the Mavericks get desperate or the Nets are willing to absorb Russell Westbrook from the Lakers. Bringing Durant back carries risk, but does anyone believe Durant, with four years left on his contract, would sit out? Brooklyn will re-sign Patty Mills and Nicolas Claxton and traded a first-round pick for Royce O’Neale, a three-and-D wing. There’s enough talent, more than enough, to win.
The responsibility falls on Marks. Building the Nets was once Marks’s legacy. Now it’s deciding if, when and how to rip them apart. The honeymoon lasted six years and was filled with success after success. For Sean Marks, though, the honeymoon is over.
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