With the additions of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the Brooklyn Nets have turned themselves into one of most intriguing teams in the NBA. But this was no overnight transformation. It’s been a long, tedious journey back to relevancy for the Nets after a series of blockbuster moves for aging stars blew up in their face.
Despite initially not having any of their own first-round picks during their rebuild, Brooklyn slowly made smart moves to build its team up. General manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson were instrumental in helping create a culture where younger players could develop and become better all-around players. Marks also did a fantastic job of opening up salary-cap space so Brooklyn could sign the duo of Durant and Irving without compromising its core. With two bonafide all-stars on their roster, along with a good supporting cast of young talent, the Nets have an intriguing future ahead of them.
Here’s how Brooklyn went from rock bottom with little hope to a team that attracted two of the biggest free agents in the game.
July 11, 2015: Waiving Deron Williams
Cost-cutting moves were already underway with the departures of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 when the face of the Nets bold title dreams departed. That was when Brooklyn announced it would buy out the remaining two years and $43 million on Williams’ contract, allowing him to go where he pleased.
Brooklyn initially traded for Williams in 2011, then re-signed him to a five-year deal worth $98.5 million in the summer of 2012. But rather than continue his rise as a premier point guard, his play dropped off after the 2012 season, thanks to injuries and struggles adjusting to the New York market. In his four and a half years in Brooklyn, he never played a full 82 games once and only played more than 70 one time.
The Nets ended up paying Williams $27.5 million to not play for them and stretched out his contract until the 2020 offseason.
Feb. 18, 2016: Hiring Sean Marks
With the Nets floundering the next season, they fully pivoted to rebuilding with two crucial moves. First, they hired Marks, who had held positions with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant roles both in their coaching staff and front office.
There were a lot of candidates for this position, including former Phoenix Suns GM Bryan Colangelo and current Timberwolves head man Gersson Rosas, then the vice president of basketball operations for the Houston Rockets. Colangelo was the early favorite, but by the end, the Nets decided that Marks was their guy and worked overtime to get him to come to Brooklyn.
Colangelo was eventually hired by the Philadelphia 76ers to be their president of basketball operations a couple of months later. He eventually resigned from the post following an odd scandal when his wife revealed that she had multiple Twitter accounts which she used to tweet out private information about Sixers players.
Feb. 25, 2016: Waiving Joe Johnson
A week later, the Nets bought out Joe Johnson’s contract, removing the final vestige of their expensive failed title run. They had initially traded for Johnson, on one of the league’s heftiest contracts, in 2012 in a deal driven in part by fears of losing Williams in free agency. Johnson was on the final year of that deal in 2016.
Despite being 34 years old at the time, Johnson still provided the Nets with some offense. He averaged 11.8 points and was still a dangerous threat from three, shooting 37 percent on four attempts per game. But he had to go for the rebuild to commence.
April 17, 2016: Hiring Kenny Atkinson
After firing Lionel Hollins back in January, the Nets found their new coach shortly after the regular season ended. They chose Atkinson, who had spent the previous four seasons with the Hawks, and gave him a four-year contract. Atkinson, a New York native, was lauded as a developmental coach and someone who fit the culture Marks was trying to build. He previously coached with the New York Knicks and in France as well.
In his opening press conference, Atkinson expressed great interest in wanting to work with Marks and help lead the Nets back to relevancy.
“It really made me aggressive in pursuing this job. I said this is a guy I would love to work with on a daily basis. I’m excited to go forward with Sean and build a strong Brooklyn Nets team and build a sustainable club that’s going to be patient but is looking to improve over the long term.”
July 7, 2016: Trading for Caris LeVert
Brooklyn didn’t have a first-round draft pick of its own until 2018, but the reconstruction of the roster began when they traded for one. On draft night, Brooklyn dealt veteran forward Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for their first-round pick and a future second rounder.
The Nets used that first-round pick to draft Caris LeVert, a productive player at Michigan whose stock slipped due to a series of foot issues.
In an interview with Michael Scotto of The Athletic, Marks thought very highly of LeVert’s game and was even more impressed about his attributes off the floor.
“He has great values, great character. If you watch him and how he conducts himself that’s exactly the type of people we’re going to bring in here regardless of the basketball attributes.”
July 19, 2016: Signing Joe Harris
Harris was an end-of-the-bench player for the Cleveland Cavaliers before foot surgery cut his 2016 season short. But despite only been playing in the league for two years up until then, the Nets saw enough to sign him to a two-year, $2 million dollar deal.
In his three seasons with the team, he’s quickly become one of their most important players. Harris averaged career highs in points, assists, and rebounds per game last season as he continues to improve during his tenure in Brooklyn. He is a crafty shooter who can burn defense when given enough room. Harris shot a league high 47.4 percent from three, giving the Nets some scoring punch from the outside.
December 2016: Signing Spencer Dinwiddie
With no draft picks of their own, the Nets needed to stay stayed active and take chances on young players. They had used the G-League to develop and find new talent, having discovered rotation big man Quincy Acy through that method previously. But in December, they struck even bigger, signing Dinwiddie to a three-year, partially guaranteed deal.
A former second-round pick of the Detroit Pistons, Dinwiddie had washed out in Detroit, and been cut by the Chicago Bulls before being placed on Chicago’s G-League roster, allowing Brooklyn to acquire him. In a story with NBC’s Dan Feltman, Dinwiddie recognized he had limited options and took a chance by signing with Brooklyn, saying:
“I was told that there was no other opportunity. There was no other option. So, obviously I wanted to be in the NBA. So, I signed.”
Dinwiddie has become the leader of the Nets second unit. He averaged 16.8 points per game in 2018-19 and can play both guard positions. Atkinson can either have him running the offense as the main guy or he can play off the ball, using his shooting to keep defenses on their heels.
According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, Dinwiddie was also instrumental in recruiting Irving over the course of last season. They were classmates in a Harvard business class and became friends through that.
Feb. 22, 2017: The Bojan Bogdanovic trade
Needing an additional scorer for a playoff run, the Washington Wizards worked out a trade with Brooklyn to acquire Bogdanovic, then Brooklyn’s top offensive option. The Nets were able to extract Washington’s 2017 first-round pick in the transaction, which they then used on Texas center Jarrett Allen. In his first two seasons Allen has become an anchor in the middle for the Nets. He gives Brooklyn a dominant presence on the glass and at the rim defensively. Allen also is a force inside the paint, shooting 72.3 percent on shots at the hoop.
July 2017: Trading for D’Angelo Russell
With the Los Angeles Lakers looking to create cap flexibility, the Nets pounced. They moved longtime veteran Brook Lopez and the No. 27 pick to the Los Angeles Lakers in a deal to take on Timofey Mozgov’s contract. In exchange for doing so, Brooklyn acquired Russell, the former No. 2 pick who had fallen out of favor in LA following an incident with teammate Nick Young over an infamous Snapchat video recording. It was a huge distraction for a young Lakers team and it didn’t help that Magic Johnson had some harsh words for the point guard following the trade.
“We’re always in talent acquisition mode here, we will be for awhile,” Marks said during Monday’s introductory press conference. “But I think adding a player, specifically D’Angelo, who’s 21, we could have easily drafted someone a year older than him. So the fact that we get somebody here 21 years old, can develop — Kenny and our player development coaches, as I’ve said many times, that’s what I’m banking on.”
Nov. 12, 2018: LeVert’s awful leg injury
There were positives at the beginning of the 2018-19 Nets season. The team competed in close games, their core was playing well, and LeVert was morphing into a potential star.
But then disaster struck in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves when LeVert jumped up to block a shot and fell down hard, breaking his leg in the process. It was a gruesome injury, as players, coaches, and fans watched in agony as LeVert was stretchered off the court. Players on both sides huddled up in a circle in prayer. Nets teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was in tears.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson couldn't hold back tears after Caris LeVert went down. pic.twitter.com/u6D6NanApX— Anthony Puccio (@APOOCH) November 13, 2018
LeVert had been the Nets best player up until that point, and it felt like a humongous blow to everyone. The injury was not as serious as expected, though, and LeVert returned on Feb. 9, albeit not at the level he showed early in the season.
Dec. 7, 2018: The rally against Toronto
The Nets walked into this matchup against the eventual champions on an eight-game losing streak and an 8-18 record of 8-18. But despite 32 points from Kawhi Leonard, the Nets walked away the victors in overtime, 106-105. Russell scored 29 points, while an Allen layup with 1:04 left ended up being the winner. It was a shocking victory and one the Nets knew they had to get, as Russell noted to ESPN after the game:
“Needed that. Really did. It was tough. We knew what we (had) to do to get it. So now we just got to keep going.”
The win gave Brooklyn a spark of life. They won nine of their next 10 games and embedded themselves into the playoff conversation. Russell and Dinwiddie were catalysts for this stretch, with both leading the team in scoring in those victories.
March 19, 2019: The 28-point comeback in Sacramento
This, more than his all-star appearance, was Russell’s coming-out moment.
At this point, the Nets were circling around .500, but were in the middle of a three-game losing streak. A West coast trip had not gone well up until that point, and it wasn’t getting any better against the Sacramento Kings. Brooklyn trailed, 103-78, at the end of three quarters and the game looked over.
But the Nets stormed back with a comeback for the ages. They outscored the Kings, 45-18, in the fourth, and much of it was due to Russell, who scored 27 in the quarter.
Brooklyn capped off the comeback when Hollis-Jefferson made a layup in the dying moments of the game, allowing the Nets to escape with a 123-121 victory. It was one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history and the largest ever in the Nets’ franchise.
April 7, 2019: Nets clinch a playoff berth in second-to-last game
As the buzzer sounded on the Nets’ 108-96 win over the Indiana Pacers, they had done it. For the first time in five seasons the Nets were going back to the postseason. With a record of 42-40, the Nets had done enough just clinch the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Atkinson was extremely pleased with how the Nets defied the odds the entire season, saying in the post game press conference:
“Proving everybody wrong. The predictions and even their head coach. They proved me wrong”
Even Russell himself couldn’t believe it.
“That’s crazy. I don’t even know what to think.”— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 7, 2019
D-Lo reacts to Nets making postseason pic.twitter.com/5wPhnNHxYN
May 25, 2019: The first Irving rumor
The Nets made a great opening impression in their first postseason appearance since 2014. They scored 31 in each of the first three quarters to stun the 76ers, 111-102, on the road in Game 1.
Philadelphia battled back to win four straight and finish the Nets off in five games, but that one victory, along with a thrilling Game 4 in Brooklyn, still left a lasting impression. This was also the beginning of the free agency rumors beginning to swirl around the team.
As reported by Nets Daily’s Anthony Puccio, the team had mutual interest in Irving dating all the way back to late May. “Irving’s camp has kept a close eye on the Nets as the season progressed and the team got better, with the playoffs only helping their case,” Puccio reported in an SNY piece.
This was the first time a big-name free agent was that strongly linked to the Nets in the Marks-Atkinson era. Being rumored to land Irving opened a lot of avenues, since their salary-cap situation allowed them to pair him with another max level player.
The plan to get two stars to Brooklyn worked. Irving not only inked a deal with the Nets but it set the foundation for them to sign Durant.
From 2011-2013, the Nets made bold gambles to acquire Pierce, Garnett, Williams, and Johnson, and got burned when they failed spectacularly. With all their draft picks in Boston’s possession, the Nets were in the worst shape of any rebuilding team in recent memory.
Now, they have two superstars, and enough role players to fill out the rest of the roster. What a climb out of the abyss.