Lichtenstein: Sean Marks resurrected the Nets from the doldrums - but now he is failing them

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It was five years ago next week that Sean Marks took over as general manager of the Nets, and Marks deserves all the accolades he has received for reviving the moribund franchise.

Starting with a nearly bare asset cupboard, Marks found and traded for talent, all the while installing a culture of development that nurtured a core that remarkably qualified for the playoffs within three seasons.

The league took notice, and when superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving went looking for a new club to team up with in the 2019 free agent market, they settled on Brooklyn.

This season, Marks tripled down on his superstar bet by using all available first-round picks (including four pick swaps) plus a large chunk of the Nets’ depth in a deal with Houston for James Harden. With three of the NBA’s best scorers on one team, the Nets by all rights should be set up beautifully for a championship run.

Unfortunately, they are not.

Riding a three-game losing streak into Wednesday night’s home tilt with Indiana, the Nets are a mediocre 14-12. Every team can point to the unique circumstances of a season played through the COVID-19 pandemic, from injuries to a condensed schedule that limits practice time, making the Nets’ excuses for their underperformances ring hollow.

Durant is expected to conclude his second four-game absence due to close-contact quarantines on Friday, returning for the start of the Nets’ five-game West Coast trip, but this team should have had enough to avoid losing twice to 6-15 Washington before Tuesday night’s 122-111 clunker at cellar-dwelling Detroit. Even more damning, none of those defeats could be deemed flukes.

The Nets often play lazy, especially on defense, where they rank 27th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. They own the NBA’s second-worst differential in turnover percentage and yield the most second-chance points per game.

For this, Marks is as culpable as anyone in the organization. He still has time to rectify the club’s glaring deficiencies to save the season, but there’s no guarantee. If he can’t, all his previous accomplishments will be overshadowed by these two particular failings:

1) The Coach
Marks’ long-time relationship with Steve Nash was said to be a big factor in his decision to lure the Hall of Fame point guard to Brooklyn as head coach. Many experts hailed the shocking move, but I was adamant about the risks of relying on a first-timer for a win-now team instead of a more established candidate like Clippers coach Tyronn Lue.

Though surrounded by an experienced staff, Nash has too often looked like a rookie on the sidelines: slow to recognize momentum shifts, and typically heads home with multiple unused timeouts in his pocket. Those and a MetroCard get him subway rides back to DUMBO.

Despite possessing as many as three of the league’s best closers, the Nets are only 9-7 in games that have been within a five-point margin in the last five minutes. Nash bears responsibility for his part in some of those defeats; he allowed Cleveland’s Collin Sexton to shoot a buzzer-beating, game-tying three-pointer instead of fouling, and in Washington, he did not call timeout to advance the ball to half court before a Joe Harris turnover in the closing seconds led to an inconceivable meltdown.

For a team that struggles to keep ballhandlers out of the paint, the Nets have been irrationally obstinate in their refusal to utilize zone defenses. Instead, the heavy-switching schemes allow opponents to hunt the often-indifferent Irving and other weak defenders to set up mismatches. It’s one thing to switch on-ball screens, but all the weak-side switching is unnecessary and often leads to breakdowns.

When asked in postgame press conferences about his team’s woeful defense, Nash has pointed to a lack of “personal pride” several times, which begs the question as to how all those pundits who assured everyone that his gravitas and superb communication skills would motivate his stars have gotten it so wrong – so far.

2) The Roster
In practice, Marks has always had an aversion to roster balancing. When the Nets were a development team, the ideology of “acquiring talent and letting (former coach) Kenny Atkinson sort it out” made sense.

In this new window, however, fitting the pieces around three superstars needed to be more of a priority. There’s no reason, for instance, for the Nets to roster Spencer Dinwiddie, Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet, Tyler Johnson, and two-way Chris Chiozza behind Irving and Harden. Even with Dinwiddie expected to be out for the season after ACL surgery, that’s a lot of guards.

Boy, wouldn’t it have been nice if Marks had just kept forward Saddiq Bey, the 19th overall pick in the last NBA Draft who was immediately delivered to Detroit along with scraps in the three-way trade that got Brooklyn Shamet, Brown, and second-round pick Reggie Perry? Bey scored 15 points in the fourth quarter to put the nail in Brooklyn’s coffin on Tuesday.

Size matters, and Brooklyn just has too little of it. Jarrett Allen was lost in the Harden trade, leaving DeAndre Jordan, whose lackluster efforts have drawn the ire of #NetsTwitter, as Brooklyn’s sole traditional center until Norvel Pelle arrived over the weekend. Jeff Green was a tremendous value signing, but Marks needed to infuse the Nets with more players who can defend up the lineup. With KD in quarantine and sophomore Nic Claxton out, there is only player over 6-foot-6 is overwhelmed project Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, which has forced Nash to run with units featuring the undersized Harris at power forward.

The three plugged roster holes from the Harden trade have yet to bear fruit, though newly-signed forward Noah Vonleh could potentially prove to be helpful. When Pelle is defined as “raw,” it is another way of saying he doesn’t understand how to play basketball. He can jump to the moon, but every time his hunt doesn’t end with a blocked shot, a second-chance bucket for the opponent is automatic. He came to Brooklyn facing the low bar of needing to be better than Perry, who was sent to the G-League bubble, and from my vantage, it’s too close to call. As for wing Iman Shumpert, before he even suited up for his second go-round in Brooklyn, he tweaked his hamstring in a workout and is now lost for a week or two, per Nash.

Marks still has a pair of exceptions (taxpayer midlevel and disabled player) each valued at $5.7 million at his disposal, but the trouble is finding the right players to utilize them. This idea that Marks can just correct his errors in the buyout market is precarious. With the added play-in round, more teams are chasing the postseason, diminishing the pool of players who would ordinarily be available. The Nets are above the luxury tax threshold, complicating efforts to make further trades.

Marks worked wonders getting Brooklyn from A to B to C. The final step, however, is proving to be a more difficult climb. How he recovers from these stumbles in the early portion of this title window will go a long way in defining his Nets legacy.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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