Entering the summer of 2019, Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks has every reason to say "checkmate" to those who doubted his vision for the organization when he took over in 2016. He refused to skip steps or make a splash move to accelerate the rebuild. He was going for "singles" and "doubles" as opposed to swinging for the fences when he didn't have enough juice to hit one.
But now, following a playoff tussle in Year Three of the rebuild, Marks has put himself in a position where free agents might approach the Kiwi GM with their own way of saying, "Check, mate?"
Several league sources have told SNY that top-tier free agents, including Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Tobias Harris, will at least consider Brooklyn this upcoming July when it's time to find their next home - if they decide to leave.
"Making the playoffs definitely helped their chances," one source said.
The tone and approach to Marks' exit interview has changed dramatically from the day he took over. There's a sense of cautionary optimism that the Nets will indeed be able to lure in top-tier free agents and Marks is ready to take that next step in his career. He has all the tools he needs in order to recruit one or even two free agents: Big market, culture, young core, winning team, and a coaching staff that focuses on players' development and well-being, both on and off the court.
"The process we went through this year - and there's a lot of positives that've come out of this year - can only help," Marks said. "It's going to attract free agents. People are going to want to play here. They're going to want to play for Kenny [Atkinson], they're going to want to play in Brooklyn, they're going to play for this ownership group. We have a lot of things going for us."
The Nets will have space for two max free agents if they're able to trade Allen Crabbe's contract, renounce D'Angelo Russell and let go of the six other players without a deal this upcoming summer. Brooklyn also has two first-round picks and the Knicks' second-round pick at No. 32, which rival GM's see as a late first-rounder.
They haven't committed to the 23-year-old All-Star in Russell since it's become obvious that they will go big-game hunting. Crabbe's expiring contract will be expendable on draft night, where the Nets will likely look to trade him in a salary dump with draft picks and/or a young player attached.
"I'm not sure there's pressure to act frivolously or out of the norm," said Marks. "This is something that if the right player is available, obviously like any other team we'll target those guys. We'll see how this builds out… For us to even have these conversations, that's exciting."
It's no secret at this point. Free-agents-to-be expressed their desire to stay with the organization, but they also understand the Nets have put themselves in pole position to go above and beyond and sign a big name. The contingency plan would be to hold onto what they already have and build upon that, but keeping the team they have now versus landing a big name could be the difference between an above average playoff team or a legitimate championship contender.
"To get to the semifinals, Conference Finals and the Finals, you do need those top-tier players, at least one that's gonna go out and get you 25 [points] a night," nine-year veteran Ed Davis said at Brooklyn's exit interviews. "That's just how the NBA is now with all these teams stacked up with 3-4 All-Stars."
The Nets had enough to back their case entering the season - the intangible things mentioned like a culture and identity, nonetheless the fact that they play in the biggest market in the world. However, it was their success on the court that's creating buzz around the league.
"If you're a top-tier player, this is an organization you want to be at, from coaching to the performance," DeMarre Carroll said. "Our young core helped change some of the perspective of these top-tier players."
The final sentence rings true, namely Caris LeVert who has a strong relationship with Durant.
SNY has learned that while Durant has yet to make any sort of decision, he's interested in playing alongside the 24-year-old LeVert, who was on track for an All-Star season before suffering a dislocated foot back in November.
While the hype is around KD and the Knicks, don't sleep on their relationship. Zach Lowe of ESPN has mentioned the relationship and described how Durant loves LeVert.
"It's like a big brother," LeVert said when he was asked about his relationship with Durant. "He reached out when I was in college. Obviously, we had similar injuries and things like that and the same surgeon. He's like a big brother… He's obviously played on a huge stage right now repeatedly for a couple of years playing in the Finals and things like that. He gives a lot of good advice."
LeVert and Durant's relationship is deeper than most realize. In college, LeVert's nickname was "Baby Durant." The two had the same surgeon when the two underwent surgery on their foot back in 2015. The surgeon is Dr. Martin O'Malley, Brooklyn's foot and ankle specialist.
LeVert quietly went out to California and trained with Durant back in the summer of 2017, one in which LeVert explained was KD's first workout of the summer. Durant told him, "Be ready for that moment. [He said] 'Make sure you're ready for it; make sure you're ready to play your best when the spotlight is on you.'"
And he was ready.
LeVert was Brooklyn's best player in the playoffs, averaging 21 points and four rebounds on 49 percent shooting in 28 minutes per game.
It isn't just him, though. He's a byproduct of what the Nets have built. A culture can only be as strong as the people inside -- and the people inside have connections to others as well.
Kawhi Leonard is another top free agent expected to at least give the Nets a look. Marks has solid rapport with Leonard's uncle and advisor, South Orange, N.J.-based Dennis Robertson. It should be noted that Marks spent time with Kawhi in San Antonio, as well as Brooklyn's assistant coach/scout Tiago Splitter who played with him for four seasons. The two will be integral in trying to lure Kawhi away from the Toronto Raptors.
"All the connections should at least get [the Nets] a meeting with Kawhi," one league source said.
The Spurs connection is real. Brooklyn's assistant general manager, Trajan Langdon, served as a pro scout for the Spurs from 2012-15. He was also a member of the team's front office during their 2013-14 championship season. Furthermore, assistant coach Bret Brielmaier worked four seasons with the Spurs (2009-13), where he began his career as a player development assistant before becoming the team's video coordinator his final three seasons.
Assistant coach Chris Fleming, also Brooklyn's offensive coach, served as a Spurs Summer League coach in 2014.
Kyrie Irving is a name worth keeping in mind, too. The New Jersey native grew up a Nets fan and is intrigued by what they've built. During an NBA TV discussion in February, former Cavaliers GM David Griffin argued that Brooklyn is the "Fit that's better for him in terms of his mindset." He later added, "I think he likes what they've done there, culturally."
There's no shortage of free agents this upcoming summer. Tobias Harris has connections with head coach Kenny Atkinson, both Long Island natives who grew up no more than 15 minutes away from one another. Atkinson's brother, Steve, coached Harris' youngest brother, Terry. Steve was the most recent Half Hollow Hills West head coach, and a prior assistant at the same school. Tobias finished his senior year with Hills West, while the other Harris brothers, Terry and Tyler, were standouts at Hills West.
One source close to Harris' camp explained how Tobias likes his role in Philadelphia, but the idea of returning home is something he will likely consider this summer.
Other names have been mentioned, such as Jimmy Butler, who put the Nets atop his list of destinations when demanding a trade out of Minnesota. Similar to Tobias, a source close to Kemba Walker said the star point guard is intrigued by the idea of coming back to play in his home state -- including both the Knicks and Nets.
It won't be easy. The Nets will have legitimate contenders for these free agents come July with the Knicks, Lakers and Clippers all holding enough cap space to compete with the Nets and pry coveted free agents away.
"The advantages they have here is, for one, the foundation and the culture we have," 12-year veteran Jared Dudley said at his exit interview. "And not just in New York and in the NBA, one of the best young cores here. They have draft picks, they have cap space."
There's more to it, as Dudley explained.
"I'm pretty sure over there with the Knicks there's a little more media to deal with, a little more scrutiny… If you want to be here in Brooklyn, if some players want to live in the city and you can drive 10-15 minutes to practice, or do you want to go all the way to Westchester and take an hour [drive] and have a driver? You know what I mean? There's a lot of different stuff, man."
The little things go a long way. The Nets send flowers to the wives and parents of each and every player that walks through their practice facility doors. According to Dudley, the Nets have at least 30 people on the training staff. They send text messages every morning asking how players' bodies feel. On Monday mornings, they do tests to see if you're fatigued and need more rest to help prevent injury. Players wear a catapult vest to test how they are running in order to have numbers for everything.
The word "culture" can get tossed around too easily, but it's much deeper than people realize. These are things behind the scenes that people don't get to see that will help Brooklyn.
It's something Marks will certainly discuss as free agents walk through the doors of Sunset Park. For the Knicks and Lakers, Brooklyn's competence and attention-to-detail very well might be the difference-maker in snagging a top free agent away from the "bigger brothers" on the block.
Of course, Russell is a restricted free agent and only 23 years old. Letting him walk would go against everything Marks and co. have preached since taking over. In an ideal world, the Nets would bring Russell back along with a superstar, but they're going big-game hunting and so far there's been zero commitment.
It's become clear that if there was ever a time for the Nets to lure in the franchise's first big free agent, it's now.