The stakes are significant if Brooklyn's all-in gamble on James Harden doesn't work

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·5 min read

Across his nearly five years as general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, Sean Marks’ peers in the NBA front offices saw him as a patient, process-oriented, culture-building executive. It made sense for a guy who took over a 21-win team devoid of draft picks and salary-cap space. There could be no easy fix.

A return to relative respectability — playoff appearances in 2019 and 2020 — showed solid work.

As such, there has been a measure of surprise as the league has watched Marks lay down one of the greatest gambles in recent NBA history, betting the future of both the franchise and multiple careers that the uber-talented triumvirate of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden can win and win big for the Nets.

Durant and Irving signed prior to last season, although KD missed the entire season rehabbing an Achilles injury. On Wednesday, the Nets added Harden, the 2018 NBA MVP, when Marks dealt the Nets’ first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 to Houston as well giving the Rockets the right to swap first-round picks with Brooklyn in 2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027.

He also unloaded three role players — Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince. Allen, in particular, could be missed.

“A lot of thought and a lot of process comes into this,” Marks said Thursday, brushing off the idea that this was a hasty decision. “We need to capitalize on the window and what is in front of us right now. We are looking forward to getting this group out there.

“Our goal ultimately is to put out a championship contender and have some sustainable success.”

Newly hired Brooklyn Nets General Manager Sean Marks answers questions during a press conference before the game between the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks.
Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks is going for it after acquiring James Harden. (Elsa/Getty Images)

If this works out and Brooklyn does that, then this could be one of the greatest steals in NBA history. An NBA title in there somewhere would certainly help.

If this doesn’t work out, whether it’s a difficulty playing together, personal issues, injuries, a failure to find the right supporting class or any other calamity that might pop up, the stakes are both significant and numerous.

It includes the fortunes of the Nets franchise itself, which Marks just dug out of its last ill-fated gamble to acquire aging Boston Celtics stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. That move mortgaged the future. Conceivably, Brooklyn doesn’t control any of its next seven first-round picks.

It includes the promising career of Marks himself. The 45-year-old from New Zealand was a tough journeyman player in the NBA who at a young age had climbed the front office ranks. If this blows up, his career may never recover.

It includes the future for rookie coach Steve Nash, the former two-time MVP who Brooklyn hired despite no experience only to give him a cast of personalities and ball-first scorers that will certainly need all sorts of coaching.

And it includes the later career seasons of three future Hall of Famers who all say they want another title, which is easier to do than actually win it.

Other than that, this was just your run-of-the-mill deal.

On the other hand, if the Nets have that consistent success, then Marks built a powerhouse by giving up very little.

A Brooklyn team that wins, say, 55 or more games the next few years, changes the dynamics of the deal. That’s what Marks is counting on. It’s a fair bet considering the high-end talent, particularly Durant, he now has.

If so, the Nets will almost assuredly finish ahead of a rebuilding Houston club making the first-round pick swaps a moot point (the Rockets would have the better pick). If Houston somehow gets really good, the swap would be about even. As for the three first-round selections that Brooklyn does owe Houston, each would all fall in the 25-30 range, where picks are extremely hit or miss.

Additionally, if the Nets are winning 55 or more games and contending for titles, then the three role players sent away wouldn’t be significant losses because the team would have figured out how to either replace them or win without them. Despite the loss of draft picks, Brooklyn has some cap flexibility and multiple open roster spots to fill in.

If all of that happens, then Marks will have landed Harden and found the final major piece to a powerhouse for three late first-round draft picks.

That would be legend.

James Harden controls the ball during a game with the Rockets.
If the Nets can win with James Harden, this trade will be worth it for Brooklyn. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The biggest “if” is if the three stars can share one ball and be willing to share the spotlight. Marks made a point Thursday to note that he spoke to everyone when considering this deal and it was a collaborative decision. He notes KD and Harden used to be teammates in Oklahoma City.

“These guys have given us the right answers,” Marks said. “They’ve said, ‘Hey [we] want to play together, [we] can see this fitting.’ I think they are at a time in their careers … [where] they understand there will, without a doubt, be some nights when one or two has to sacrifice for the other. I think they are all looking for that common goal.”

Putting the words into action will fall partially on Nash, who brings a unique perspective as a former MVP who didn’t win an NBA title to the equation.

It’s all part of how Marks’ process went from a slow build in Brooklyn to an all-in gamble via a final trade that could either go down as one of the best, or one of the worst, of all time.

“I think everybody is aware of what this team is capable of doing,” Marks said. “Get everybody jelling. Get everybody on the same page. I don’t know if that takes two games, 10 games, 20 games. … Whenever you are meshing personalities, we have to wait and see how this all fits on the floor.”

It’s going to be one heck of a show, one way or the other.

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