The Road to Recovery: The Difficult Transition from the Billy King era

The Nets brought in Sean Marks to help manage the transition from the Billy King era, but Marks will have a difficult road ahead of him.

On January 10th 2016, the Brooklyn Nets re-assigned Billy King, and on February 18th hired Sean Marks from the San Antonio front office as their new general manager. Marks will have to move forward with a team trapped under the burden of a nearly empty cupboard of future draft picks. Brooklyn and Marks will have a long and difficult road to recovery, but his early moves seem to indicate a patience and degree of forethought that was distinctly lacking in his predecessor.

Over the course of his career, Billy King has been a remarkable GM for most of the NBA, but not for the two teams that were unfortunate enough to employ him: the Nets and the 76ers. Despite having lucked into Allen Iverson for basically all of his Philadelphia career, King managed to pair him with exactly two All-Stars in Theo Ratliff and Dikembe Mutombo—each played in one All-Star Game for Philadelphia, and King had to trade Ratliff to get Mutombo. After a year and a half and one Finals appearance, King swapped Mutombo for Todd MacCulloch and Keith Van Horn. MacCulloch played in 42 games for them, and Van Horn was traded less than a year later in a 4-team trade that netted Glenn Robinson (also played 42 games for Philly) and Marc Jackson (not the Hall of Fame point guard and embattled ex-coach). When he finally gave up on Iverson in 2006, he gathered the remarkable haul of 31-year-old Andre Miller, Joe Smith, Daequan Cook, and Petteri Koponen. He was fired on December 4th, 2007 and somehow was offered another job three years later.

King began his Brooklyn career with what was probably the best move of his GM career, when he nabbed Deron Williams from the Jazz for Derrick Favors and the #3 overall pick that turned into Enes Kanter. Although the trade was quite damaging in hindsight, King acquired Williams at a time when there was genuine debate about whether Williams or Chris Paul was the best point guard in basketball. It all went downhill from there, as King followed up that success with arguably the worst general manager season in the history of professional basketball. He traded two first-round picks (one of which turned into Damian Lillard) for Gerald Wallace when Wallace was less than four months away from free agency. That summer, he signed Deron Williams to a max contract (defensible at the time despite a down season), Brook Lopez to a max contract (now one of the few valuable players remaining in Brooklyn) and Gerald Wallace to a 4 year, $40 million deal (a contract so terrible that he gave up on Wallace less than a year later). King followed up on these signings with the Joe Johnson trade, where he somehow gave up a future first round pick and swap rights to another future first-round pick in return for a borderline All-Star on a contract that paid him significantly more than LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and quite a few other stars more valuable than Johnson. Of those four contracts (Williams, Johnson, Wallace, and Lopez), only one player lasted the full length of his contract before being bought out.

The cherry on top of the tire fire of King’s career was his much-critiqued trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce that set the team back at least ten years. In exchange for Years 19 and 20 of Kevin Garnett and Years 15 and 16 of Paul Pierce (in addition to Jason Terry and D.J. White), King decided to give up three unprotected first-round picks and the rights to swap picks with the 2017 Celtics. In a world where current All-Star Isaiah Thomas was worth a late first-round pick and Markieff Morris was worth a Top-9 protected pick (in another frequently criticized trade), King somehow thought that the veteran leadership of Pierce and Garnett was worth three unprotected picks and swap rights. Although some believe that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov was at least partially behind the trade, I highly doubt that Ainge would have refused the deal if King took out even one of the first-round picks. The swap rights on top of the rest of the first-round picks almost perfectly summarizes King’s career: just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, he somehow managed to damage the team even more than he already had.

It's easy to criticize Billy King hate train given the recent Nets doldrums, but his main mistake was not leaving a back-up plan in case his star-studded approach fell through. The Deron Williams was almost universally lauded when it happened, and many believed that the Joe Johnson trade was a necessary part of convincing Deron Williams to re-sign in Brooklyn. Deron’s decline and unfortunate injury issues were really quite unpredictable, and certainly make King’s gambles look far worse in hindsight. Although the draft can be a good way for teams to get undervalued assets, King’s top priority was to build a championship team and not to worry about the future or cheap assets. He was dealing with a hyper-ambitious owner and two All-Star guards in Williams and Johnson that were eating up a huge part of their salary cap. When Williams fell off and Pierce and Garnett disappointed, King left the Nets precious little room to maneuver when the bottom fell out and the team crashed to the bottom of the standings.

Sean Marks might not have much in the way of assets, but he has already acquired both Henry Sims and Sean Kilpatrick on ten-day contracts; both of them played consistent minutes for Brooklyn towards the end of the season, and Kilpatrick at least looks like someone who could be a valuable piece going forward. In multiple interviews, including one with Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Marks has stated that he is planning on taking a long-term approach to the growth of the Nets, stating a preference for building the culture and trying to make solid moves instead of flashy ones. Only time will tell if Marks is able to follow through on that promise, but starting slow would certainly be the right direction for a franchise under King that shot for the moon and instead lit themselves on fire before really even getting off the ground.

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