Developing a 'winning culture', the example of the Brooklyn Nets

Written by Rémi Koci, on 19 June 2019


You've probably never heard of the small NBA team from Brooklyn that hasn't won a championship yet but managed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in four years this year. This qualification, which may seem insignificant to the uninitiated, marks the success of a long reconstruction process for the Nets that began in 2016. The key factors? Culture, collaborative approach, and empowerment!

“I am very excited to be named the General Manager of the Brooklyn Nets, and to become a member of the vibrant and dynamic organization that represents Brooklyn. I would like to thank Nets’ ownership for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to the challenge of creating a unified culture and building a winning team.” - Sean Marks, le jour de son arrivée en tant que General Manager le 18 février 2016

You are about to embark on a journey into the heart of the Brooklyn Nets team and their transformation. Grab a coffee, settle in comfortably, and make sure you have 15 minutes to fully enjoy this comprehensive report. As Sean Marks rightly says, the devil is in the details.

Disastrous Beginnings

To understand the extent of the work done, you need to know the context: the Nets franchise moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn in April 2012, full of hope and with high expectations after three mediocre seasons and no NBA titles to their name. Despite a decent first season ending with elimination in the first round of the playoffs, the top management decided to step up and trade five of its players and four draft picks to acquire three former NBA champions (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry) from the Boston Celtics.

For your information, the draft is a player selection system organized annually allowing the 30 teams to choose players who are not yet in the league (such as young college players or foreigners) in turn. The order of these choices is determined by a weighted lottery so that teams with the worst records have the best chance of getting the first pick. In short, this system is an assurance put in place by the NBA so that a team with poor results can acquire the best players entering the league and thus partially regulate competitiveness within the league.

And the Nets had just given up on this assurance for the years to come.

The team sacrificed its future security for three basketball superstars at the end of their careers, hoping to win the next NBA titles. This strategy turned out to be a complete failure as they were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs the following year, then in the first round, before failing to qualify for the playoffs at all and being seemingly condemned to several years of misery.

This trade, now known as "The Trade", is considered the worst trade in NBA history, and for some, the worst trade in sports history overall.

A New Culture Instilled by a New General Manager

On February 18, 2016, with the team at 14 wins and 40 losses, the Nets' owners decided to hire Sean Marks as General Manager in hopes of turning the tide.


Although relatively unknown at the time, Sean Marks had played 10 years in the NBA and had even won an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs (95% of his career spent on the bench, but still). Assistant Coach and Assistant GM in the same team for two seasons alongside the famous Coach Greg Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford, who turned the Spurs into a true dynasty centered around humility and continuity, it can be assumed that he was in good hands!

There probably are very few people who had careers as long as Sean [Marks] had while getting as few minutes, and there’s a good reason for that : In every role he’s had, he’s been a culture builder [...] He’s got an unbelievably engaging personality. That’s why he gets people to believe his vision. That’s the reason there’s such an impact he can have. - R.C. Buford au sujet de Sean Marks

"Culture," indeed, this term was mentioned 15 times during Sean Marks' introductory speech; it is his true spearhead: "I talk about culture all the time. I talk about values and individuals all the time. Obviously, I have to live [the culture], but everyone here has to push it, and we know it won't happen overnight. We want to establish something that will last. We want to make strategic decisions that will lead to something that will still be alive in two years. It will build over time and it starts from the bottom. It starts with individuals," Sean Marks described his vision to

In summary, his intention was to establish a long-term and incremental dynamic around collaboration, trust, humility, and a sense of belonging to the same family.

Consistent Managerial Decisions to Establish Culture

As he himself says, to instill a new culture he must set an example, but success depends mostly on the involvement of all group members. So he made strategic choices in his environment.


It was clear to us that although the player development's part of it, it stood out, it was more than just that. It was what Kenny brought to the table. It was his character, his values, and perhaps above all else, it was his passion for the job. - Sean Marks lors du discours d’introduction de Kenny Atkinson

Just three months after his arrival, Sean Marks recruited a brand new Head Coach in the person of Kenny Atkinson, still an Assistant Coach at the time. The Head Coach and his assistants define the team's game strategies, and the NBA has many coaches known for their in-game adjustments or ingenious tactics. But Kenny Atkinson is not one of them. He is mainly known for his talents in player development, offering personalized coaching to develop their individual strengths.

This choice by Sean Marks confirms his desire to rebuild a team that gives young players a chance by training them in a long-term process and a "blue-collar" culture with the rule "Work hard to be a part of something bigger than yourselves." This reminds us of the humility and team service philosophy of the Butler Bulldogs we talked about in this article 😉

In 3 years, Sean Marks has surrounded himself with 65 new recruits of trust at all levels (Assistant GMs, Statisticians, Medical Staff, ...), especially in the areas of player scouting and player development. His main recruitment criteria? Motivation, sharing of intention, and fit with the culture!

The people who bought in and saw the potential, this vision, they’re the ones building it. This is 65 basketball operations people. This is 400 people on the business side. [...] People didn’t come to Brooklyn because they didn’t have a choice: I had to pry them out of places. - Sean Marks au Nets Daily

Interviewed by John Schuhmann about his decision-making process when recruiting a player, Sean Marks describes a collaborative approach where everyone is invited to speak up: "The whole group is in the room [front office meeting room]. Here, we collaborate. It's not just me and my assistants. If everyone is available, everyone is in the room," adding that his partners make suggestions and "it's not just us [him and his assistants] leading the discussions and asking questions."

Thus, they assemble a very young team, with an average age of 23 for the starting five, supervised by three veterans (Ed Davis - 9th NBA season, DeMarre Carroll - 10th NBA season, and Jared Dudley - 13th NBA season). This forms a beautiful chemistry, the perfect mix of motivated young players with unlimited potential, in an environment that promotes their long-term success, and experienced veterans who help them evolve and keep them grounded.

But where the "magic" of this culture is most surprising is that all of these players arrived in Brooklyn when they themselves needed to turn their careers around in the image of the franchise: "You've seen it with a lot of us here since, whether it's Caris LeVert or Jarrett Allen who were low draft picks or other guys who were transferred, let go, expelled or whatever, we're like a bunch of misfits, a bunch of rejects who found a second opportunity here and were able to rally around that. "says Joe Harris in an interview with Sarah Kustok & Zach Lowe for ESPN.

You have a lot of guys that are in similar situations and go by a similar mindset and when you're all fighting for the same thing, at least in my experience, it’s easier to rally together. - Joe Harris

Player Caris LeVert will also express the same feeling to Anthony Puccio: "It's special, it's definitely special for us to be the fit for the reconstruction of this organization [...] Coming to Brooklyn with this group of young people recruited by this team, we feel like we're all here to grow together. We hang out together, we eat together... It's really special."

As Caris LeVert mentions, a true family feeling has been established, reflecting Sean Marks' original intention. He even has a Family Lounge built for players' families in the Barclays Center (the team's stadium), providing babysitters, diaper-changing stations, and displaying a huge photo of all the children playing basketball together. Thanks to this investment, the attendance of players' children at the stadium has increased from 3 to 33 children, greatly improving cohesion among the players and their sense of belonging.

For Sean Marks, it's in these little details that value is created!

Finally, aware that the Nets community must also include the fans, the Nets management has physically reached out to them and has chosen to finance the seats of the Brooklyn Brigade, an autonomous supporters' club, by reserving a whole section of the stadium for them. They are also empowered to distribute these seats within their club without the management having a say.

At Aneo, we believe (and I hope you do too!) in this type of culture, based on human interaction, and we already find it remarkable to see it implemented in an NBA franchise. But what's even more incredible is how the players embody this culture and illustrate it on the court!

The operational level appropriation of the culture by the players

I think any time you put in a lot of work and you’re trying to believe in a process, be dedicated to that one-percent-better mentality, you need to understand you may not see the fruit to your labor tomorrow or the next day or the next week. But we all keep hammering away at that process, at that stone, eventually it’s going to break. Just taking that step is huge - Player Spencer Dinwiddie, expressing his vision of the long-term process he is part of to Anthony Puccio

On the basketball side, Bastien Fontanieu of Trashtalk magazine describes the Nets' style of play as: "a game based on the cumulative efforts of all, a great collective effort that allows the Nets to be unpredictable and extremely annoying to face. When you have guys who come in without a real desire for the spotlight but who just want to pounce on every loose ball to help their teammates, it can quickly become intense and frustrating."

This humility is evident on the court but also on the bench because before being recognized as a dangerous team, the Nets were mostly famous throughout the league for their extravagant celebrations after every important play. Proof in the image:


These dances, which may seem trivial, are nevertheless a great example of the collective mentality of all the players who take pleasure in seeing their teammates shine. And this is not insignificant because, although basketball is a game that aims to be collective, the truth is quite different among players who are competing for more playing time or negotiating a better salary with their team or another the following year. And when you're put on the bench and see your backup performing well, the mindset can falter... but not in Brooklyn.

On this subject, Joe Harris told ESPN in the aforementioned interview: "We're all human so you have your ego coming into play, you're competitive, you want to play, but Kenny [Atkinson], Sean [Marks] and the entire coaching staff do a good job of maintaining a certain level of transparency. For example, in games where I was going to play little or not at all, Kenny would talk to me beforehand. He would tell us that we need to stay ready, that you never know when the opportunity may come but it won't do you or the team any good to sulk or not encourage the guys on the court. We have to stay ready and maintain a certain level of professionalism and I think it shows with each of us thanks to the level of communication and transparency we have with the coaching staff."

A collective strengthened in adversity

Unfortunately, when a team is as united as the Nets, a sudden upheaval in the collective balance can be fatal. This is what happens on November 12, 2018, not due to a bad managerial decision but because of the injury of one of their best players.

Les coequipiers des Caris sous le choc. Credit Hannah Foslien/Associated Press

While the season has been underway for less than a month and the franchise has a record of 6 wins for 7 losses, Caris LeVert, a key piece of the reconstruction who was then making the best start to the season among his peers, suffers a terrible injury in a game that will ultimately be lost in Minnesota.

Even after wiping their tears and holding on for the next four games, the machine derails: the Nets suffer 8 consecutive defeats.


These defeats are all the more difficult for Brooklyn because six of these eight losses are by 6 points or less, including one after two overtimes, proving that mental toughness falters in the late stages of the game, where the game tightens and concentration is crucial.

In a basketball club as in a company, this type of situation often leads to drastic changes: for example, a more directive and stressful management approach, or layoffs, both operationally and managerially. But, once again, not with the Nets!

The never-ending odyssey in this business is doing your homework and betting on people, their will and their drive. - Sean Marks to the New York Times

Questioned three months later on how they managed to turn things around, Sean Marks responds: "We [him and Kenny Atkinson] never needed to gather everyone together and say 'Come on guys, we need to keep playing hard,' it was strictly the players who led the movement."

Indeed, the day after the eighth loss, the coaching staff gathered all the players for a video session to review the game and identify the mistakes. But unlike usual, this session was reserved for the players only. Kenny Atkinson and his staff realized that the bonds between the players had been broken, and that only they could mend them. They then stepped aside to let the players analyze their mistakes as a team, without a coach dictating what went wrong. The veterans, notably Jared Dudley, took the lead, and as Joe Harris reports, Dudley assumed a coaching posture, in the sense of coaching in a corporate environment, prompting the players to question themselves about the role they thought they had and the role they should actually have.

It was very beneficial for us to be able to talk about things and voice our own opinion and how we feel about certain things. [...] Just taking that mindset, going into the game feeling fresh and feeling like we can say certain things and we can hold each other accountable, it’s pretty good. - player Rondae Hollis-Jefferson giving her feedback on the meeting to the New York Post

This player-meeting was the turning point, and it was followed by a series of 7 successive victories, including a win over the Toronto Raptors, then the top team in the Eastern Conference, in the final seconds the next day, after having lost under similar conditions a few days earlier. Even better, these 7 victories were part of a run of 20 wins with only 6 losses. The machine was definitely back on track!

And Caris LeVert, for his part, miraculously returned to the court on February 8th, much to the delight of his teammates.

Beyond the court, and much like Sean Marks, who made it a point of honor, the players invest themselves with the fans and the community: Jared Dudley, like others, offers free tickets to fans on Twitter throughout the year, and Jarrett Allen stands out by winning the NBA Cares Community Assist Award for March, for inviting schoolchildren to the team's training center to participate in workshops on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in basketball, and for contributing to the funding of their school supplies.

Finally, the players' commitment is such that they hardly took any vacations this summer to prepare as best as possible for the upcoming season, as Jared Dudley reported to Brooklyn Nets France on May 30th: "The team's players are already training to prepare for next year. No team does that except Brooklyn. When I come back, I'll have workouts with D'Lo [D'Angelo Russell], Joe Harris, Caris LeVert, Rodions Kurucs, Dzanan Musa, and DeMarre Carroll. Plus me, that's 7 players who are in Brooklyn to work. Kenny is a genius for everyone. He works hard, he is honest, and the reason we are good is that he makes everyone important. No one is better than the others."

After 3 years of reconstruction, convincing results

Finishing in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and qualifying for the playoffs, the Nets' season finally ended in the first round. Although they surprised everyone in the very first game, they lost the series 4-1 against the Philadelphia 76ers, who also made a comeback and underwent a completely different reconstruction (but that's another story 😉). Among their performances, the end-of-season game against the Sacramento Kings was particularly memorable: led by D'Angelo Russell, everyone contributed to achieve the biggest comeback of the year and win a game they were losing by 25 points at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

By serving the team and developing collectively, the players also raised their own game and were able to develop their individual skills.

Let's take a look at some of the players on the team before and after:


D’Angelo Russell, a 22-year-old starting point guard who arrived in New York from Los Angeles, where the president had declared that he was not a leader, was named among the Eastern Conference All-Stars this year and is also nominated for the Most Improved Player of the Year award. His development is a major Nets success story.

Joe Harris, a 27-year-old starting small forward who joined Brooklyn after a season in Cleveland where he played only 3 minutes per game, won the three-point contest this year.


Jarrett Allen, a 21-year-old starting center and only the 22nd draft pick, had a great season, setting personal records in points and rebounds (24) and making headlines by being one of the eight people on earth to successfully block LeBron James.


Spencer Dinwiddie, a 26-year-old leader of the Nets' bench: his performances throughout the year, including the one where he saved his team, which was trailing by 6 points in the last thirty seconds, earned him a spot in conversations for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He wasn't even playing in the NBA before joining Brooklyn.

Caris LeVert, a 24-year-old starting shooting guard and only the 20th draft pick, was the leader of the playoffs with an average of 21 points per game just five months after his injury.

And last but not least, coach Kenny Atkinson was also in conversations for Coach of the Year, and has indeed been praised by many of his peers.

He’s one of the most respected coaches in our business because of the task he undertook… a culture change & a reinvention, taking a lot of players that were pushed aside by other teams… They’ve got a really valuable piece of the puzzle in him. - Coach Rick Carlisle of Dallas Mavericks

As quotes are better than long speeches, here are a few players' comments:

We believed in coach Kenny and Sean [Marks] from day one [...] Their vision hasn’t changed – hard-working, competitive, consistent guys. We’re here, we just want to win. That’s been the vision - the goal since day one. It’s paying off, we’re in the Playoffs now and we all believe that we’re just getting started.” - Caris LeVert in the Daily News

Wow! What a hell of a season! Want to thank the @BrooklynNets organization and my teammates for a Helluva ride! The foundation has been made and the future is bright!” - Jared Dudley on Twitter

The moment I got to the city of Brooklyn I looked around and immediately saw people working on the road. It was that moment I felt the Brooklyn grit and what Brooklyn meant to a lot of people. The Nets organization welcomed me with open arms and told me not to worry about the past. Let’s get to work!” - Demarre Carroll on Instagram

From  journalists :

These guys started from nothing, fwith few people watching, yet they worked hard, bought in, and became a part of something bigger than them. With a common goal in mind, they’ve all bettered the team and their individual games in the process — everything a good culture produces.” - Anthony Puccio

The Brooklyn Nets are a perfect example of how to build winning culture: hire people you believe in, empower them and LAY OUT. Trust their instincts & ride out the rocky patches knowing things will improve because of the conviction you have in the people you hired. And empowered.” - Brandon Tierney

And from fans :

Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson really revamped this entire organization. Took it from no mans land to a place where guys want to be and actually enjoy being a part of. The players love him, the development speaks for itself. Well deserved extension, excited for the future.” - Flatbush & Atlantic


Over the past 3 seasons, we’ve watched this franchise fully re-define itself & develop literally before our eyes: front office, head coach, & emerging young stars all established themselves HERE. And ALL of them are PROUD to be here. That’s huge” - Brooklyn Brigade


"Since the departure from New Jersey, something was missing. There were playoff series, there were Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, etc... But it was only glitz and glamour and there was nothing real. Today I am proud of these guys because nothing destined them to hold this role and they hold it with pride. It's really great what they've done." - Quentin Tully of Brooklyn Nets France

A culture firmly established

uring his introductory speech, Sean Marks announced: “It’s the people within the organization who will define this culture. So it’s the hires we’re going to make over the next few months, those people will be the right people to develop this culture, to lead it, and you won’t just see it on the court but also behind the scenes, within the community. We’ll all be on the same page with a clear vision.”

It can be said today that he has succeeded in deploying his vision and establishing a solid foundation for the future through collaborative and empowering management.

Strengthened by the Playoff effect, the Nets will start the next stage of their transformation next October. By then, they will have strategic decisions to make this summer to recruit the final pieces of the puzzle in order to move from the stage of reconstruction to consecration. Given the work done so far, we can trust them!

We are excited to see where this will take them and hope that these foundations are only the beginning of a dynasty as long and prosperous as that of the San Antonio Spurs.