Nets coach Kenny Atkinson

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Lichtenstein: Atkinson Earns Solid Midterm Grade For Turning Nets' Season Around

Progress Has Been Evident For Brooklyn

Steve Lichtenstein
January 10, 2019 - 11:17 am
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With their season slightly past its midpoint, the Nets are sitting in sixth place (by .001 percentage points) in the Eastern Conference at 21-22 following Wednesday’s 116-100 victory over tanking Atlanta at the Barclays Center.

As I mentioned in my last post, the true test of whether this season will end with Brooklyn’s first postseason appearance since 2015 will come in the final stretch, when the schedule turns terrifying.

Kenny Atkinson’s development in his third season as Nets coach has been a huge factor in his team’s rise in the standings. Hawks point guard Jeremy Lin, who played for Atkinson with the Knicks in 2011-12 as well as the prior two seasons in Brooklyn, was amazed at how the Nets have overcome a slew of injuries this season when they used to crumble whenever he and/or D’Angelo Russell went down.

“(The Nets) are doing a phenomenal job,” Lin said. “Hats off to Kenny and the Performance Team and everybody else who stayed at it. And the resilience of the players, too. They’re really a tough team to guard. (Atkinson) is a players’ coach. I don’t think you’ll find very many players who didn’t enjoy playing for him. He empowers players, and he puts them in good positions. He’s always been a high EQ type of guy.”

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Even during this 13-4 Nets run up the standings, my Twitter feed has been laced with diatribes against Atkinson’s maneuvers and schemes. Some are fair criticisms, but anyone who concludes that he's done a poor job is being blindly antagonistic.

Since this is midterm season, I thought I would go through several areas of Atkinson’s body of work this season to compute an overall grade:

The Buy-Ins: It’s not easy for a coach to get everyone on the same page when two-thirds of the roster is not guaranteed to return next season. Just look across the river. Yet the Nets share the ball, and no one is complaining about their playing time. Atkinson mentioned in Wednesday’s pregame news conference that he was proud of the camaraderie on the bench. Grade: A.      

Unarrested Development: Atkinson’s mantra is player development. His staff has done wonders and made millions for Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, two players who not too long ago were out of the league. Russell is playing the best basketball of his career in advance of restricted free agency. Caris LeVert, though currently injured, and center Jarrett Allen are unquestionably building blocks despite getting drafted at slots 20 and 22, respectively. Even Rodions Kurucs, a 2018 second-rounder, is developing into an important piece. It’s Brooklyn’s biggest selling point. Grade: A-plus.

Sorting It Out: This goes back to general manager Sean Marks’ old quote about Brooklyn being “in talent-acquisition mode” regardless of positions. Injuries have made some of these assignments easier and others difficult. What, for instance, will Atkinson do when Allen Crabbe returns from his leg woes? Crabbe’s injury opened the door for Kurucs -- fans might riot if the rookie becomes the odd man out. It’s also a nightly chore, since the Nets don’t have a superstar they can bank on for consistent production. Atkinson has been constantly tasked with finding the hot hands. Grade B-plus.

Unrequited Loyalty: If there’s one dominant complaint about Atkinson, it’s that he continually plays guys who bring little to the table. Hustle is fantastic, but hustle plus production is better. In the right lineup -- slotted next to a shooting big -- Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can play a role in this system. Without it, his presence is damaging on the whole. When his shot is off, it’s hard to justify giving Jared Dudley more than a dozen minutes per game. Treveon Graham’s shot has not been turned on since he returned from an injury -- he’s 5-of-28 on the season after Wednesday’s 1-of-7 brickfest. With Hollis-Jefferson still out with an adductor issue and Dudley exiting Wednesday’s contest with a hamstring injury, we may be seeing more of Graham. Grade: C.

Like Clockwork: Atkinson’s tendency to remove players, especially Russell, on hot streaks because they reached a certain time limit on the court also draws fans’ ire. Ten Nets average 20 to 30 minutes per game. Ed Davis, who should play more, averages 18.3. Evening the minutes distribution was fine for when the Nets were in the early development stages. They’re trying to win games now. No need to wait until the fourth quarter before riding the best players that night. Grade: B-minus.   

In the Zone: Atkinson gets the credit for the times his adjustments to zone defenses have turned the tides of games, like during Wednesday’s second quarter. It’s not going to work for extended stretches versus teams that can shoot from deep, but the Nets have found a way to make their zones much more than just a gimmick for a couple of possessions. The box-and-one on Charlotte’s Kemba Walker last month was brilliant. Grade: A.   

Indefensible: I wrote a dissertation last season on the inherent inadequacies of Brooklyn’s pick-and-roll defensive scheme. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed. The Nets still prefer to avoid switching or blitzing unless they absolutely must, leading to countless uncontested shots by opposing ballhandlers. As I wrote then, the defense relies on prayers that those ballhandlers will have an off shooting night. The analytics that predict the inefficiencies of opponents’ midrange attempts don’t account for how wide open they are. Any model that continually yields a bottom-10 defense should be tossed. Grade: C-minus.

Change Of Pace: In Wednesday’s pregame remarks, Atkinson noted how the Nets’ 99.7 possessions per game ranked as the sixth most last season but their 99.5 possessions per game this season places them 22nd.  The eye test tells me something different. This group has done a better job playing with the pass and settling less. The days of Nets players jacking up 3s indiscriminately are so buried in the past that the rarer occurrences this season are noticeable and worthy of Atkinson’s scorn. Grade: A-minus.

Driving The Offense: When the Nets are humming, it’s because they’re able to use the dribble to get into the paint. They’re averaging four more drives per game than last season and it has yielded 6.7 more points per game, per NBA.com. When I ask opposing coaches about what makes Brooklyn more difficult to defend than in the past, they say it starts with all their guys, like Dinwiddie, Harris, Russell and, before he got injured, LeVert, who can beat their men off the dribble and get to the rim. Atkinson has done well to pound the driving philosophy into the players’ heads. Grade: A.

Time-Ins: Again, I’m going with an eye test here. The Nets clearly have seen an uptick in their success rate after Atkinson’s timeouts. It’s not Brad Stevens-level efficient, but the creativity on some of the play calls has been impressive. Points are deducted for the early-season turnovers just inbounding the ball that cost Brooklyn games. Grade: A-minus.  

End-Game Execution:  How do I grade this? By the 4-12 start to the season in games that were within a five-point margin in the final five minutes?  Or by the 8-2 response?  Since the object is learning, I am going to give more weight to the team’s improvement in pulling out games that everyone has concurred would have been lost earlier this season, let alone the last two seasons. I still have issues with the Nets’ clock management -- running the shot clock down too early in close games is a recipe for disaster for this team.  However, they’ve made a number of big plays in recent crunch times. This clearly is Atkinson’s biggest achievement this season. Grade: B.

Overall Grade: B-plus.  

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