The Nets came away with an inspiring comeback, buzzer-beating victory over the playoff- contending Hornets the night after Christmas. Randy Foye nailed a 3-pointer as time expired and the Nets won 120-118, just their eighth win in 30 games. The young guys tackled Kenny Atkinson, who looked like he was in near shock to see the Nets finally catch a break this season.
It was a special moment for a team that has faced plenty of adversity through the first 30 games of the season.
It seemed… fitting.
Earlier in the game Jeremy Lin headed to the locker room with a strained left hamstring, the same one he injured on November 2, and the same injury that kept him out over a month. The situation doesn’t sound all too optimistic. No timetables… no pressure to return.
The already harsh season took a turn for the worst. Expectations were as low as can be heading into the season and when you lose a leader like Jeremy Lin, things tend to get worse before they get better.
Needless to say, it’s been an odd greeting for the new regime that willingly took on the challenge of fixing this unorthodox situation in Brooklyn.
Everybody is new to this, and Kenny Atkinson, Sean Marks and everybody else in the organization are learning about the good, bad and the ugly… and not necessarily in that order. That’s how this ‘culture’ thing forms.
THE BAD: Ill Déjà vu
The ‘Brook-Lin’ offseason slogan brings back bad memories of the infamous ‘Brooklyn Backcourt’ slogan. The ‘Brook-Lin’ combo has played 10 games together – a one in three chance fans get the pair suit up together.
Lin going down with a hamstring injury brings back bad memories of just last season when the Nets lost Jarrett Jack to a torn ACL. Don’t get me wrong – a hamstring injury is obviously way less severe than a torn ACL. It’s the idea that for the second straight season, the Nets are a bad team with one of its best players watching most of the season (so far) from the sidelines.
Jack and Lin both possess great leadership skills, but there’s only so much one can do from the bench. Even the way the young Nets fought back and won against Charlotte… it’s the same thing they did when Jarrett Jack got hurt in Boston on January 2. This was the last time they won a road game against the Eastern Conference. That’s the bad.
And we haven’t spoken about Greivis Vasquez, whose surgically repaired ankle wasn’t quite right, which the Nets knew in August, when he begged out of the Olympics, then hoped for the best and finally had to be bought out and undergo the knife for the second time in less than a year. It was a bad move.
There’s also the question of why Lin has gone down twice. The Nets performance team was supposed to handle “prehab” — avoiding nagging injuries. His absence has sapped fan enthusiasm.
THE UGLY: Consequences and historically bad defense
Everything mentioned in the bad could fit in this category, I suppose. The ugly, however, are the results and consequences of another tough season in Brooklyn. These ‘consequences’ feel something similar to removing a band-aid slowly. Losing games at a rapid rate knowing the Celtics will receive another great pick that could’ve been developing in Brooklyn. By odds, the Celtics have a chance to pick at No. 2, the Nets at No. 22.
The defense is to blame. They’ve let up a NBA-worst 114.8 points per game, including another league-worst 10.7 3-pointers made.
And of course the low attendance numbers (25th in NBA) does not help ‘the ugly’.
Then, there’s the upcoming draft. The Nets have a pick, but it must be swapped with the Celtics, the next-to-last payment in what may become the worst trade in NBA history. As of now, it’s a swap for the first overall pick for the 21st and 51st (Boston’s second rounder.) The Nets will only get Indiana’s second rounder if the Pacers don’t make the playoffs and right now, they are in.
The current regime wasn’t responsible for that, of course. But it hangs over every strategic decision.
THE GOOD: The Kids, Competence and the Culture
With all the dust in our eyes we tend to miss the good too often. As previously mentioned, everybody is new – from the executives to the coaching staff and down to the players.
Isaiah Whitehead, Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are getting a lot of minutes at a raw stage in their young careers. It’s been good for them to get some of the growing pains out and experience what the real deal is all about.
For a team without picks, Marks appears to have done well by taking chances on LeVert and Whitehead, LeVert because of his injury history, Whitehead because of his unsettled position: is he a point guard or a shooting guard. It’s a trend.
So far, so good. LeVert is finally showing what he can do. His stat line Friday night was a big indicator: 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting, 2-of-3 from deep, to go along with two steals and three rebounds in 24 minutes.
Whitehead has been thrust into a starting role more times than not, filling in for Lin and Vasquez. He’s done a competent job and has ranked as high as sixth in the NBA.com Rookie Ladder. He is. like LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson, a big guard.
Hollis-Jefferson is not a rookie but he finally seems to have found his niche. Coming off the bench, he’s had his two of his best games as a pro the last 10 days with games of 19 and 16, but more importantly showing aggressiveness on offense. His mid-range shot is fine, his three-pointer finally shows signs.
Marks has done a good job at finding hidden talent
From day one, Marks was optimistic about finding talent in places other than the draft. We’ve seen him do so already with three particular names that come to mind.
“Well sure draft picks are one way to build a team, but there are several other places and other ways to go out there and do it,” Marks said at his introductory press conference. “Obviously you can go to free agency. I've seen it done around the NBA where you're building not only through free agency, you're building through the European market, you're building within your D-League franchise and developing your players there.”
So far, Marks has hit quite a few “singles” with his sneaky acquisitions. One of the biggest stories this season is the rise of the undrafted former D-Leaguer, Sean Kilpatrick. He was Marks’ first acquisition as GM, and Kilpatrick has rewarded him with hard work, improvement and good character. Kilpatrick, a poster boy for the ‘Marks movement’, has averaged 15.7 points in 27.7 minutes this season. He’s worked his way up from a 10-day experiment last season to a starter in a modernized offense.
Then you take a guy like Trevor Booker, another hard-working, high-character, good culture kind of guy the Nets appreciate. He’s averaging 9.6 points and 8.9 rebounds in 28 minutes per game, way up from his 6.7 & 5.4 average throughout his career.
“Booker is a bright spot in every dreary Nets loss - a sneering ruckus rampaging coast-to-coast after snagging a defensive rebound. He is fast, and he is mean, and he is not afraid to pick up his dribble, smash his shoulder into your chest, and float the ball in as you crumble to the floor.”
Lowe also describes Booker’s relentless effort as “healthy” for the younger guys to see.
Booker’s success is making it hard for anybody to look at the Thad Young trade in a negative light, making Marks look like a very smart man. Booker’s with Brooklyn for 2-years, $18 million. The Nets saved $25.9 million net in cap space over the next two years when they traded Young for LeVert and a second rounder on draft night.
And last but not least, Joe Harris. Joe Harris was also signed based on his D-League record. So we can’t pretend the Nets aren’t scouting their own and everyone else’s farm system.
The 25-year-old was taken by Cleveland with the No. 33 pick in the 2014 draft. His potential went unnoticed on a team filled with some of the league’s top players. He initially spent most of his time with Cleveland’s D-League affiliate in Canton until he broke his foot and was traded (then waived) by the Orlando Magic.
Trajan Langdon, Sean Marks assistant GM, and assistant coach Bret Brielmaier, both recommended the Nets take a chance on him. It’s paying off. He’s averaged 9.2 points on 43.8 percent shooting and has taken big strides.
Last season, he played a total of 15 minutes in the NBA. This season, he’s averaging 23 minutes… per game.
And there’s no doubt the Nets needed a new culture, not just on the court but on the sidelines, in the front office. By all accounts, despite the record, the injuries, etc., this is a much more inclusive culture with a lot more drive, a lot more cohesion. It’s had to quantify, particularly when the 30 new faces at 168 39th Street in Brooklyn are still finding their way, unless you’re counting positive vibes.
The man in the middle
None of this comes to life —not the good, the bad, the ugly— without mention of Kenny Atkinson. He’s getting ripped now. He’s the head coach, but his job is different from most.
In a league where coaches are replaced at crazy rates, first-time head coach Atkinson was put in a risky situation with a rebuilding project like the Nets. However, the Nets have flipped through coaches in the past and it hasn’t worked. His job isn’t to coach a winning team this season. His job is to develop these guys and create a system that works for the squad that he and Marks assemble.
Until Friday night, you wouldn’t find a game where Atkinson and his players failed to come prepared and focused on the game plan. Now, with all the losing comes “bickering” as Kilpatrick put it and a lack of heart.
Under Atkinson’s offense, the Nets are second in pace and fourth for 3-pointers made per game (11.1). It’s hard to overlook how many 3-pointers they take per game (33.1), however, this should indicate that with better suited players for a high octane, 3-point shooting offense, including a point guard, the Nets are (systematically) catching up with top teams in the NBA that play a similar style.
It just takes some patience.
Wins and losses show on paper, but indicate very little for Atkinson’s performance as head coach. If he exceeds the expected win total… great! If not, then at least he’s developing both the veteran and young guns on the roster.
Then you look at the “older guys” like Booker and Kilpatrick who were already named, or even Brook Lopez, who’s knocking down 3-pointers at a high rate. He’s grabbing fewer rebounds, but he’s expanded his offensive repertoire with the extended range. Bojan Bogdanovic is having the best year of his 3-year career (by far).
ADDENDA: The Long Island Nets
Ah… It’s been a pretty interesting tactic for Marks and co. utilizing the new D-League affiliate in ways that other teams simply cannot. They play in the same building as the professional Brooklyn Nets, which enables Sean Marks to send down and then call up players in the same day. This allows the young guys to get some time and work on their game at the lower level, and then come back up to receive late-game minutes.
Chris McCullough is the perfect example of this, their first-round pick in the 2015 draft who spent most of last season recovering from a torn ACL. In 15 games with L.I., McCullough has averaged nearly 20 points, nearly nine rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and shooting close to 40 percent from 3-point.
We’re hours away from the new year and this is usually when teams know where they’re at and what they need to do to improve – short-term and/or long-term. The Nets have a plan, Marks has a great eye for hidden talent and Atkinson has implemented a fast-paced modernized offense. These combinations bode well for a team looking to improve in the future, but maybe not right away.
The key, of course, is staying patient during times where the “bad” and the “ugly” seem to outweigh the “good”. Pardon the mixed metaphor, but unlike last season’s “bridge year”, there appears to be light at the end of this tunnel this time.
So, bottom line, Happy New Year, hope for the best.