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In Igor Kokoskov, Nets have found new offensive guru

Brooklyn Nets Open Practice Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

In the weeks before the opening of preseason, there was a bit of mystery about what the Nets offense would look like ... and what it wouldn’t look like.

Steve Nash mentioned on September 30, the second day of training camp that the Nets would be “changing some of our schemes” and will be “resetting in a lot of ways.” That meant a more wide open offense that will depend less on isolation plays. The Nets led the league in iso’s last season and as Patty Mills said at the time that led to stagnant sets.

“Definitely felt the stagnant type of offense last year, but it was just trying to find ways to stay involved and keep the movement,” Mills said. “It was a challenge.”

Former Nets chimed in over the off-season with Goran Dragic complaining that by the time he arrived in Brooklyn last March, “I have to admit that it was quite difficult because the focus was not the team, but more the individual performances of the individual players.”

Now with the preseason over, whatever mystery existed has been solved. The Nets are playing a wide-open offense with ball movement, dribble handoffs, a whole lot of running and the antithesis of last year. And we haven’t even seen significant contributions from the NBA’s two best 3-point shooters by percentage, Joe Harris and Seth Curry.

So what changed? As Brian Lewis writes for Sports+ this weekend, offensive coordinator Igor Kokoskov might be as good an answer as you’ll find. Nash has described Kokoskov as “an incredible offensive encyclopedia,” a coach who has 19 years an as assistant plus head coaching gigs in Phoenix and with the Serbian and Slovenian national teams.

“We go back a ways,” the Nets head coach said of Kokoskov who was an assistant on Nash’s “7 Seconds or Less” Suns from 2008 through 2013. “I think he’s just helped me.

“In this league, I think most people have seen it all — most of us have seen everything — but he helped me in the summer really plan and organize how we want to disseminate our sets and our actions and implement them. He has been fantastic as far as helping me get clarity and organization and bounce ideas off him and start to build something.”

Nash has been after the now 50-year-old since he first got the head coaching job with the Nets in 2020. At the time, Kokoskov was about to embark on a European head coaching gig with for Fenerbahçe of the Turkish Basketball Super League and the EuroLeague. He returned to the NBA as an assistant coach with Dallas last season then took the job with Brooklyn in early July. No one was paying much attention then to assistant coach hires, not with Kevin Durant having demanded a trade a week before and Kyrie Irving’s situation only slightly less unsettled. But more than one pundit suggested at the time that Kokoskov might have been the Nets best off-season acquisition.

That Nash would rely once again on his Suns roots isn’t much of a surprise. Like any executive, Nash needs confidants. And like D’Antoni, Kokoskov has long been considered one of the top basketball minds in the NBA, particularly on offense.

“[Kokoskov] has been incredible. It’s been great to work with an old friend as well, and he’s really helped me in a lot of ways.”

Of course, it is is always about the players — the show horses and work horses — for any coach, head or assistant, in any sport. No horses, no parade as more than one coach has said at various times in various ways over the years.

“We’ve had such disparate kinds of teams throughout the last couple of years, it’s been really hard,” said Nash in a kind appraisal of the Nets “issues.” “And this year, hopefully, we can prevent any issues with the adversity that comes or doesn’t come, and basically be organized and dialed in to sustaining the way we want to play. I think also our roster can sustain more adversity this year as well.”

The beneficiaries of last season’s iso configurations say they are not at all unhappy with the change, as Lewis writes.

“Ball movement. Ball movement,” Kyrie Irving said. “You look at some of our possessions last year, it was a lot of one-on-one. You guys talked about it often, and we were well aware of it, that that offense, when the ball sticks, it’s just not the greatest brand of basketball you can play.

“We’re giving the defense some nights off when we just go one-on-one. … [There] can be a time and place when we utilize that, but right now, having Ben [Simmons] be one of our lead guards and him getting up and down the court, the ball’s hopping, it feels good.”

One of the key pieces in that transition from iso to the new wide-open offense liked what he saw as well.

“Overall, as a team I thought we played great. We moved the ball and we’re finding our identity,” said Ben Simmons said of the Nets 112-102 win over the TWolves.

Like any assistant coach, Kokoskov will not get much credit (or blame) as the season plays out, but at this point, it looks like he is critical add-on.