In Defense of Firing Kenny Atkinson

In a surprise move, the Brooklyn Nets fired Kenny Atkinson on Saturday morning.  Reports as to why vary, with reasons ranging from a mutual agreement between the parties, to Atkinson being pushed out by his own players, or ownership.

At the end of the day, as much as I love to discuss “how the sausage was made,” this firing will ultimately be judged on the results.  Primarily for that reason, I support Sean Marks in making this decision.

The Nets fanbase appears upset with this move, and that is understandable.  As fans, we fall in love with our heroes.  Naturally, we fall furthest in love with those players and coaches who grow with our organization.  Players like D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen grew from boys into men with the Nets.  Atkinson grew right along with them, from a rookie coach psyched about coaching in New York where he grew up, into a fourth year coach who embraced Brooklyn whole hog.  That growth forges a deeper connection for fans, than the connection with players like Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan.  They are “hired guns,” “ringers,” if you will.  So, when Atkinson is fired, and the circumstances of said firing are somewhat mysterious (reports as to why conflict), that will lead to some hurt feelings in the fanbase.

With all of this said, it is a general manager’s job to make the best decisions for the organization short and/or long term — even if those decisions are difficult, and even if those decisions are not desired by the fanbase.  Because, when push comes to shove, the goal is to compete for championships, and the thing fans want, more than a relationship with any player or coach, is to compete for championships.

Atkinson had a 118-190 record as Nets coach.  If you eliminate his first two seasons, and focus on the two seasons he coached during which the Nets chased the playoffs, Atkinson had a 70-74 record.  Atkinson showed he has the ability to install a foundation, develop young players, and keep spirits up during a rebuild.  However, Atkinson never showed that he has the ability to manage the egos of superstars, make adjustments to turn momentum in a playoff series, or make strong in game adjustments.

In short, Atkinson proved he has the qualities you need during a rebuild, to take you from the floor to halfway up Mount Everest.  But never proved he had the ability to take you from halfway up Mount Everest to over the mountain.

Now, it is true that with injuries and other circumstances, Atkinson did not have much of an opportunity to display those skills.  But Marks watches Atkinson coach in games and practices, every day.  He saw how Atkinson and Kyrie interacted, when Kyrie was healthy.  If Marks believed, based on his observations, that Atkinson was not equipped to manage Kyrie’s (and KD’s) ego, to juggle the egos in a group of veterans, or to make the types of adjustments needed to win deep in the playoffs, then Marks needed to make this move in the best interests of the Nets.

Yes, the decision is controversial.  But here is the thing with controversial decisions: if they work, everyone forgets they were ever unhappy.  Nets fans did not want to deal Thaddeus Young for a non lotto first round pick, and use it to draft some kid out of Michigan with an injury history who was mocked in the second round on most big boards.  Nets fans did not want to cut the feel good Yogi Ferrell for a point guard the Pistons cut who had an injury history.  Nets fans did not want to replace Russell with Irving (at a time when it was believed KD was a pipe dream).

You do not hear as much complaining about those decisions now, as you did when they were made, for obvious reasons.

And you will not hear complaining about firing Atkinson at this time next year, if Marks hires the right coach and the Nets are a championship contender.

Therein lies the key here: if the Nets find a coach who can climb Mount Everest, they earn the last laugh.  We forget that the Warriors were bashed for firing Mark Jackson.  Their apparent reason — that people did not like Jackson the person — was suspect.  The Warriors were not alone in that.  The Raptors were torched for firing Dwane Casey after a 59 win season.

It does not take brain surgery to know why the Warriors and Raptors are no longer criticized for those two firings.

Marks’ job, ultimately, is to do what is best for the Nets, rather than listen to what the public wants him to do.  If Marks stuck with Atkinson and he proved, publicly, not to be equipped to coach a contender, the criticism next year would be, “Marks should have fired Atkinson and hired a better coach.  Now the Nets need a coach one year before Durant and Irving hit free agency.”

If the Nets win big next season, something tells me the public will not say, “I refuse to enjoy this, or to give the Nets credit, because they fired Atkinson.”

Marks has always been a forward thinker with the Nets, and has applied the same rules to all Nets players (and now coaches).  While you are with the Nets, we do everything we can to make you comfortable, facilitate your success, and grow your game (or your coaching acumen).  But, once that moment in time comes where we believe the Nets are better off replacing you, we will replace you, regardless of what you have accomplished and regardless of your connection with the fanbase.

Marks assessed that Atkinson, as of March 7, 2020, was no longer the coach best equipped to lead the Nets.  He WAS the best coach for their rebuilding phase.  But Marks believes that, for their title contention phase, a different voice, a different person, will be better for the Nets.  As a general manager who acquired Durant and Irving, and brought the Nets from rock bottom to this point, Marks has earned the right to make that call.

And if he finds a better win now coach than Kenny Atkinson, the media and public will see that next year.

Kyrie’s Tell All Presser: What Does It Mean?

January 4, 2020, was an interesting day for the Brooklyn Nets organization.

Speaking before a Saturday night tilt against the Toronto Raptors, Kenny Aktinson was asked about Kyrie Irving’s injury status.  He indicated that he had no update.

Then, out of the blue, Kyrie held his own press conference, where he provided an update on his status.  According to Kyrie, the shoulder is impinging with “some bursitis” in there.  Later, in discussing injuries generally, Kyrie mentioned injuries, “such as bursitis in your shoulder.”  Turning to his prognosis, Kyrie advised that he was presented an ultimatum: either take a cortisone shot or undergo surgery.  He elected cortisone on December 24, and stated that he would see what he can do on the court after sufficient rehab, rest, and recovery.  After a few months, his status will be reevaluated, as related to possible arthroscopic surgery.  As for when he will return to the court, Kyrie did not say, but he indicated having, “such a significant feeling in my shoulder where … I cannot get up in that jump shot position.” Kyrie finally noted that he went to Phoenix to see a shoulder specialist.

When considering the history of Kyrie’s shoulder injury, and the history of how the Nets have updated the media on injuries, Kyrie’s conference raises two issues.  First, the conference portrayed the Nets injury reporting practices in a negative light.  Second, the conference reflected that Kyrie has power to make his own rules, in away previous Nets under this regime have not.

Injury Reporting Practices

The Kyrie saga, and his comments on January 4, cast the Nets in a negative light. Overall, the flaw in the Nets “say little to nothing’ injury reporting practice was exposed, and Kyrie’s comments either reflected that he prefers the opinion of his handpicked specialist to that of the performance team, or reflected that the Nets were less than candid about Kyrie’s injury.

Without question, the Nets have understated the severity of Kyrie’s injury, in what has been a continuing pattern for the franchise. Kyrie was originally listed as day-to-day with his injury, and Atkinson expressed confidence the issue was not a long term one.  Such statements convey a clear belief that the injury is minor, and not expected to persist; you do not call an injury day-day when a player misses nearly two months and surgery is possible.  The phrasing is misleading. From there, updates have been intentionally vague and misleading.  At one point, Kyrie was ramping up his on court activity – no person can say what that phrase means.  On December 8, the Nets stated an expectation that Kyrie would be cleared for contact within one or two weeks; at the four week mark, Kyrie expressed struggles lifting his arm to shoot.  On December 27, Kyrie went through a “pretty intense workout” and simply had not been integrated into contact yet.  Kenny neglected to say, as we know now, that Kyrie had a cortisone shot three days prior, in part due to inability to lift his arm to shoot.

Such is how the Nets have always treated injury reporting under this regime: say as little as possible, deny outside reports, attempt to classify injuries as minor, and provide no timelines. Last year, the Nets listed Treveon Graham as out with a hamstring strain, but Shams Charania reported a tear and two month timeline. Atkinson denied the report.  Graham ultimately missed over two months with the injury – as Charania reported.  In addition, last year, the Nets listed Allen Crabbe as out day-to-day with a sore knee, that was not believed serious.  Crabbe missed two months of action before a one month return, and then underwent knee surgery.  Furthermore, last year, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson sustained an adductor strain on August 8, 2018, that was not believed serious.  Yet, the injury caused him to miss the start of last season, over two months post injury, and, per Greg Logan of Newsday, Atkinson admitted when the Nets played the Raptors in December that the injury slowed Hollis-Jefferson last season.

The history dates back further and includes this year, sans Kyrie.  Jeremy Lin missed seventeen games early in 2016-2017 with a hamstring injury. He then sustained a second hamstring injury the Nets classified as “less severe”, yet caused him to miss 26 games.  The following season, D’Angelo Russell was listed out as day-to day with a knee contusion; four days later Russell underwent knee surgery.  Just this year, Nic Claxton has been out nearly a month with a hamstring injury that Atkinson classified as mere soreness from adjusting to the NBA.  Rookies, however, do not miss a month with an injury as a standard practice.

Prior to Kyrie, the Nets have largely avoided criticism for their lack of transparency on injuries.  With due respect to the players before him, the Nets were losing a lot of games, rendering them irrelevant nationally, and the players at issue — a pre breakthrough Russell and the others — lacked relevance as well. However, the Nets, now, are relevant, and Kyrie is one of the league’s platform stars.  From the outside looking in, national reporters see the Nets classifying Kyrie’s injury as a day-to-day ailment, and yet also see Kyrie missing games in droves.  Naturally, this bred a question among media: why, exactly, is Kyrie taking so long to recover from what his own team said was a day-to-day ailment? It started with accusations that he ducked a potential return game in Boston.  Kevin O’Connor – a prominent reporter – wondered if Kyrie was essentially taking a break, waiting on Kevin Durant’s return. While easy to blame media members for speculating, the Nets opened the door, and invited that speculation, by saying nothing about Kyrie’s status.  Release a timeline under which Kyrie is out for a certain duration of time, and nobody questions what Kyrie is doing during that duration of time.

The Nets “say little to nothing” practice, simply, does not work with stars.  Unlike with lesser players on irrelevant teams, the media pushes for more information and questions developments, rather than the developments being inconsequential.

Transparency for injuries, for that matter, is important, as the Kyrie saga has exposed.  Nobody is saying that the Nets need to release medical reports and private details of players’ lives.  However, fans pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for tickets, and arrange personal time with their family and friends around NBA games.  The NBA needs that investment as well; NBA ratings are down.  Fans are the life blood of any sport — a league cannot survive without fans.  Teams owe it to their fans — their customers — to be transparent about the injury status of players.  If a player will be out 6-10 weeks, say it.  If you cannot say this, but can say the player’s injury will be reevaluated in six weeks, say that. It is simply not fair to string fans along with purposely vague, and purposely understated, injury updates, to keep them in the dark about the product they are to invest time and money in.  Fans should have an idea, when purchasing tickets and planning their evenings, who may or may not be playing.

Alas, the Kyrie saga exposed more than the Nets’ injury reporting practices — it exposed that either Kyrie prefers his own specialist to the Nets performance team, or that the Nets were less than candid about Kyrie’s actual injury.

In this regard, the Nets have listed Kyrie as probable or out with shoulder impingement since November 13, with no mention of bursitis.  However, on December 24, Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson reported that per a source within the Nets organization, Kyrie was out with thoracic bursitis, not shoulder impingement.  Atkinson denied this report, but then Kyrie said that, actually, he does have bursitis.  On top of this, Kyrie saw a shoulder specialist in Phoenix, rather than relying solely on the Nets’ performance team.

If Atkinson was truthful about the believed lack of bursitis, this means that Kyrie’s own specialist (diagnosing bursitis) disagrees with the performance team (diagnosing impingement), and that Kyrie prefers the opinion of his own specialist, as he said he has bursitis.  If Atkinson was not fully candid about the lack of bursitis, such that the Nets diagnosed the same, then it means the organization was not fully candid about its diagnosis. Neither reflects well on the organization. The former seems more likely — why would the Nets hesitate to put bursitis on an injury report?

It is true that bursitis can be thoracic or sub-acromial.  As such, it may appear technically possible Atkinson was not less than candid when he denied the report of “thoracic bursitis,” because Kyrie only referenced bursitis.  Perhaps he has sub-acromial bursitis, and Atkinson, in denying a report of thoracic bursitis, was candid.  However, if the Nets’ stance was that Kyrie had bursitis, just in a different area, than the Nets would have put bursitis on their injury report, and it would have been easy for Atkinson to clarify this in his interview.  Instead, Atkinson denied the report outright, and the Nets continued to list Kyrie as out with impingement – NOT bursitis.

In addition, while it is true that impingement and bursitis are closely related, they are not identical.  As such, the Nets cannot get a pass here on the basis of the terms being interchangeable (plus, if they were, Atkinson could say this upon performance team confirmation).  Impingement refers to tendon on bone contact which causes pain when the bone impinges on the tendon.  Bursitis refers to when said impingement causes the bursa of the shoulder to become inflamed.

Overall, there is no getting around Kyrie’s injury saga, and press conference reflecting poorly on the Nets. Either Kyrie prefers his shoulder specialist to the Nets performance team and chose their bursitis of diagnosis over the Nets diagnosis of impingement, or the Nets were not candid about Kyrie’s injury, and denied bursitis despite diagnosing it.

Kyrie’s Power

The last point here? Kyrie’s press conference reflects that he has power in the Nets organization that other players do not have.  We are in the middle of the fourth year of the Atkinson regime.  Sans Kyrie, a multitude of players have played for the Nets, and gotten injured.  In all of those cases, updates on injuries came from the Nets – not from the player.  At times, the player has discussed his injury (particularly when close to a return) in concert with the organization, but there has never been a situation where the organization had nothing to say, and the player did his own interview where he provided the details of his injury.

That changed on January 4, with Kyrie’s tell all interview concerning his injury.  Atkinson, immediately before Kyrie spoke, had no update on Kyrie. Kyrie was the only party with an update.  He had a story to tell, and he told it.  And he provided, in telling it, substantially more detail on his condition, and the care he has received, than any injury update the Nets have given under the Markinson regime.  Kyrie went into detail on a cortisone shot he took, the date he took it, his range of motion, his rejection of anti-inflammatories, that surgery was presented to him as an option, and that there is currently an ongoing evaluation of whether surgery will be indicated at a later date.  Kyrie’s update, clearly, differed in character than any given by this regime prior — it came from him, and it came with a level of detail that the Nets always keep private.

Remember occam’s razor – the simple explanation is the likely one.  Kyrie’s update was not different, and driven by Kyrie, because the Nets suddenly changed their entire philosophy on how they report player injuries.  Rather, Kyrie’s update was different, and driven by Kyrie, because Kyrie, as a NBA superstar, has the power to do things his way, and decided to do this his way. This was Kyrie’s choice – not the choice of the Nets. As a result, they cannot get credit here for being transparent.

This reflects that Kyrie has power within the Nets organization, akin to that of the front office.  He is not a mere player who takes instruction from the front office and coaching staff on how things work with the Nets, and what protocols to follow.  He decides the protocols.

Kyrie having power is not a bad thing.  This is standard for superstars in the “player empowerment” era we are in.  The Nets may prefer to present as an organization where management manages and stars play.  But such is not the reality.

Such is the opportunity cost of acquiring superstars.  You have to make some decisions — like caving on power, and signing DeAndre Jordan for $40 million — that, in a vacuum, appear to be suboptimal.

Nevertheless, that opportunity cost is well worth the benefit — having those superstars on your roster.

Kenny Atkinson: the Nets Coach Of the Past, Present, and Future

It’s a new challenge.”

Those were the words of Kenny Atkinson, when used to describe the impending 2019-2020 season for the Brooklyn Nets.

Atkinson is right. The Nets, by acquiring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, shifted rapidly from rebuilding mode into win now mode. With that comes a new challenge for Atkinson – proving that he is the coach best suited to guide the Nets to a NBA championship.

Atkinson, to date, has done an excellent job as Nets coach. He aced the Nets rebuilding phase.

There are a few things a team should desire from a coach during a rebuild.

First, instill a modern vision for how the team will play offense and defense when it is ready to contend, to lay a foundation for success. Second, achieve buy in and competitive spirit from your players, despite losing. Third, successfully develop young talent.

Atkinson was excellent during the Nets rebuild, and checked each box.

The modern vision? Atkinson successfully installed a modern system immediately, designed to generate as many layups and threes as possible, while surrendering as few of these shots as possible on defense. Even though the Nets went 48-116 over Atkinson’s first two seasons (understandable given the talent level), you saw a clear intent for how the Nets wanted to play, in the present and more importantly the future.

The Nets were top five across both seasons in percent of shots attempted from three, while their opponents were bottom nine in that category. Brook Lopez took 387 threes after taking 31 in his first 8 seasons. Their power forwards, players including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker, and Quincy Acy, did not waste away in the midrange or posting up, but were put in the Draymond Green or Durant role – the floor spacer who can run a fast break and initiate offense. They used Jarrett Allen like a modern rim runner.

As a result, even though the Nets were losing, they ran a smart, modern offense, a la teams like the Warriors and Celtics – they simply lacked the talent to attain similar results. Exposure to playing that style will help the Nets holdover young players, like Caris LeVert, Allen, and Joe Harris, as they step into the future – and run a modern offense WITH the requisite talent to win.

Keeping morale and competitiveness up? Check. Despite the losing, the Nets played hard almost every night during their rebuild. It was a common refrain from opponents to hear that the Nets played the right way and competed hard, and that as a result they were a tough out.

Atkinson attained effort because players sense his dedication. He is known for executing drills with his players so that they know he invests sweat equity with them. He defends his players publicly. Players know he has their best interests at heart. At Media Day in 2019, Durant and multiple players referenced Atkinson as a reason they signed with the Nets.

Lastly, develop players? Check. It is well chronicled that D’Angelo Russell, LeVert, Allen, Harris, and Rodions Kurucs took strides under Atkinson, and that even veterans like Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll revived their careers under him.

Part of that development came from Atkinson’s modern system. Despite many public calls for not letting bad shooters take threes and the Like, Atkinson understood that empowering players to explore skills they struggle with bolsters development. You never know what a player can do if you do not try when they are young. Not every player grew under Atkinson, but he succeeded much more than he failed.

So What About the Future?

Atkinson’s work during the Nets rebuild earned him a contract extension, to see his efforts through. However, as the Nets shift into a win now phase, Atkinson, to succeed in that phase, will need to display that he has a different set of attributes.

The bet here? That Atkinson passes the coming tests with flying colors.

With that said, the tests are coming, and constitute new territory for Atkinson as a head coach. On a simplistic level, how well Atkinson fares will determine whether he is the Nets Doug Collins or Mark Jackson (the guy who gets you to a point, but is let go to find “the guy”), or the Nets Phil Jackson or Steve Kerr (“the guy”).

The tests that Atkinson must pass to be “the guy”?

First, that he can effectively manage the egos of superstars. Second, that despite his accurate beliefs concerning analytics, that he is willing to adapt and deviate from them as necessary. Third, that deep in the playoffs, he is able to make sound adjustments on the fly. And fourth, that despite a shift in priorities to veterans, that he can continue to develop young players.

Encouraging signals as to each test are abound, but only time will tell how Atkinson fares.

Managing superstar egos will be critical to the next phase of Atkinson’s tenure. Irving will dominate the ball until Durant’s return, but Durant’s return will cut into his touches. At times, one of Durant or Irving will get less credit for the Nets’ wins than is commensurate with their superstardom. At times, Atkinson will call plays at the end of the game. Durant and Irving, as is typical for superstars, will disagree. They will want to break those plays to call their own number, or simply will call their own number.

None of this is bad. Superstars are tough to manage, no matter who or where. It is incumbent on the coach to simultaneously enforce that the coach runs the show, while simultaneously getting along with the superstar and providing some freedom.

The best coaches can do this at playoff time. Ty Lue famously yelled at LeBron at halftime of game 7 of the 2016 Finals. The relationship was strong enough that Lue empowered LeBron to be his best, but still had control. – Eric Spoelstra had a similar relationship with LeBron, evolving, per Pat Riley, from LeBron once wanting him fired, to Spoelstra successfully helping LeBron, Wade, and Bosh thrive and work together despite sacrifices in their touches. Steve Kerr is another example. Despite Durant’s reported tension with Kerr, and Durant’s distance from teammates, Kerr managed tough personalities to perfection.

I believe Atkinson is up to the challenge. The Durant Irving friendship will help. But when the honeymoon period wears off, Atkinson will be tested.

The second test? Whether Atkinson, despite his correct love for analytics, will be adaptable when the eye test requires deviation. Yes, an offense (and defense) must be built around sound analytic principles as a foundation. But when the playoffs come, good defenses know that the offense wants layups and threes, and those defenses have days to gameplan to limit shots in those areas. That marginalizes the impact of analytics, and makes adaptability from a coach more valuable.

Stated differently? Sometimes the best offense for the Nets now, despite an emphasis on analytics, will be for Durant and Kyrie to execute moves, and counters, to either get theirs in the midrange or find a teammate – analytics be damned. It will be on Atkinson to assess when those times arise. This is where Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey have failed in Houston. The Rockets, despite defenses planning for their analytics based attack, persistently seek forced layups and threes in their devotion to the numbers. Talent gets them to May. But they never see June.

Atkinson’s work with Russell last year was an excellent sign that he is adaptable, in the way the Rockets are not. Despite Atkinson’s lack of love for midrange jumpers, he empowered Russell to shoot from that zone last season because, in a planned jump year, that was best for Russell.

Atkinson was not abandoning analytics as a foundation. Rather, he was displaying his understanding that sometimes, you must adapt to your roster, and the circumstances you face, to be successful.

This brings us to the third test – Atkinson must prove that he is capable of making sound adjustments on the fly, deep in the playoffs. During the rebuild, this was not expected – installing a foundation was more important, and he lacked the talent to make many adjustments anyway. Now, however, Atkinson must show that during a playoff series, he can be counted on to make critical adjustments to advance.

In 2015, for example, Kerr turned a then 2-1 Grizzlies series by shifting his defense to stop guarding Tony Allen, and use his cover as a free safety.

Atkinson must show that he can make such adjustments at money time. His work in the past, randomly instituting zones or box and one defenses, and empowering Russell in the midrange, are strong initial signs.

And finally, Atkinson must continue his work developing players. Sure, in win now mode, there is a shift away from player development and towards maximizing wins. However, development still matters to contenders. The Spurs extended their window because they never stopped developing talent around Duncan Parker and Ginobili. The Raptors do not win the 2019 championship if they do not help Pascal Siakam, picked 27 in 2016, develop into a force.

Atkinson will look to find his Siakam. It is why the roster is stacked with young players like Musa, Pinson, Ellenson, and Claxton. Not all of them will pan out – but you hope gems are found here and there.

Kenny Atkinson aced the Nets rebuild. He earned the right to prove that he can become one of the NBA’s elite playoff coaches.

And I believe he will do just that, although time will tell.

Time to grab the popcorn and watch it all unfold.

Nets Rebuild A Raging Success: What Did We Learn?

Kevin Durant! Kyrie Irving!   Sean Marks brought a top 15 player in NBA history, and one of the premier players of his generation, to the Brooklyn Nets.  The rebuild is officially complete.

So what did we learn?  The beauty of rebuilding projects is that, with each new one that succeeds, a retrospective can reveal things we did not know about team building.  A new wrinkle that teams explore.  A new strategy.  And, in some cases, ripple effects on the league.  The 2008-2010 Miami Heat rebuild, for example, was revolutionary: before that, we did not see teams attempt to lure superstars through a personal relationship developed with them by an in house player.  Now, this is commonplace.

So, when it comes to the Nets, what did we learn?  And, what ripple affects might their rebuild have on the rest of the league?

Let’s dive in.

LESSON 1: EARLY ON, ACQUIRE AS MANY YOUNG PLAYERS AS POSSIBLE.

At the beginning of the rebuild, Marks acquired as many young players as he could get his hands on, despite limited resources.  Obviously, some performed better than others: D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and Rodions Kurucs played well.  Archie Goodwin, KJ McDaniels, Anthony Bennett, and Justin Hamilton were not as good.  The Nets were creative in adding these players, whether it was eating a bad contract to take on Russell, scouring the G League for Dinwiddie, or the like.

This strategy also entailed the swings Marks took on restricted free agents, in Allen Crabbe, Tyler Johnson, Donatas Motiejunas, and Otto Porter.  The idea was clear — we will do anything we can to add young talent.

Clearly, not every young piece panned out.  But no GM hits on every chance on a young player that he takes.  The idea was volume: if you invest in as many young players as you can, some will hit; stick with the hits and move on from the misses.  The result here?  The young core we saw in 2018-2019.

 

LESSON 2: CAP SPACE IS NOT JUST A WAY TO SIGN FREE AGENTS, AND A GM MUST UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH HIS CAP SPACE IS WORTH:

This was obviously a signature of the rebuild.  Russell was acquired by eating dead money, in the form of Timofey Mozgov.  Even Allen quietly was obtained with dead money — Bojan Bogdanovic was not fetching a first rounder himself, but the Nets got a first rounder for him (which became Allen), by eating Andrew Nicholson’s deal.  The salary dump to eat DeMarre Carroll’s (at the time) dead money yielded Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa.  And the Nets obtained a 2020 second round pick, and a 2019 first round pick (which pick was dealt for a 2020 first round pick, and 2019 second round pick, which became Jaylen Hands) by eating Kenneth Faried’s dead money.

The strategy was clear: we know (circa 2016, 2017, and 2018) that we are not a free agent destination due to our record and rebuilding stage.  So rather than sign C class free agents, why not use our salary cap space as a vehicle to add young players and draft picks, by taking on contracts other teams do not want.

Of course, the most effective use of cap space by Marks was in 2019.  But it should be noted that he used his cap space well in his previous three summers.

 

LESSON 3: BE PATIENT AND WAIT FOR THE RIGHT DEAL.

Throughout the rebuild, Marks patiently waited for the right opportunity to strike on deals.  By finding the most desperate teams, you secure the best prices.

The Mozgov trade with Charlotte, and the Carroll acquisition, were stark examples of this.  With Mozgov, Marks did not rush to move him.  Instead, he bid his time and found the perfect suitor: a team in the unique position of being able to add Mozgov, yet simultaneously avoid the luxury tax through the acquisition (since the Hornets, by dumping Dwight Howard, evaded the tax).  Because the deal benefitted the Hornets by getting them out of the tax, the Nets had leverage to pay a lower price in picks for offloading Mozgov than the market rate would normally be.  Carroll, similarly, was secured from a Raptors team desperate to save money off the luxury tax, and to offload Carroll.  That resulted in the Nets gaining more for Carroll in pick compensation than they may have in a similar money dump around the league.

 

LESSON 4: ESTABLISH A STYLE OF PLAY TO SPEED UP PROGRESS IN THE FUTURE:

Early in the Nets rebuild, Kenny Atkinson was not shy about installing a three pointer heavy offense, built around a lot of ball movement and pick and roll.  The Nets, in the first year of the rebuild and parts of the second, lacked the personnel to actually win that way.  To be candid, they probably win more games each year if Atkinson, instead, ran an offense geared to the strengths of those rosters.  Many fans voiced concern about that.

Atkinson did not do that, and the Nets are better off for it.  By installing his motion offense in year one, Atkinson laid the groundwork for the 42-40 season he oversaw in year three, and for next year’s team.  When it came playoff push time last year, the Nets holdover players like Russell, Dinwiddie, and LeVert did not need time to adjust to a new system.  Rather, because Atkinson installed the system in year one, they knew how to play in the system and were ready to go, rather than learning a new system.  If Atkinson installed a system in years one and two geared to those previous rosters, maybe the 20 and 28 win Nets would have been a tick better.  But the 42 win Nets — and the 2019-20 Nets — would be worse off for it.

 

LESSON 5: LET SUNK COSTS SINK.

When Marks did not spend money on veteran upgrades in the summer of 2016 or summer of 2017, he received a substantial amount of flack from various corners of the Nets fanbase.  The frustration came from the Boston trade.  The premise?  “We need to win.  The pick is going to Boston.  If we do not win, we will be giving a lottery pick to Boston. That is embarrassing.”

Marks was wise to treat the fanbase well, but at the same time, ignore that frustration and treat the Boston trade like it never existed.  The idea was an economic principle: Marks did not fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy.  The sunk cost fallacy occurs when in business, a person refuses to concede that a failed investment will not work, but keeps pouring money into the investment to try to revive it.  The usual result: the failed investment continues not to work, and the person only falls deeper in a hole.  The smarter approach is to accept that the sunk cost failed, let it sink, and move on.

As to the Nets?  Marks could have chased wins in 2016 and 2017, in an attempt to justify the 2013 Boston trade by winning games, and thus avoiding a high pick going to the Celtics.  He could have “microwaved” a 45 win team, as Zach Lowe has said on ESPN.  That would have meant signing a bunch of C class free agents the past few years.  If the Nets did that, they would not have the solid young talent they currently have, and would likely be heading into 2019-2020 with the 10 pick, and a bunch of vets.  Hello 35-45 wins and no hope.  Essentially, Marks would have hurt the future by trying to right the past.  Accepting that the Boston trade was a failure was infinitely smarter.

Which goes to another point.

 

LESSON 6: REBUILDS REQUIRE CONTROVERSIAL, UNPOPULAR DECISIONS, AND AT TIMES, EMBARRASSMENT.  BUT YOU MUST MAKE THOSE TOUGH DECISIONS. 

The worst thing any franchise can do is cave to public pressure for certain moves to be made.  At the end of the day, all fans really want, is to win.  Goodwill earned with popular, but bad, decisions, is fleeting. Goodwill earned with good decisions – even if those decisions are unpopular when made – is lasting.

It was not popular when Marks largely eschewed free agency in 2016 and 2017.  It is forgotten today, but it was not popular when Marks traded Thaddeus Young for a late first, then took LeVert, a player mocked in the second round.  Nor was it popular to deal Bogdanovic for a draft pick.  Or, for many, to deal Brook Lopez for Russell – that decision was polarizing, if not outright unpopular.  And lastly, Marks’ hoarding of assets at the 2019 deadline instead of getting a 4, was met with much scrutiny (that too, was the right decision – assets are at a premium, and all an Anthony Tolliver would have done last year was maybe get the Nets 1-2 regular season wins, followed by the same first round loss they experienced).

Something tells me that Marks has been forgiven.

 

LESSON 7: INSTILL A CULTURE, AND DO NOT FORGET ABOUT THE VETERANS

This is an area where yours truly must offer a big mea culpa.  During much of the Nets rebuild, I panned the Nets for much of their public emphasis of the importance of building a culture.  I dismissed it, at times as a cover for a lack of talent, and at times as a marketing technique to divert the Nets fanbase from the team’s record.

Boy, was I wrong on this one.  You learn something from every rebuild.  And this is an area where Marks taught me a lot.

The Nets, it cannot be disputed, have built a quality culture that players want to be a part of.  At the micro level, you can tell that players on the team, like Dinwiddie and Harris, want to return to work every day.  At a macro level, we know about the vast wealth of resources provided to players, be it medical professionals, performance training, the coaching staff, and the like.

However, culture goes further than that.

For starters, look at Durant and Irving.  They could have committed to other teams, but they chose the Nets.  This happened because both players believe the Nets can take them where they want to go: to a championship.  I do not have the audio, but Dwyane Wade was on the Woj pod within the last year or so.  He discussed that the Heatles chose Miami, because they felt other suitors were not strong enough to bring them what they wanted.  Sure, the Heatles chose one another – but they also chose the Heat culture.  KD and Kyrie chose one another, too – but they also chose the Nets culture.

The culture work of most importance?  That, despite this being a rebuild before June 2019, Marks and Kenny Atkinson never forgot about the veterans.

Luis Scola. Jared Dudley. Mozgov.  Carroll. Ed Davis.  Throughout his tenure, Marks has made it a point to acquire high character veterans with strong reputations, to provide his young players with teachers to show them how to be pros.  But Atkinson did not stop there.  Rather than write their vets off as the products of salary dumps or roster filler, Atkinson carefully thought about how he could maximize each on the court.  Carroll, Dudley, and Davis all helped the Nets make the 2019 playoffs; Scola and Mozgov had nothing left, but it was not for Kenny’s lack of trying.

This had a big impact on the Nets organization.  Often in a rebuild, veterans, and young players not deemed priorities, get disregarded, and leave with bad things to say.  The Nets, on the other hand, invested in everyone, from Russell and LeVert down to Greivis Vasquez and Bennett.

This is a small league.  Players talk.  Agents talk.  Through all of the turnover under Marks, only three departed players have had anything negative to say about their experience: Lin, Faried, and Mozgov. That matters.  And I suspect the reason so many players left happy, is because their development was never dismissed as unnecessary or unimportant.

 

LESSON 8: DO SMALL THINGS FOR PLAYERS THAT ARE OF LITTLE COST TO YOU

Last year, the Nets signed Tahjere McCall to a ten day contract despite having no real interest in him on the roster.  They did this to provide him with service time and money he would not otherwise have received.  This summer, the Nets accommodated a sign and trade with the Spurs concerning Carroll, to facilitate the Spurs and Marcus Morris agreeing to a contract.  These are not the only examples of the Nets doing small, altruistic things for players that do not really cost them much.

Do these little favors pay dividends?  Maybe, maybe not.  But they cannot hurt.  And that is why you do them.

 

LESSON 9: FIND YOUR MOMENT, AND SEIZE IT

I do not believe that in 2016, Marks planned a star free agent chase for 2019.  The pacts he gave to Porter, Johnson, Crabbe, and Motiejunas went into the 2020s.  If he were planning in 2016, or even the summer of 2017, for the summer of 2019, he would not have done that. He was thinking the build would be slower.

I think Marks’ decision to fast track to 2019, came at the end of the 2017-2018 season, when the Nets, carried by younger players, went near .500 over the final quarter of the season.  I think that run got Marks to believe that if his young players developed, and if that development was bolstered by replacing the lower fringe veterans around them with decent NBA players, that a playoff run, or “jump year,” as Kenny called it, was possible.  The Nets then worked to maximize talent in the roster, but with expiring contracts, so that they had cap room in 2019.

Culture plays in here, too.  It is easier to get the veteran buy in the Nets got when you have a reputation as a franchise that takes care of all of its players, including your vets, as I described above.

Without a doubt, Marks took a risk with his plan.  Marks eschewed a top five pick in the 2019 draft, and the chance to launch a rebuild with higher end young talent in the summer of 2019, to take a shot in free agency.  That risk was magnified by dealing a net of three draft picks (two firsts and a second), to unload Crabbe and Mozgov.  If Marks struck out, the Nets would have been in no mans land, with a 42 win roster, no high end pick, multiple picks out the door, and no high end import to take the next step.  They could have responded by tearing it down, but the rebuild would be delayed to 2020, not 2019.  Or they could have tried to build a contender around Russell, but that would have required him to take a leap from very good player to superstardom – I personally believe the chance of that level of leap from him, is less than 50%.

These are all concerns I pondered, privately and publicly.

Alas, Marks, indisputably, played his hand correctly.  He identified his moment to grab superstars, and he seized it.

The best GM’s earn their titles, by showing that their methods are not only prudent, but can result in the acquisition of elite talent, the building of the league’s top 5-10 teams.  Marks got the Nets there in three years.  He deserves every word of praise he gets.

 

RIPPLE EFFECTS — THE NBA LANDSCAPE: WILL WE SEE MORE OF AN APPETITE FOR GOING ALL IN, AND LESS OF AN APPETITE FOR LONG REBUILDS?

Nobody knows what affect this summer’s moves will have on the NBA, long term.  But we can certainly speculate.

After the Celtics trade, the NBA responded to the Nets’ plight by being very resistant to dealing first round picks.  Simply, teams wanted to avoid the same situation.  However, the Nets rebuild took just three years, and their playoff drought was only four years.  Projections of a decade long rebuild were way off the mark.

This could have ripple effects.

First, teams may be more willing than before to go all in, like the Nets did.  Surely, the decline of the Warriors is the biggest contributor to teams like the Clippers and Rockets going all in this summer (the Lakers are just the Lakers).  But seeing a team go all in and fail spectacularly, yet quickly pick the pieces up, surely offers a secondary reason: “even if this goes belly up, we can just dig out like Brooklyn did.”

A second ripple effect?  Owners seeing a rebuild expected to last this long, be this quick, may be more reluctant to greenlight 5-8 year rebuilding projects.  Again, the Nets would be a secondary reason.  The first reason would be that stars have been moving from roster to roster, every 2-4 years.  If the purpose of a rebuild is to get stars, can owners be sold on 5-8 year rebuilding projects, for a 2-4 year window?  Alas, the Nets offer another reason to speed the timeline: “They dealt every pick for five years and rebuilt in three, why should my rebuild take 7 years?”

 

Maybe the Nets rebuild will be discussed ten years from now.  Maybe it won’t.

But hey.  Either way, we got Kyrie and KD. Enjoy it!

 

 

Pain In The Progress, By Tyler Minks (@minkstyler)

Pain in the ProgressThe date is Dec 18, 2018 in Brooklyn, NY at Barclays Center with 26 seconds remaining in the game and the current score: Lakers 107, Nets 110. D’Angelo Russell, with his usual smooth swagger as he dribbles the ball between his legs glancing up at the shot clock. These moments right here are what D’Angelo Russell plays for. Russell knows what is about to happen, along with the nine other players on the court. As a few more seconds tick off the clock, Russell pulls up for a smooth 3 point shot without any hesitation…..BANG! D’ANGELO RUSSELL WITH THE DAGGER!

It was at this moment, I had an overwhelming feeling that D’Angelo Russell was finally becoming what we had all hoped for. That Russell had overcame the external doubt if he could reach his potential, or the negative press associated with him. Russell was showing he is winner, a team player, and on his way to becoming a star. Since the trade that brought Russell to the Brooklyn Nets, I have always hoped Russell would become the star player that the Nets have lacked since Jason Kidd was the point guard for the franchise. I can’t pinpoint why this play against the Lakers felt particularly special, maybe due to it being against the exact team who sent him to Brooklyn, maybe because Lebron James was on the other side, or the iconic “ICE IN MY VEINS” celebration that followed. I can’t necessarily put my finger on it. But it was in this moment that I felt that D’Angelo might be “turning the corner”.

 

As a Nets fan, you build accustom to getting your hopes up and building excitement, only to have it all come crashing down in your face. Have you by chance heard of the trade with Celtics? If not, go look it up… Dark times my friends, dark times. I say this, because even after having such confidence in Russell after this game, I could not help but remain skeptical with concerns of this game just being an outlier and could not be held consistently. I needed MORE to believe in. Need more to believe in? Checkmate, welcome to January 2019:

 

January 14th: 34 points (7 – 3pt FGM) | 7 assist | 5 rebounds

January 18th: 40 points (8 – 3pt FGM) | 7assist

 

D’Angelo started the first month of 2019 averaging 24 points and 7 assists on 45.5% shooting and 39.3% from 3 point territory. Now, NOWWW I was believing. I was now full out drinking the D’Angelo Russell Kool-Aid. I was all in for everything D’Angelo Russell. All Star game? He better be there. Most Improved Award? Deserving to be in the conversation. I started going into every game just waiting to see what quarter it would be that Russell would get hot from three and just set the court on fire for that quarter. More often, he were not disappointed in this regard. The cherry on top of it all was the 28 point comeback against the Sacramento Kings. There was no game winner from Russell (thank you Rondae), but we did get to witness a 44 point performance with Russell leading the way. That game alone was special and shown the toughness of the Brooklyn Nets as a whole.

 

So now that we are all reminiscing on the season the Brooklyn Nets had, and specifically D’Angelo Russell, I do this to remind all of us Nets fans of how special of a season we just got to witness this franchise have. This past season was everything a fan would hope for when their team is trying to climb their way out of being a franchise laughing stock. Every quarter that Russell had an explosive quarter. Dinwiddie lit it up off the bench, Joe Harris became one of the best 3 point shooters in the league, Jarrett Allen continued to grow. And finally, Caris Levert rounded back out to full form towards the end of the season.  The league was put on notice.

 

And now….here we are. Free Agency is right within reach. The rumors are flying mad with names such as Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, and even tricklings of Kristaps Porzingis possibly taking meetings with the Nets organization. No one really knows what is going to happen this summer. Even Coach Kenny Atkinson himself has admitted there will be a very different roster next season. And at the height of it all, is a large possibility the Nets enter next season without the player who was a focal point of such a turnaround season: D’Angelo Russell.

 

In the world of Twitter, the Brooklyn Nets fanbase is in mass disarray at the though of the Nets letting Russell go this summer. How could we let go the player who lead this team’s turnaround and embodied everything Brooklyn has been building? With rumors that Brooklyn is being heavily favored for Kyrie Irving, fans find it hard to wrap their heads around the idea of letting 23 year old Russell go, for 27 year old Irving who has been slammed in Boston for his leadership skills (or lack thereof) with their young team. Fans fear we have Sean Marks making a Billy King-esque move with trying to bring in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant coming off a torn Achilles. I will agree, there is reason to doubt. There is reason to fear these moves. Like I said before, remember the Boston trade? Any big step towards possible contention for Nets fans comes with a side order of anxiety.

 

But remind me, did the Raptors just win a title running back the same squad that had them ranked high in the east year after year? It came out of a tough and highly criticized move in trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. The same Kawhi Leonard who sat out for a season and was criticized for his role as a teammate on the Spurs towards the end of his tenure. Not looking so bad now. And no, that is not to say that is now the new blue print to a championship in this league. But, what we have been shown over and over in this league, that there is so many ways to build a contender in this league. It takes tough decisions. It was a fun and amazing season for the Nets this past year essentially playing with house money when no one expected much from them. Exceeding expectations is fun.

 

But now there are expectations. The Nets are now a playoff team. Big name players are supposed to be considering the Nets as their next team to represent. The Nets are now expected to land a superstar or two. We are in a whole different world than we were 3 seasons ago. A team competing for a championship comes with a whole different level of expectations that the Nets are attempting to steep themselves into.

And with that, comes tough decisions.

And as much as we all loved the season this team just had and all loved to watch Russell and the team as a whole blossom in front of our eyes, when you have championship caliber players knocking on your door, you answer. I think we can all agree that if we lose D’Angelo Russell this summer that it will be a tough blow to the fan base.

But for a franchise trying to enter the championship conversation, you must take the opportunity when it is available. With a summer full of big name free agents considering calling Brooklyn their home, it is safe to say the opportunity is no doubt available now. We have spent quite a few seasons believing and trusting the moves Sean Marks has made (In Marks We Trust, shout out @Flatbushandatlantic), so let’s continue to trust this franchise until proven otherwise. We have heard the world culture used over and over. Why not test it? See if Irving can become a product of his environment, the environment that Marks has preached on building for years now. We can have doubts and be critical. But let’s not go burn down the city and lose our minds…yet.

If this all backfires in a year or two, I will grab the pitch forks with you. But for the time being, let’s take in the moment that in such a short time this team has went from franchise laughing stock to now in the conversation with Kyrie Irving and possibly Kevin freakin Durant. It was a fun breakout year for this young team, but it’s time we all saddle up and prepare for the attempt of making the next step: Championship Contender. We didn’t mortgage our entire future to get here, so I would say we are in a much more comfortable position this time around.

 

It would hurt to see D’Angelo Russell leave Brooklyn this summer. But, with pain comes growth. See you all on the other side of Free Agency.

 

 

  • Tyler Minks

@MinksTyler