It’s bad, but be thankful for Sean and Kenny

The Nets are 8-28.  Whether you believe in their new front office or not, one thing is true: the Nets are a tough team to watch on a night in, night out basis.  Are the Nets a perfect organization?  By no means.  If one is being honest in their assessment, it would be tough to argue that any team in the league is in a worse position, from an asset and talent perspective, than the Nets are.

At the same time, fans have a tendency to be myopic, and view everything regarding a NBA franchise through the prism of its record.  The Nets are simultaneously 8-28 with an asset deficiency, and a roster full of hopes, rather than rotation players: that is awful.  But just because the Nets are 8-28, does not mean that everything they are doing is bad.  Great teams have weaknesses, and, yes, awful teams have strengths.

The Nets two strengths? Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson.

On Kenny Atkinson:

It is always easy, when a team loses basketball games, to point fingers at the coaching staff from the couch (or the bar, arena, etc.).  But those fingers are not warranted with Atkinson.

If any team is going to build a champion, that team needs to construct a modern offensive system.  Modern offenses are not built around the post ups and isolation type basketball typical of the Nets prior to Atkinson’s arrival.  Modern offenses shoot the 3.  Modern offenses rely on the dribble drive to open up and space the floor.  Modern offenses push the ball.

Atkinson has brought the Nets into the 21st century (or really, into the last eight years).  They are third in the lead in three pointers attempted, and first in pace.  Their offense, when Lin is healthy, is built around Lin probing for creases and setting himself or others up for shots.  They top the league in pace. They are second in the league in drives to the basket. This article does an amazing job detailing the numbers: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2017/01/03/the-nets-are-the-worst-team-in-the-nba-but-theyre-playing-like-a-playoff-team/?utm_term=.a3df6e3038b4

Critically, Brook Lopez took just 31 threes before this year.  He’s taken 166 this year, and hits at a fair 36.1% clip.  Developing bigs into three point shooters is something modern, successful franchises do.

The Nets lose. A lot. But they absolutely play basketball the right way; the way contenders play.  They just do not get the results contenders get, because of the talent.

Some are critical of Atkinson as related to the high volume of threes and their style, especially given the Nets are a terrible 28th in the NBA in three point shooting percentage.  The thought is that Atkinson is not maximizing his players and squeezing the most he can out of them — something which would help them win as much as they can.

As a factual point, that Atkinson is not maximizing this roster is true.  This 8-28 team could be something like 10-26, perhaps, if Atkinson stopped allowing his bad young shooters to take threes, stopped allowing Hollis-Jefferson to drive to the basket, and the like.

But what good would come out of that?  The goal right now is to begin the process of building a contender.  And the idea of Atkinson installing a system he wants to win with in the playoffs now, is a simple one: some of these players are going to be along for the ride.  Assume that, if the Nets are a playoff team in 3 years, the team has LeVert, Whitehead, Kilpatrick, and Hamilton (for the sake of argument).  There is infinitely more value in those players — and players acquired next year and the year after — to be accustomed to Atkinson’s system, than for them to have to reintegrate every year into a system that fits that year’s personnel.

Quite simply, there is no point of Atkinson focusing his system on THIS roster — most of these players are not going to be here when he is coaching his first contender in Brooklyn.  It is more important to establish the system going forward so that the players kept going forward are familiar with it.

Lastly, there has been some criticism of Atkinson in being so liberal with his minutes distribution.  And it should be noted that Atkinson likely would squeeze a couple more wins from this roster if he simply played Lopez, Booker, Bogdanovic, Lin (when healthy) and whoever has the hot hand that night a ton of minutes, and froze out the rest of the roster.

But what good does that do.  Once again, no matter what Atkinson does, this roster is one built to lose between 55 and 70 games, depending on health and future trades.  Maximizing this particular group has no benefit.

By playing everyone on the roster a lot of minutes — and by putting everyone on the roster into clutch situations, Atkinson is ensuring the most important thing he can ensure — that the Nets get a complete look at all of their young players so that they can know what they can do, what they cannot do, and what they cannot do but can improve at.  That is why you see Bogdanovic guarding Jimmy Butler on a late game play, or Dinwiddie playing endgame minutes, or Whitehead taking a technical free throw in the fourth quarter.  The exposure to those moments boosts development and maximizes evaluation.

Atkinson is forward thinking and is doing a good job.

On Sean Marks:

Sean Marks inherited a 21-61 team with the above asset depletion — and that depletion was even larger last year given the Nets 2016 first rounder also went to Boston.

If anyone expected Marks to fix the Nets by this point in time, they had unreasonable expectations.  Sure, every GM should be evaluated, and that includes Marks.  At the same time, GM’s cannot simply be evaluated by team record in a vacuum.  The picture inherited by the GM relative to where they are must be a factor. And anytime a GM inherits a team this far in the hole, from an asset perspective, the GM cannot actually get anything done until the GM, first, cleans up the mess the last GM made.

No GM can be judged solely on moves.  How is the GM’s plan?  How is his understanding of the human element of team building?  Does he embrace analytics?  What culture is he installing?  And, yes, how are his moves.

Going just on moves, Marks has done fine.  Hired five hours before the trade deadline, nobody can possibly fault Marks for not making deals at the deadline.  A GM must look at every aspect of the roster carefully, and assess the market by speaking with other GM’s, over months of time.  Marks would have been stupid to do something dramatic at the deadline. He bought out Joe Johnson to take care of him, which was smart because players and agents talk.

Given the weak 2016 NBA Draft, Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead have performed just fine; Marks did well in the draft.  Jeremy Lin, despite injuries, was a steal at his contract number and is a boost, both in showing the Nets can obtain free agents, and showing the Nets are heading in the right direction.  He has also helped the team’s young players when he has played.  Sean Kilpatrick was an excellent 10 day contract find.  Justin Hamilton has performed acceptably.  Trevor Booker is a perfect example for the kids, and his fierce competitive fire defines the culture being built. Joe Harris has not been a bad addition.

Lastly, the offer sheets to Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson were thwarted, but were smart.  They show players and agents the Nets are headed in the right direction (remember: people talk), and put the Nets in the room with a credible shot with better talent than the UFA market permits.

Marks is not perfect.  Randy Foye and Luis Scola have underwhelmed, while Greivis Vasquez literally broke down. Nevertheless, all three players were plan C’s, signed to be veteran leaders, not to actually provide production. In addition, while I like Thad for LeVert as a concept, the Nets cannot proclaim victory in that trade until a day comes where Caris is the better player — that day will not come this year. The trade, while sensible, was a risk.

Going beyond the player acquisitions, however, Marks has done s much that should excite fans. For starters, Marks has not taken any shortcuts in building this franchise.  Check out the scope of the front office: http://www.netsdaily.com/2016/8/27/12669384/do-the-nets-have-the-biggest-front-office-in-the-nba

Marks has shown he understands the things that the best organizations understand.  The best organizations manage minutes in conjunction with their performance teams, and biometrics staffs.  The best organizations do not make decisions in insular fashion, without considering all perspectives.  We have consistently heard from Marks that when he makes decisions, he listens to everyone in the room.

Overall, the Nets are building a quality culture and infrastructure.  We have an all inclusive front office. We have a modern coaching staff.  We have players who shoot 3’s, play fast, and, like Trevor Booker, compete hard.

Sure, some of this may seem hollow to fans.  But the Nets, last year, hit rock bottom in many ways.  The losing was combined with a regressive manner of doing business.  Far more important than building an infrastructure, was headline grabbing, making a splash and winning more than the Knicks. Building an infrastructure matters: all good organizations have a good culture.  When you are 21-61 with no draft picks, no assets, and no culture of accountability, work ethic, or professionalism, you have to start with building those things first.

Things appear to be changing.  The Nets, in so many ways, are acting like the antithesis of a team looking to win the headline over building an infrastructure.  The offseason focus: targeting unheralded players, ignoring “names” like Dion Waiters, Rajon Rondo, or the like.  The GM and coach hire: relative unknowns.  Thaddeus Young for Caris LeVert? That sounds like anything but trying to win the headline. Sure, Lin is a splashy name, and Whitehead is a local kid.  But given Lin’s cheap contract number and Whitehead’s performance relative to draft position, it is tough to criticize either move.

The Nets, in their moves since February of 2016, have not prioritized beating the Knicks, or avoiding the optics of giving a top pick to Boston.  They have acted like a normal franchise.

The key? Impetuous owners are known, from time to time, to have patches of time where poor play shocks them into reasonable thinking.  Prokhorov, for 11 months, has been reasonable, has not been impulsive, and has positioned the Nets to do well once they get out from under their asset debt.

Marks and Atkinson have brought us a new Prokhorov for 11 months. Now, it must last.

 

 

 

 

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