Nets Coaching List Revealed: What Does It Tell Us

Thursday night may have been dominated by the NFL Draft.

But Thursday afternoon? The Brooklyn Nets seized the day.

According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, “Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and the incumbent interim coach Jacque Vaughn are among the names on the Nets’ developing list of coaching candidates.” In subsequent tweets, Stein lists Mike Brown as a name to monitor, notes that the Nets’ process has not yet hit “top speed,” and notes that Tom Thibodeau is not a candidate for the Nets head coaching job.

Before diving into my takeaways on what the Nets are thinking here, the way I rank these candidates, is as follows: Lue; Kidd; Jackson; Vaughn. Van Gundy has not coached in thirteen years, making it too difficult to project how he would coach in the modern game.  I prefer Lue strongly over the other candidates, all of whom I have no interest in seeing coach the Nets.

However, what I think is not necessarily what the Nets think, and the list gives us a window into the Nets thinking in three aspects. They are threefold.  First, subject to the rest of the candidate list and hiring result, it appears possible that Marks has ceded some organizational control to KD and Kyrie, and that is a good thing. Second, it appears there is smoke behind Lue’s candidacy.  Third, it appears Kidd is a strong candidate for the job, and that the Nets have begun a PR campaign to push his candidacy, in an effort to sway fans whom feel jaded by how Kidd ended his first coaching stint with the team.

Let’s dive into the how and why, as I see it.

 

Organizational control to KD and Kyrie: The Stein lists tends to show that Marks has ceded some organizational control to KD and Kyrie, and that is just fine for the Nets.

From the moment the Nets hired Sean Marks (and shortly after, Kenny Atkinson), the Nets’ commitment to analytics has been steadfast, in their offensive and defensive systems, how they allocate minutes, their roster moves, and in their hires. In this good article by Bryan Fonseca on Netsdaily, Fonseca provides excellent insights into the Nets’ analytics philosophy and how it helped spearhead the Nets’ rebuild. In this good Ringer article by Kevin O’Connor from earlier in the Nets rebuild, he delves into similar details. As the articles and hires detail, the Nets’ commitment to analytics originates with Marks, not Kenny Atkinson, and has been a staple of the Marks regime.

The commitment to analytics is seen on the court, too. A significant analytics tenet is to take as many layups and threes as possible. The Nets offense and defense under Atkinson? It was designed to maximize the amount of threes and layups the Nets shoot, while forcing opponents to shoot as few layups and threes as possible. Another significant analytics and modern organizational tenet? Minutes and load management.  The Nets? This regime has committed to limiting minutes, even for its best players, in the interests of load management.

Marks’ dedication to analytics simply does not line up with the beliefs of Kevin Durant on the subject, who has expressednumerous times, his disdain for analytics as they pertain to, for example, the value of midrange jumpers. Whether it is condescension about graphs in basketball (read: an way to share analytics), or his belief in going to his “middy” (a term of endearment for a midrange jumper, much unlike how analytics folks see the midrange), Durant is just not a believer. Kyrie Irving? Not exactly an analytics guy, either.

Which brings us to the Nets’ list of coaches.  The list is not congruent with an organization that is committed to analytics; the list is congruent with someone who does not value analytics. The list, as a result, tends to show that Durant and Irving, not Marks, are pulling the strings in this coaching search. We cannot finalize any conclusions until we see the full list and who the Nets hire, but that is where the results trend at the moment.  Just look at the names.  Jason Kidd? His systems in Milwaukee, replete with midrangers and a pressure based defense that surrendered corner threes by design (read: anti analytics). When Mike Budenholzer replaced him, the team, modernized its principles on both ends (read: embraced analytics).  Mark Jackson? The same issue but to an even further extreme.  When replaced by Steve Kerr, Kerr basically stripped away Jackson’s anti analytics, post the mistmatch offense, with a modern offense built around generating threes. Jeff Van Gundy? He is known for using commentating as a soapbox to bemoan the sport’s recent commitment to analytics and load management.

That is a Durant-Irving list of names.  A major former player in Kidd whom they respect for his talent. A figure in Jackson who, for some folks less inclined toward analytics, is perceived as not getting enough credit for the growth of the Warriors. A glamour name in Van Gundy who stars recognize.

As this all reflects, Marks appears to have ceded control to KD and Kyrie.  Which, for the record, is more than fine.  Durant and Irving know what coach will make them tick, inspire them to play their best, and get the Nets over the top.  They know Atkinson is not that coach, and they think the names on this list — all of them — might be.  GM’s may make all the decisions with no player input when they have a roster of role players and non star starters. But GM’s don’t dictate to stars — they partner with them.  And in the Nets handing out Jordan’s contract, starting Jordan, firing Kenny, and creating this list of coaches, we are witnessing that partnership unfold.

Stars having power is not scandalous, but it is reality. NBA stars have more impact on winning than the stars in any other sport. Titles and deep playoff appearances are driven almost entirely by where the NBA’s fifteen or so best players play. This gives stars major leverage and, yes, personnel power, because they use their leverage to obtain the ability to both choose where to play, and choose how that team operates.

This all begs the question: why are teams, and players, so reluctant to admit, either in leaks or their own voices, that stars have personnel power? The answer is in the optics. NBA fans are often fans of other sports, where superstars have less impact and thus you do not see stars with power, or see it much less. It feels, to some, like overstepping, and it is inconsistent with cultural norms about franchise power coming from the organization instead of the player (did you see any reports that NFL teams were drafting who their stars demanded, or hiring the coach their star wanted?).  As a result, an absurdity develops — both teams and stars have a vested interest in presenting a fictional reality that teams have autonomy and stars lack power.  We saw this in Cleveland and LA, where LeBron camp has regularly denied assertions of his power over both franchises. Players do not want to turn off fans who see players with power as entitled, spoiled, or whatever other bad adjective.  And teams know that they must convince fans to believe in them in a way that survives the star leaving the franchise.  It is harder to do that if the star gets credit for bringing in other good players and the head coach.

Really, we should move past this. The premise that KD and Kyrie have power with the Nets is an expression of the reality of the NBA. It is not an accusation directed at them, or at the Nets.  The large DeAndre Jordan contract, the coaching list, Jordan starting over Allen, and arguably the firing of Kenny itself, are all demonstrations of KD and Kyrie’s power with the Nets. And that is ok.

 

The Smoke behind Lue: Per Vince Goodwill of Yahoo!, Irving wants Lue to be the next Nets coach.  While Kyrie’s camp denied it, he knows Vaughn is the coach and, as described above, wants to avoid the appearance of power — as such, his denial is basically worthless. Per Stefan Bondy of the Daily News, Lue would like to coach Kyrie.  Per Joe Vardon (who knows Kyrie better than any reporter) of The Athletic, any prior issues between Irving and Lue are more or less water under the bridge. Per Richard Jefferson (who works for YES, which, as the Nets’ broadcasting partner, does PR and marketing for the franchise like any other broadcasting partner), Lue is a great candidate. None of this goes as far as to say Lue is a frontrunner, but there is certainly smoke there. Often, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

PR push behind Kidd: Five days ago Anthony Puccio of Netsdaily advocated for some sort of embrace for the point guard from his former team , in an article that focused on embracing the franchise’s NJ roots.  To be noted, the article did not mention Kidd with respect to the Nets’ coaching search.  Two days ago, Kidd appeared on an interview on YES as part of the network’s “We Are Here” segments, essentially reminiscing about his good times with the franchise.  Subsequently, Kidd was on the Nets’ list of coaches, and Netsdaily tweeted, “no real surprise he’s on list. He’d be on any smart team’s list of head coaching candidates.”  This all feels a little too coincidental. The Nets know that there are bitter feelings within the fanbase about Kidd’s power play in 2014. Were they to hire him as head coach, they would, naturally, want to convince fans that, despite what happened in 2014, this is a good hire.  The Nets having him on YES to effectively smooth over hurt feelings and remind people of the good times, right when he appears on their list, is quite the coincidence. There is smoke here, as well.

Bonus: A note on Jacque Vaughn: It is true that Marks has been complementary of Vaughn since dismissing Atkinson.  However, I would not read into it for a few reasons. First, as was mentioned by John Hollinger on the Glue Guys podcast and was said in other places, the Nets are looking for a big name – Vaughn, unlike the others, is not a big name. Second, in theory the best case Vaughn could have made for the job was coaching well during the close to the season.  While I will not speculate on the coronavirus, it is fair to say that it is far from certain that the 2019-2020 season will ever resume.  Third, there are optics: when Steve Stoute of the Knicks mentioned that the team would be hiring a new coach after this season, Stefan Bondy tweeted as follows: “Mike Miller and his staff understand the situation but it’s unfair and ridiculous to hear from Steve Stoute on ESPN that they’re not returning. They’ve grinded with this team for two seasons.”  Bondy said that because it is disrespectful for an organization, when a coach (or any employee) is under contract, to openly discuss the job as being vacant. The classy thing to do — the right thing to do — is to publicly sing the praises of the incumbent.  You still conduct a clandestine search because this is a business.  As a result, Marks’ public comments concerning Vaughn are not significant in terms of what Marks actually believes.

A Pivotal Nets Offseason: What Comes Next?

In the dog days of quarantine, the world has stopped.

But once the quarantine lifts, the Nets must be ready to go.

Once the 2019-2020 season ends, a two year championship window opens for the Brooklyn Nets, and it is imperative that every decision they make is directed toward maximizing their ability to win it all, within that window.

One may wonder: why is the window only two years, when KD and Kyrie indicated they intend to retire in Brooklyn? The answer? Stars in this era constantly say they are staying put, but move from franchise to franchise. Thus, for all contenders built around stars, their window closes when the contracts of those stars expire. LeBron said he would not leave Cleveland until he brought the region a title; then counted more titles in Miami at a ticket holder rally than years he played for the team; and then pledged to remain in Cleveland forever. Kyrie promised to resign in Boston. KD was reported in OKC as not being one to lust for free agency, and then in Golden State he bristled at reports he had a foot out the door. PG13 resigned in OKC and told fans “I’m here to stay.”

Stars have the right to change their minds about staying put, or to lie about staying put to avoid an awkward situation.  With that said, stars do this so commonly, that for all teams with a star under contract, it is imperative to win a title during that contract.  The future is promised to no one.

As a result, the Nets must go “all in” on their upcoming two year window.  Will going all in compromise the ability to rebuild after KD and Kyrie leave?  Maybe But the Nets are in for a rough rebuild when KD and Kyrie leave, no matter what.  There is no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Trae Young like piece to launch a rebuild around.  As a result, any move that limits this two year window to focus on a “post KD Kyrie core” is a mistake — there is no post KD Kyrie core to speak of.

The necessity of going all in on this two year window also makes it foolish for the Nets to decline trades that make the team better, on the ground that, “you need to see how it looks with this core, first.” Why do you need to see that? It is Sean Marks’ responsibility to maximize the Nets’ chance to win a title in these two years.  If that maximization means dealing fan favorites, or players who paid their dues under this regime, then so be it. Marks displayed his understanding of this when he fired Kenny Atkinson and let D’Angelo Russell walk.  You can contend that both were the two primary faces of what Marks constructed, pre KD and Kyrie.  Marks let both go because his sole obligation is to win a championship, not to reward past contributions.

Lastly, one rationale sometimes noted for the Nets staying quiet on the trade market is that they “have enough to win right now.”  Maybe, they do.  But it is Marks’ job to make the Nets as great as possible — ignoring chances to improve because what he has might be enough would be organizational malpractice.

To be clear, none of this is to say that the Nets must make a trade/transaction.  As Marks has done from day one, his stance on trades/transactions should be as follows.  If a trade/transaction makes the Nets better, and the opportunity cost is worth it, then the Nets should make the trade.  If a trade/transaction does not make Nets better, or the opportunity cost is not worth it, then the Nets should not make the trade.  If that means LeVert, Dinwiddie, and Harris get moved, then they get moved.  If that means TLC, Kurucs, and Musa are not moved, then they are not moved.

The opportunity cost of a trade, or the lost of alternatives, as mentioned above, is important.  Suppose you have $2, and a bottle of Pepsi and bottle of Sprite each cost $2.  If you buy Pepsi, you cannot buy Sprite.  That is the opportunity cost.  From the perspective of the Nets, suppose they can trade Taurean Prince and two first round picks for JJ Redick.  On value, this trade makes the Nets better.  However, the opportunity cost might not be worth it — if Bradley Beal is available, are the Nets unable to get him now, because they burned two firsts on Redick?

Lastly, before we dive into each player on the roster, let’s consider the Nets’ cap situation, as this affects the Nets’ options this summer.  In short, the Nets will be over the cap, and thus only have available to offer free agents one taxpayer midlevel of $6.025 million (which can be given to one player or distributed among multiple players), and unlimited minimum exceptions.  Using pre-coronavirus cap projections, if the Nets renounce all of their free agents (including Joe Harris.  Note that renouncing him, given his ability, would mean letting him walk), they would be $21.59 over the cap.

In short, the biggest free agency weapon available to the Nets is a touch over $6 million.  This is one reason the Nets are reportedly being aggressive in the trade market — if they want to make a significant addition to the starting linep, the only realistic avenue is a trade.

With all of this said, let’s take a look at the players.

I. The Untouchables – Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving

This one is easy. Marks has built this team around Durant and Irving — they, and they only, are the core of the team. Everyone else is here to support them.  Marks should and will keep them, and explore improving the roster around them. Both will be back.

II. The Guards – Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. 

Marks should be aggressive exploring trades involving each of these players.  If the Nets are able to attain a third star, they should trade one, or both if the player is as good as Bradley Beal.  When is the last time a team with three players that excellent did not win a title?  If the Nets can get away with trading one, my preference would be to trade LeVert, due to Dinwiddie’s durability, and better body of work as a sixth man (the ideal role for either player).  However, the tea leaves appear to show that Marks prefers to keep LeVert and deal Dinwiddie.

Kyrie Irving is going to have the ball constantly next season, and Durant will obviously have it a lot as well.  The Nets starting lineup, and finishing five, should either feature a third star, or players who do not need the ball to thrive, and can play off of them. Think about, for example, how well Klay Thompson fit with Curry and KD in Golden State – or how well Buddy Hield would fit next to Kyrie and KD.

A star next to KD and Kyrie taking possessions from them is one thing.  Bradley Beal is so good that the Nets can live with Irving and KD ball watching for a little bit.

LeVert and Dinwiddie are good players, but they are not that caliber.  In a league of arguably 20-25 or so stars, LeVert and Dinwiddie simply are not at that level.  Having one of them anchor the second unit helps, but the fit between them and Kyrie, as it was with DLO before Kyrie, has been awkward by the eye test.  The numbers on Kyrie and Dinwiddie together are good, but the sample is small. The Nets would be much better served with a player who can dependably start next to Kyrie and KD, as opposed to a player who looks great in flashes but does not fit with the stars.

The Nets, with LeVert or Dinwiddie’s salary, other salaries (notably Taurean Prince), Allen’s value, and their warchest of picks, have the assets to add a star, or a very good third piece that would fit around Kyrie and KD like a glove. If they can get that player, they should pull the trigger, as opposed to continuing to force the fit of LeVert and Dinwiddie next to Kyrie and KD. If the Nets can get a player comparable in level to LeVert and Dinwiddie, who fits better, they should pull the trigger on dealing one of them.  If they can get a third star, they should do so as well, and should perhaps be ok dealing both.

The verdict: LeVert is likely to be a Net, at around 60% odds, while Dinwiddie is unlikely to remain a Net, at around 40% odds.  Marks, by all accounts, has been aggressive.  He dumped Atkinson and DLO, and would not hesitate dumping LeVert or Dinwiddie.

III. The Other Notables Under Contract – Taurean Prince, Jarrett Allen, and DeAndre Jordan

Taurean Prince is an interesting asset this summer. The Nets apparently hoped he would settle in as a solid two way wing, comprising the start of a group of players whom the Nets could use by committee to guard Giannis, Kawhi, and other starry wings.  It has not worked.  With his $12.25 million salary, his figure will help them salary match in deals for upgrades.  However, it is possible that he has negative value at this point.

My prediction and desire here are the same – Marks will try to use Prince’s salary in trades for a significant addition.  However, if that does not work, and if dealing him requires offloading assets just to move him, then Marks will keep him. He will likely be moved.

As for Jarrett Allen, his value to the Nets is not as high as to a rebuild.  Allen provides nothing to the Nets that DeAndre Jordan does not.  Both are asked to block shots, defend, rebound, and score off layups and dunks as rim runners – Allen is better at some skills, and Jordan at others, but they are largely duplicative.  The Nets, rather than paying Allen $15 million per year on an extension, would be well served using his asset value to a rebuild to bring in a significant starter, by dealing him with one of LeVert or Dinwiddie. Moreover, reports from Shams Charania, Zach Lowe, and John Hollinger all implied that Allen starting over Jordan was a source of friction among other players on the team. Once Atkinson was fired after a locker room blowup, the Nets immediately started Jordan over Allen.  What that sequence of events says about Allen’s place in this Nets core is obvious.  And that comes before mentioning that Kyrie listed out the players he sees as in the Nets core, yet omitted Allen. That was no accident.

The verdict here: Allen is likely moved to help provide the Nets with better wing play.

Finally, concerning DeAndre, he is likely to be back.  He is still productive.  KD and Kyrie want to play with him.  And, if Marks were to shop him, he would find that Jordan has negative value, requiring the attachment of picks to offload his deal.  It makes no sense for the Nets to deal a rotation player at a loss right now.  Jordan will be back.

IV. The key free agents: Joe Harris and Garrett Temple

Due to the Nets’ way over the cap status, they should keep Harris and Temple.  They are basically in “bird rights prison.” Because the Nets have Bird rights on Harris and a $5 million option on Temple, they can exceed the cap to retain both players – they can max Harris, even. However, if the Nets let either player walk, the only way to “replace” them, is to sign a player for the minimum exception.  That player will not be as good as Harris, and likely not Temple, either. As a result, they must keep both, regardless of the price.

I do expect Marks to keep both — ultimately, it will be Joe Tsai’s call on whether he is willing to spend to win. It must be noted that Tsai, himself and through sources (and through Marks) has declared his willingness to spend.  However, many owners before Tsai have pledged to spend, only to pull back on that pledge when it comes time to write the check.  Nothing is official until the owner opens the checkbook. In that vein, it also should be noted that Hollinger, Lowe, and Harris himself, have expressed uncertainty about the final outcome. Harris said he would stay “in an ideal world,” which sounds like code for “if they pay me.” The world is not always ideal.

The verdict here is that the Nets should and will retain both players.

V. The kid: Nic Claxton

Claxton is a unique player on the Nets roster.  Skill wise, he is the only big the Nets have who can push the ball, and shoot the ball (based on his G league stats).  He can pass. He profiles as a player who can guard multiple positions.  If he puts it together, he can help the Nets win a title.

With that said, Claxton is raw.  Just like LeVert and Dinwiddie, Claxton may be a trade chip, as the Nets look to add a third bigtime player to this roster. Would the Nets prefer to keep him? Absolutely.  But if a team deals a player as good as Beal, John Collins, Karl Anthony Towns, or the like (just examples), that team is likely going to seek kids far from RFA and picks in return, and Claxton fits the bill. If that team demands him, will Marks be able to keep him out of the deal? Can Marks justify not acquiring a great player in the short term because of Claxton?

I hope the Nets keep Claxton. And the verdict here is that Marks finds a way to add a bigtime player without dealing Claxton.  But this is a discussion worth having.

VI. The fringe: Chiozza, Kurucs, TLC, Musa, Chandler, Pinson, and Martin

When you are not contending for a title (ie: rebuilding, or a playoff team not in the mix), it makes sense to stock your roster (more so during a rebuild), with as many fringe young players as possible. The hope is that, among the fray, you find gems, like the Nets did with Dinwiddie and Harris. Many of these players amount to nothing (see: Anthony Bennett, Justin Hamilton, Sean Kilpatrick, and other early Marks Nets legends), but since you are not winning a title, that is the risk you take, to uncover a gem who can be significant piece down the road.

However, now that the Nets are chasing a NBA title, the risk of multiple fringe players flaking out is not worth the reward. The Nets need to stock their bench with as many win now, ready made vets as possible.

Can the Nets convince a Serge Ibaka to play for the taxpayer midlevel? A Kelly Olynyk? Paul Millsap, if we get frisky? Can they coax a Kent Bazemore to sign for the veterans minimum? A Wes Matthews? Does Jeff Teague play for the minimum to ring chase in a hopeful career revival as a third string point guard? Does Robin Lopez?

The answer to all those questions, is “who knows.” But with that said, that is where the Nets are at in terms of their roster building.  The focus on building the bottom of their roster should, and likely will, be on selling as many established veterans as possible on the idea of taking less money than they are worth to join the Nets, because they have a chance to win a title.

That makes each of these players — Chiozza, Kurucs, TLC, Musa, Chandler, Pinson, and Martin — an afterthought this summer.  If they are back, they are back.  If they sign elsewhere as the Nets chase win now vets, c’est la vie.

The verdict here is that Chiozza and Musa will be back, with the rest departing.

 

It’s title chase time in Brooklyn. After rewatching game two of the 2003 NBA finals last week, I cannot wait any longer.

Game on, NBA.

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.