Brooklyn Nets, NBA

The Nets are winning because Kenny Atkinson puts players in position to succeed

For the last few years, the only thing that really mattered about the Brooklyn Nets was where their first-round pick would land. Brooklyn had traded seemingly every pick in its arsenal to the Celtics in the ill-fated Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett deal, and right up until the summer of 2018, that swap kept paying dividends for Boston while simultaneously costing Brooklyn.

With the Nets finally owning their own pick in 2019, many expected them to tank away this season while finally being able to reap the benefits of their inability to win. When their best player, multi-skilled wing Caris LeVert, suffered a brutal leg injury in mid-November during a game that dropped the Nets’ record to 6-8, it seemed fairly certain that they were about to begin a slow march toward the bottom of the standings. That certainty seemed all but confirmed when, after stemming the tide with a 2-2 stretch in the immediate wake of LeVert’s injury, the Nets proceeded to lose eight consecutive games, falling to 8-18 overall.

But there were signs at the time that the Nets were not quite as bad a team as their record indicated. They had the point differential of a 12-14 team, for example, but because they were only 4-12 in games that entered clutch time (records in clutch games tend to regress toward .500 eventually; more on this in a minute), they had already significantly underperformed their point differential.

A team that under-performs so drastically generally tends to rebound rather quickly; but those teams also generally are not missing their best player for the foreseeable future, as the Nets were. But that reality hasn’t mattered as much as one would’ve thought.

The Nets responded to the eight-game losing streak by winning seven consecutive games, and they have gone 16-5 overall to move their record above .500 (24-23) for the first time all season. That 16-5 mark since early December gives them the single-best record in the NBA,  one that’s been powered by an incredibly strong progression to the mean in clutch-time games. Since that dreadful 4-12 start in games that were within five points at any time during the final five minutes of regular or overtime, the Nets are 10-2 in such games — the second-best record in the league.

It should come as no surprise that there’s been almost as much good luck on Brooklyn’s side during this stretch as there was bad luck during the Nets’ subpar start. Brooklyn has outscored its opponents by only 14 points across those 12 clutch-time contests, indicating that they’ve been incredibly fortunate to amass their 10-2 record. The Nets also have the league’s 10th-best offense, 17th-best defense, and 13th-best net rating during that time, according to NBA.com, so their 16-5 record is likely quite a bit inflated. (They have the point differential of a team that “should” have gone 11-10 over its last 21 games, for example.) That’s backed up by the fact that Brooklyn’s record in games decided by double digits — a generally better indicator of team quality than record in close games, which almost always regresses toward .500 over enough time — is similar on either side of the split.

This recent stretch also includes several quality wins for the Nets, though. They’ve beaten the Raptors, Lakers, Celtics, and Pelicans at Barclays Center, and they’ve topped the 76ers and Rockets on the road. Those are all legit victories where they out-played quality opponents down the stretch of games, and even if they’re unlikely to continue winning at quite the rate they have over the past month or so, being able to beat the good teams on occasion shows that we should expect these Nets to continue to be a quality team themselves over the final 35 games of the year.

And even if the record is not necessarily sustainable, the way the Nets have been getting these wins certainly is. In our season preview, we detailed how close the Nets were to having a healthy offense, noting their tendency to get the right kind of shots (i.e. in the restricted area and behind the 3-point line). They drove to the basket incredibly often. They passed the ball a ton. They took a lot of spot-up attempts and not as many pull-ups.

Those trends have continued into this season. Brooklyn has the NBA’s sixth-highest Moreyball Rate, indicating that they’re still often getting shots in close and from deep. The Nets rank third in the NBA in drives per game, but unlike the last two years when their guards struggled to finish shots on the drive, they have an above-average conversion rate on drives this season. They’re still among the league leaders in passes per game, and they still take far more catch-and-shoot attempts than pull-ups, while they’re also shooting far better on both types of attempts than at any time in recent seasons.

Driving all this is the system of coach Kenny Atkinson, who simply does a fantastic job of putting his player in position to succeed. Atkinson was a player development specialist before winning the Nets job, and his work with players like Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell and Joe Harris, in particular, and with his other players more generally, should be universally lauded.

Atkinson’s offense borrows heavily from Mike Budenholzer, under whom he coached in Atlanta, and thus also borrows from certain Gregg Popovich teams. But Atkinson has also incorporated a ton of the flow action commonplace in the offenses of d Rick Carlisle and especially Terry Stotts, corner sets like the kind Rick Adelman ran and Brad Stevens now runs, and dribble hand-off actions that should be familiar to anyone who has ever watched the Warriors.

The best coaches steal from other smart coaches, and nobody appears to steal from more smart coaches than Atkinson. And he steals with a purpose, using Portland action at first with Allen Crabbe (who used to play for the Blazers) and then simply inserting Joe Harris into those sets when it became abundantly clear he was the one who should be getting the wing shooter minutes.

The Nets put Dinwiddie and Russell in position to succeed by flowing their off-ball players off multiple screens and then having one of those screeners step up into a pick-and-roll, giving their languid ball-handlers time and space to navigate the ball-screen action and choose the best path into the paint or pull up from deep. Their catch-and-shoot guys are not strictly catch-and-shoot guys, but players who know how and when to put the ball on the floor to beat a closeout and either drive to the rim themselves or keep the line moving with the correct extra pass.

Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll fill that role easily (and Carroll is used to doing it from his Hawks days), but Harris has greatly improved his game with the ball in his hands, Rodions Kurucs is already showing signs of being that type of player, and both Dinwiddie and Russell have shown increasing levels of comfort working off the ball when asked. Another feather in Atkinson’s cap: Dinwiddie was slumping for a few days and Atkinson said so during a press conference … but he went to Dinwiddie to have a conversation about what he said, and wanted him to know that it was not his fault, and that Atkinson was looking for ways to help him get back on track.

Where Atkinson is really having fun experimenting is with his usage of Jarrett Allen, on both ends of the floor. Allen fell a bit further than expected in the 2017 draft, dropping to Brooklyn’s selection at No. 22 overall. It’s paying off. Allen’s just 20 years old but he’s already averaged 12 points, 9 rebounds, and a block-and-a-half per game, and is showing increasing comfort on defense, where Atkinson has him trying some truly novel stuff.

When Allen’s guarding a non-shooting big man, he simply does not guard that player outside the immediate area of the basket, and instead spends entire possessions “two-point-nine-ing,” or standing in the lane for as close to 2.9 seconds as possible before darting out and then stepping back in again. Allen is among the league leaders in at-rim shots defended per game, and even though opponents have finished well when he’s at the rim, they have also not gotten there all that often, thanks to the deterrence factor of a 6-foot-11 big man whose hair makes him look like he’s 7-foot-5 lurking in the paint.

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On offense, Allen is parading himself to the free-throw line 5 times per 36 minutes, a healthy number for a relatively low-usage big man who is almost completely dependent on his teammates to create his shots. More importantly, he’s knocking down those free-throws at a better than 70 percent rate, which means he’s not a liability that can be hack-a-Allen’ed off the floor. He hits the offensive glass incredibly hard, is showing more of an ability to catch the ball on the move and make the correct pass if necessary, and is an absolute pogo-stick monster on pick-and-roll lobs. He’s exactly the kind of player you want as the dive man in Atkinson’s style of offense.

Throw all of this together and the Nets being at .500 46 games into the season isn’t all that outlandish. That they’ve done it largely without LeVert is wildly impressive, and it indicates that there’s still room for growth with this group, even if they don’t have a true star on hand. The Nets are going star-shopping this summer, naturally, but they should be encouraged about their future even if they come up empty. Their front office is smart, their coach knows exactly what he’s doing, and their players are routinely put in a position to succeed. That’s a strong step in the right direction.

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