The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nets are the worst team in the NBA, but they’re playing like a playoff team

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson has installed a modern basketball philosophy based on analytics. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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When the Brooklyn Nets missed the playoffs last season for the first time since relocating from New Jersey in 2012, owner Mikhail Prokhorov felt it was time for a change, firing coach Lionel Hollins and reassigning general manager Billy King. After all, Prokhorov promised Nets fans a championship in five years when he bought the team in 2010 and only had one playoff series win to show for it.

Prokhorov brought in Sean Marks — an 11-year NBA veteran who won two NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs, once as a player (2005) and once as an assistant coach (2014) — as the team’s new general manager. Marks immediately showed the franchise had a new way of doing things, hiring a judicial law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis as the Nets’ salary cap specialist and a human performance manager at the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command as the team’s director of player performance. Ken Atkinson, a former director of player development for the Houston Rockets and assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, was hired to be the 21st head coach for the franchise. Now the new coach is shaking things up as well.

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Atkinson has installed a modern basketball philosophy based on analytics, replacing isolations and post-up plays with a fast pace that includes open three-point shots, drives to the rim and a transition-focused offense. It’s similar to the blueprint utilized by the Houston Rockets and “Moreyball,” but also found in the gameplans of playoff and championship teams like the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Nets rank first in pace (103.9 possessions per 48 minutes), second in drives per game (34.8), third in three-point attempts per game (32.8) and sixth in free-throw attempts per game (25.2). Last season the team was in the bottom 10 in each of those categories.

“Sean and I were on the same page,” Atkinson said in an interview with the Post. “We are very involved in the process of starting a program and establishing the way we want to play. We know the high value shots in this league.”

Look no further than the transformation of Nets center Brook Lopez to get a sense of what Atkinson is trying to do with his roster. One of the few holdovers from last year’s squad, Lopez made three total three-point shots in the first eight years of his career, a span of 487 games. This season, the 7-foot, 275-pound big man has already made 58 shots from behind the arc.

“It is something I have always been confident in for as long as I have been playing basketball, but the coaching staff has confidence in me shooting the ball and gave me the opportunity. That helped a lot,” Lopez said. “It also adds another wrinkle for us.”

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On the perimeter, Lopez can either set a screen behind the three-point line, drive to the rim or take a spot-up jumper from beyond the arc. He has taken almost as many above-the-break three-point shots (team-high 139) as he has in the restricted area (141) and isn’t afraid to take the long three-point shot either. Those extra feet of space create bigger driving lanes for his teammates and force defenses to make a choice: either send someone out beyond the arc to guard him or live with his respectable 36.5 percent shooting from deep. Lopez also has more room to drive to the net on pick-and-roll pick plays: He is averaging 1.2 points per possession as the roll man (eigth-most among bigs with at least 50 possessions) and 1.1 points per possession spotting up opponents (seventh-most among bigs with at least 50 possessions), forcing defenders to play him tight to avoid getting burned. His overall box-score plus minus, a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributes above a league-average player, is at a career high (2.9), eclipsing hid previous best (1.9) set in 2009-10, his second year in the NBA.

Other players are also buying in. Bojan Bogdanovic has already taken 103 layups this year (he took 198 in 79 games last season) and few of the Nets players will even attempt a mid-range shot.

“If the mid-range shot is available then by all means I am going to take it,” explained Nets guard Joe Harris, a former second-round pick for the club out of the University of Virginia. “But if not I feel most comfortable taking shots around the rim, that’s the bread and butter for me. Me taking contested mid-range shots is not part of my game and I don’t think it should be.”

Opting for the high-efficiency shots is one thing, converting them into tangible results is another. The Nets have the fourth-lowest offensive rating in the NBA, scoring 101.1 points per 100 possessions, and the fifth-lowest field goal percentage in the restricted area. The Warriors, by comparison, lead the league in field goal percentage in the restricted area (68 percent), followed by the Rockets (65.3 percent). But Brooklyn’s roster, perhaps with the exception of Lopez, is not in the same stratosphere as Golden State and Houston.

The Warriors average a Player Efficiency Rating of 15 or higher at every position, including their backups. The lowest positional PER is at shooting guard, where Klay Thompson’s production (16.6 PER) is dragged down by backup Patrick McCaw (6.9 PER). Two positions, point guard and power forward, average above 20 PER, thanks to Steph Curry and Kevin Durant playing at an MVP-caliber level. The Rockets, due to  their MVP James Harden (28.3 PER), get a high level of production from the point guard and shooting guard spots with strong support from their centers (19.2 PER), Nene and Clint Capela. Brooklyn’s biggest contributor is in the middle (18.8 PER from centers, including Lopez) and falls off from there with a woeful 10.9 PER from their point guards. When Jeremy Lin returns to the starting lineup, perhaps that changes, but even with Lin on the court Brooklyn is still going to be outgunned by the stronger teams in the NBA running a similar system.

Two NBA scouts, speaking on the condition of anonymity, think the Nets are heading in the right direction but agree the roster needs an influx of talent to gain traction in the playoff race.

“I like the way they are playing,” one of them said. “But all they have is Brook [Lopez] and Bogdanovic, maybe Lin if he can stay healthy.”

The other felt Brooklyn was two to three years away, theorizing the Nets would be trading veteran players in the coming months in an effort to stockpile draft picks and get good, young players that fit their current way of doing things.

Defense is also holding the Nets back — they allow 109 points per 100 possessions, the third-most in the NBA, and aren’t as tenacious on defense as they were early in the season. In November, teams were producing 14.5 second-chance points per game against the Nets. That rose to 18.1 per game in December. Opponents also improved their fast-break points from 13.6 to 16.5 per game over that same span.

“A lot of it is communication. First thing you have to do is sprint back, sprint back after the shot,” Atkinson said when asked how he knows the team’s transition defense is working. “We prioritize transition defense over offensive rebounds, so getting back and then getting matched up — and that might not necessarily be with your own guy so figuring it out from there. I think we are improving there and now we have other things we have to improve on.”

Until then, despite the changes and outside-the-box thinking, the results for the Nets look the same — they are 8-25 and last in the Eastern Conference. But the team now has an identity and a blue print. Now they just need the talent to execute that plan.