Last month, the Brooklyn Nets seemed destined for another disappointing 82-game slog.
A gruesome leg injury to Caris LeVert — just days after the Most Improved Player Award candidate hit a game-winner against the Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets — sucked the air out of the team after an encouraging 6-7 start during which Brooklyn saw the first glimpses of potential success after a years-long, Billy King-induced purgatory.
Losing LeVert, who was averaging 18.4 points and nearly four assists on 47.5 percent shooting and beginning to establish himself at the team’s go-to player, led to an uncomfortable adjustment period that saw the Nets drop eight straight games, blowing multiple double-digit fourth quarter leads in the process, including losing an 18-point fourth quarter lead to Oklahoma City in a game that ended with a backbreaking Paul George game-winner.
LeVert is back hanging around the locker room, though there is no timetable on his return to the court, and second-year center Jarrett Allen acknowledged the difficulty of filling the void left in LeVert’s absence.
“I would say two things,” he said. “Not even losing the player, but just losing the person. He’s a great guy in the locker room, and just having him away kind of put a damper on us. But also he’s an amazing player, too.”
But now they look like they’re figuring things out, as the Nets, who have won nine of their last 12 games, are one of hottest teams in the league. Brooklyn’s egalitarian, pass-happy offense, led by Spencer Dinwiddie, D’Angelo Russell, and more recently, rookie Rodions Kurucs, sparked a seven-game win streak that saw the Nets beat the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers. After playing just 44 minutes last season for Barcelona in Liga ACB, the 20-year-old Kurucs has been key in the Nets’ resurgence, with Brooklyn going 9-3 since his last DNP-Coach’s Decision.
Without a bona fide star, the Nets’ success has been by committee, predicated on drive and kicks, well-set screens, extra passes and limiting opponents’ three-point attempts. Brooklyn’s 311 passes per game are the fourth most in the NBA, and during their recent hot stretch, those passes have been leading to 14 more points off assists per game than they averaged during their eight-game losing streak. The Nets also lead the league in points off drives, and since Dec. 7, rank third in the league in screen assists per game, defined as screens for a teammate that lead directly to a made field goal.
After their 134-132 win over Charlotte in double-overtime last week, players and coaches alluded to feeling as if the team has genuinely turned a corner. Jared Dudley couldn’t contain his excitement recounting a corner three he hit in the second overtime off an assist from a driving Dinwiddie.
“The times we had the 20-point leads and lost, we weren’t boxing out, we weren’t making the extra pass,” he said. “The old Spencer, I don’t know if he would’ve made that play. So for him, it’s his evolution as a player.”
Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who all play essential roles for Brooklyn, are the products of a culture that hasn’t just found intriguing talent through alternative avenues, but that also pushes players to evolve, cultivating them over the long term. Kenny Atkinson’s background as a player development guru is rare for an NBA head coach — Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce is the only other one with a player development background. But Atkinson’s experience, alongside General Manager Sean Marks’s superb talent identification, has helped carve a rotation of key contributors out of players plucked from the fringes of the NBA.
Harris, who was nearly out of the league after being waived by the Orlando Magic in 2016, has transformed into a versatile offensive player. He’s third in the league in three-point percentage at 47.4 percent, helping create space for the Nets’ plethora of drives, and has also become adept at getting into the paint to either finish or find an open man. He credited Atkinson’s player development regime with helping change the trajectory of his NBA career.
“He kind of gives a unique perspective as a head coach, just having that background,” he said. “We do these things called vitamins — it’s something that you take everyday — and for us the vitamins are individual skill work with our coaches.”
Harris spends about 45 minutes daily working solely on moving without the ball, shooting on the move and finishing at the rim — “That’s basically the root of everything that I do,” he said.
And Dinwiddie, who was in the G League before signing with Brooklyn in 2016, is a legitimate sixth man of the year candidate, averaging nearly 18 points and five assists off the bench, while displaying much improved decision-making and late-game shot-making ability.
Atkinson caters to his players’ needs, Dinwiddie said, creating an open dialogue that helps facilitate improvement.
It’s not uncommon for Atkinson to text players still images from game film to give tips on nuances such as when to split the defense when you’re being blitzed on the pick and roll as the ballhandler. And he said he frequently has one-on-one film sessions with players, a job typically reserved for assistants.
“When you’re an assistant, you’re much more on top of these guys. You’re watching a lot more individual clips. But I do that too,” he said. “With [Russell], before a game, I brought him in and we watched about 20 clips.” He had a similar session with Allen when he noticed “his rim protection was slipping.”
“I think of the team, that’s my job as head coach,” he said. “But I do try to still put on the player development hat and try to help those guys there.”
At 17-21, Brooklyn is far from an elite team. They remain 22nd in defensive rating, and rank near the bottom in the league in second chance points allowed, a product of their subpar rebounding. The Nets’ philosophy of keeping their big men near the rim has led to multiple highlight reel blocks from Allen, but has also forced him to try to clean up a steady barrage of opponent forays into the paint if the perimeter defenders are struggling to contain penetration. Overall, Brooklyn allows opponents to shoot 47 percent from the field, a bottom-10 mark leaguewide. Without an all-star caliber player, they also may find themselves struggling to keep up in games. In their 129-115 loss to Milwaukee on Saturday, for example, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 31 points to go with 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
As their playoff aspirations come into clearer focus — the Nets are a game behind eighth-seeded Detroit — continuity and selflessness are going to be the pillars of their success, a message Atkinson has been preaching all year that may be finally starting to stick. For now, though, they just hope to prove that December wasn’t an aberration.
“Hopefully it’s not a hot streak and it’s just how we play,” Dinwiddie said. “We’ve gotta keep the focus where it needs to be, have a defensive mentality, and try to get one percent better everyday and hopefully we can kind of just keep the building blocks going.”