The past few years, the Brooklyn Nets have been a slow, old, and boring team. The roster was comprised of washed up veterans who didn’t quite mesh well together and young players who weren’t receiving the attention they needed from the coaching staff and front office. The lingering pieces of the Deron Williams era were still in tact, and the franchise hadn’t fully moved on from the win now mindset of 2013.
Then came the beginning months of 2016. Insert Sean Marks. Insert Kenny Atkinson. And insert a brand new version of the Brooklyn Nets. These Nets weren’t going to make splashy free agent signings, they weren’t going to dip into the luxury tax for the hell of it, and they weren’t going to sacrifice the future for the present. The Brooklyn Nets made a commitment towards building for the future through disciplined, crafty, and savvy analysis.
The New Brooklyn Nets Culture
When Sean Marks was hired by the Brooklyn Nets last February to become their new general manager, he consistently preached the value of changing the culture. Marks, who had spent over three years with the paradigm of professional basketball organizations – the San Antonio Spurs – inherited a depleted roster, one that would go on to win just 21 games in 2015-16 and lacked significant pieces to build around in the future. Aside from the dearth of talent on the roster, it was no secret that the Nets wouldn’t be handed any future assets via the draft either. Brooklyn didn’t (and still doesn’t, for that matter) have control over its own first round pick in 2016, 2017, or 2018. Taking on the role of Nets general manager in 2016 is no easy task, and Marks knew that. Thankfully for Marks, everyone within the organization, including owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the fan base, knew it too; it would be a long and probably painful journey to get the Nets back on track, one that would require lots of patience.
In addition to building a team on the court, Marks needed to build a team on the sidelines. Many expected the Nets to go after the top tier coaches, a move that would make headlines, per usual. Tom Thibodeau and John Calipari were names constantly linked to the Nets, yet the savvy Marks never gave much of a consideration to these high profile names. He wanted someone new, someone who would focus on player development, and someone who would fly under the radar, just as his team would. Just three days after the regular season ended in April, Marks hired his new head coach – Kenny Atkinson.
Atkinson wasn’t on many teams’ lists of potential head coaches, nor was he a household name by any means with even the most diehard of basketball fans. From 2008 to 2016 he split his time in two different assistant coaching gigs, one with the New York Knicks and one with the Atlanta Hawks. Atkinson’s most recognizable accomplishment at the time was being the coach who Jeremy Lin gave the most credit to for his role in Linsanity.
Marks saw something in Atkinson that other coaches may not have had – he fit in with the culture Marks was trying to build. Marks wanted to construct an organization comprised of high character individuals who would be team-oriented, work together, and prioritize development for the future. The Nets were a franchise lost in transition with little pieces to play with. Top level talent and prospects wouldn’t be rolling around any time soon, so the Nets needed a coach who would be able to maximize productivity with the minimal talent the roster would likely have. Atkinson’s reputation around the league, among those who have gotten to work with him in the past, suggests he is a hands on coach who is known for player development. Atkinson often participates in practice with players, jumping in scrimmages to demonstrate a concept at full speed or acting as a physical defender during one on one drills. Being that he was an assistant coach for Mike Budenholzer‘s Atlanta Hawks, Atkinson was accustomed to an unselfish style of basketball, prioritizing ball movement, player movement, and hard work. Just as the new look Brooklyn Nets would do if they were going to succeed, the hiring of Kenny Atkinson was one that flew under the radar, catching the league by surprise.
Constructing the New Roster
Over the summer, Marks built a roster of unproven veterans and underrated young players, all of whom were high character individuals, ready to fight hard night in and night out on the court. Every player who signed with the Nets knew what they were in for. Whether they signed with Brooklyn because they were attracted to the culture, they wanted to prove themselves out on the floor, or because they wanted the opportunity to mentor younger players, all of Marks’ acquisitions wanted to be here. No more bribing egotistical veterans with the lure of a brand new arena, the New York market, and millions of dollars. Sure, this played a part in the free agent recruitment process, but Marks was set to build this team intelligently, efficiently, and creatively.
Marks added eleven new players to the current roster since he took over, retaining just four of those that he inherited. Without draft picks, the Nets GM was ready to take risks – smart risks. He built a roster fit to play in the modern NBA, one that would play with pace and shoot a high volume of threes. It’s only been eleven games into the 2016-17 season, but look at the results he’s gotten from some of his more shrewd, underrated acquisitions.
Sean Kilpatrick, the 26-year old former D-League All-Star and undrafted journeyman, has emerged one of the better scoring options off the bench in the entire league, averaging nearly 15 points per game in 34 games since last spring for Brooklyn. Trevor Booker, the 28-year old career backup power forward, has been the heart and soul of this team; he hustles his rear end off on every play, has shown a surprising ability to attack off the dribble and create plays for others, and is a tremendous source of energy and enthusiasm off the glass and on defense. Booker has been the most pleasant surprise thus far this season. Even Justin Hamilton, the sharp shooting center who was out of the league last year, has been productive this season, averaging 8.8 points and 5.1 rebounds a night while shooting 43% from deep. The Nets have also gotten great production and energy from Bojan Bogdanovic, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Joe Harris to start the season.
This Season’s Hot Start
Coming into the season, the Brooklyn Nets were favored to win in just four of their games all season long. Yep, four. They’ve become the laughing stock of the league, a team projected to compete with the Philadelphia 76ers for worst record in the NBA. This is a stark contrast to the high expectations placed on the Nets at the beginning of the Brooklyn era.
The Nets, who arguably have the least talented roster in the NBA on paper, have jumped out to a 4-7 start, keeping all but two of their games competitive through the fourth quarter. Give Kenny Atkinson a ton of credit for the quick start. This team plays their hearts out on a nightly basis, and they share the ball with each other much more than any version of the Nets have in recent memory, creating a sense of cohesiveness and unity as a team. The Nets are also second in the NBA in pace, averaging 104.55 possessions per 48 minutes.
On a side note, the Nets marketing department really did a fantastic job with the creation of this season’s marketing slogan, Brooklyn Grit. The Nets truly do resemble a gritty team, one that is focused on attention to detail, playing smart, and getting the most out of its players.
Bringing in a New Culture
Unlike last year when the Nets – whose roster consisted of uninspiring veterans and lackluster youth – played a boring brand of basketball with no results to show for it, this year’s Nets team is fun to watch. Some Nets fans may disagree, but anytime the game is close in the fourth quarter, that means it was a great game to witness as a fan. Brooklyn plays with a sense of raw emotion, hunger to compete, and love for one another on the floor. The past few years, Nets fans haven’t been accustomed to that.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett tried implementing a somewhat similar culture, but there were too many misfits, conflicting personalities, and egotistical attitudes. Deron Williams appeared detached from the rest of his teammates, focused more so on regaining his high level of play, which he obviously never did, than developing team chemistry. Joe Johnson was a great Net, but he was a soft-spoken leader, not an energetic one. From a coaching standpoint, Jason Kidd seemed to be more concerned with gaining individual power and authority in the organization, and Lionel Hollins has the reputation as a strict, isolation-heavy, slow paced head coach, which does not fit the culture of what a rebuilding team in 2016 should be.
Players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker, and Jeremy Lin exemplify high character individuals who bring a certain level of enthusiasm and passion to work everyday, give their absolute best effort to win, and genuinely love to see their teammates succeed. This is the culture that Sean Marks has aimed to build, and we are witnessing it on the court early on in November.
2016-17 may not be one of the greatest seasons in Nets history, but it sure is a step in the right direction. If Brooklyn finishes the month relatively strong, Kenny Atkinson should be in the conversation for Coach of the Month honors, even if the Nets are well below .500. Sean Marks has assembled a roster built with the future in mind, focused on developing young players while also bringing in veteran leadership. Together, Atkinson and Marks have brought a new basketball culture to the borough of Brooklyn. It may take a while, but the position the Brooklyn Nets find themselves in right now is much better now than it was twelve months ago.