Nov. 26, 2016
Kenny Atkinson & The Brooklyn Nets Are Proving That Talent Is Overrated
In the NBA, you need talent to win, everyone knows this. It's a league in which every season is entered knowing that only about five teams have a realistic shot at the title and an association that is dominated by superteams. The NBA is a star-driven league and if your team doesn't have star talent, you are going to struggle.
However, talent on itself is placed on a pedestal in the NBA universe. Having a talented squad doesn't get a team anywhere, unless that team uses their players in an effective manner. It's why every four years, Team USA scare the shit out of us, by getting pretty damn close to blowing an Olympics game against the likes of Australia, Luthuania, Spain and Argentina. These countries don't get close to beating a team full of All-Stars because they themselves have a roster that is comparable in terms of pure ability, but more because their game plans are far superior to the States' isolation-heavy, effortless, me-first mess.
In the NBA, Kenny Atkinson's Brooklyn Nets are by far and away the best example of this.
After Billy King and Mikhail Prokhorov's grand master plan failed -- a plan that famously involved dealing four first round picks to the Celtics to put together an ageing, win-now squad that would've only been able to enter 'win-now mode' three years prior -- the Nets had no future. Their ancient core disintegrated within a season, which left them without anyone that could carry out Prokhorov's title ambitions, but more importantly without assets, young talent and draft picks.
This time last year, the worst trade in NBA history looked as if it had left the Nets stranded. Tanking wasn't an option and the team didn't look like they could be at all be competitive in the short-term. There was seemingly no route out of the massive hole the Nets had dug for themselves. But what most -- including yours truly -- didn't realize, was that there was another way out of that hole, aside from regular team-building strategies.
The Nets started to explore this path when they hired Sean Marks nine months ago. Marks, listed as a son on the Popovich-R.C. Buford family tree, was brought on board to usher in a new era of Nets basketball in the same fashion that Mike Budenholzer and Danny Ferry (both of whom can also be found on the Spurs' family tree) found successful in Atlanta. Ferry and Bud managed to turn a mediocre Hawks team that was consistently battling for the eighth seed, into one that was able to turn in a 60-win season. Atlanta weren't able to do this through a talent influx, but more through a strong culture and a team-oriented basketball system on both sides of the ball.
Just how Marks would try and achieve something similar in Brooklyn was unclear, until he decided to nab Budenholzer's lead assistant, Kenny Atkinson, as his head coach. What better way to emulate a team, than to actively steal key components from them, right?
Since Atkinson has been in place, he has instilled a strong culture and a team identity that has never been present in Brooklyn. 'Culture' has always been a term that I've failed to grasp the meaning of in the context of the NBA. Ever since I started to watch the NBA, I have believed that having a team culture isn't important and to be honest, it's a bit of a bogus concept. Teammates don't have to like each other to win (just ask Shaq and Kobe) and the locker room doesn't have to be a Spurs-esque family in order to achieve success. However, after watching Kenny Atkinson's Nets have completely changed that thought process for me.
After 13 games, it's clear that Atkinson's group of rejects play for each other. They look as if they genuinely get along with one another and that the brotherhood that is apparent on the court, can be attributed to Atkinson and Marks' work off the court. The addition of battle-tested veterans, to go along with youngsters who are willing to learn and work their asses off has created an atmosphere that has produced victories.
This team has such a strong bond, that when Atkinson and the front office were forced to reduce his squad to 15 players, by cutting four players, instead of offering up the same old 'it's a business' rhetoric, he got emotional when questioned about the roster moves by the media. I don't know that a single other coach in the league has a connection so strong with his players, that he is deeply saddened by having to release Egidijus Mockevicius, Beau Beech, Chase Budinger and Jorge Gutierrez.
Whether you realize it or not, that connection is highly important. Players play hard for coaches who care about them, not for ones that couldn't give a damn about their lives, after all, even NBA players are human (except for LeBron, LeBron is a cyborg). Just look at last year's Lakers, who were handled by one of the worst man-managers the league has ever seen in Byron Scott and compare them to this year's team, coached by Luke Walton, who has praise heaped on him by his players after every game.
A quick look at the NBA's newly founded 'hustle stats', will show you how much the Nets work for each other within their little brotherhood and for Atkinson. Brooklyn rank first in contested shots per game, at 70.9 and in the top ten for both charges drawn and loose balls recovered.
Of course, that culture can only get a team so far. To continue following Atlanta's model, Atkinson has had to come up with intelligent, well thought out game plans to maximize his team's minimal talent. He has installed a healthy and efficient 5-out offense that can turn defenses inside out at times. Atkinson doesn't have anywhere near the talent at his disposal to pull this type of system off, at the very most, the Nets can throw out four even remotely competent three-point shooters at one time. However, he's giving his guys the freedom to bomb away from downtown -- like Brook Lopez, who has attempted twice as many threes this season than the other eight of his career combined -- because he knows that the process of getting these shots is more important than the actual results -- especially for a rebuilding team not concerned with winning in the short-term.
Brooklyn's shots are of such a high-quality, that according to NBA.com, they average the most 'wide open' shot attempts per game (shots without a defender within six feet of the shooter) in the NBA at 18.9 per game. That mark leads the league by quite some way, in fact the margin from Brooklyn to the second ranked team in this category (Portland) of 1.7 shot attempts, is the same margin between 2nd and 13th. Some of this is due to the fact that defenses just don't respect the Nets' outside shooters, but most of the credit goes to Atkinson's system.
While the Nets' offense is somewhat decent, their defense still has along way to go. There are barely any plus-defenders that Atkinson can throw out on to the court on the roster and Brooklyn's rotations, switches and schemes still need a lot of work. With more time to mold his squad though, Atkinson should get his team to improve on this end over the course of the season.
By the way that I have described the Nets, you'd think that they would be a team on the verge of winning a title. To put it bluntly, they aren't. Brooklyn are 4-10 and will be among the five worst teams in the league by the end of the season. But with their current crop of players, the Nets should be 0-14. Based on pure talent alone, the Nets are quite clearly the worst team in basketball (maybe in basketball history!). Around half of the players on this assembled roster wouldn't even make it as a fifteenth man for any other NBA team.
But the culture and system that Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson have developed with the Nets has gotten them to a point where they actually look like a real NBA team. On nights where star-laden teams think they've got an easy night, the Nets will surprise them with a frisky, feisty, intelligent style that will cause upsets throughout the season. Hell, if you really want to dream big, this Nets team could make the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference.
Still, the hole that the Nets dug for themselves is still incredibly deep and the rebuilding process ahead for Marks and Atkinson remains daunting. However, if the first 14 games of the season are anything to go by, the Nets are on the way back up.
The Celtics fan inside of me hates this so much.
Like what you see here? Hit the subscribe button, so you never miss a post!Follow @BradWinter12