Lichtenstein: Atkinson Mulls Options As Nets Hit Preseason Halfway Point

Many Questions Linger, But Early Signs Suggest Brooklyn Could Be A Fun Team To Watch In 2016-17

By Steve Lichtenstein
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Not much can be gleaned from NBA preseason games.

Outcomes certainly do not matter, as most fourth quarters are populated by soon-to-be developmental and international league employees. The better players, if they suit up at all, are primarily concerned with avoiding injuries. Coaches tend to experiment with rotations and combinations.

For the record, the Nets dropped to 1-2 on the preseason following their 121-100 loss in Miami on Tuesday night. Their second consecutive pounding in no way portends a gloomy regular season.

The glaring lack of talent on their roster, however, does.

In any event, some organizational decisions do need to be made in advance of the regular season, so these exhibitions can provide clues as to how the team will be constructed.

Rookie Nets coach Kenny Atkinson arrived on the training camp scene with a nearly blank slate. Just five players returned from last season’s 21-61 abomination, and of the newly signed replacements, only point guard Jeremy Lin came with high expectations.

MORE: Lichtenstein: Rebuilding Nets Have No Choice But To Go All-Lin

Playing time is up for grabs, and these games may tell us a little about Atkinson’s priorities.

For example:

Young Vs. Old(er)

Before Atkinson rested him in Miami, 33-year old Randy Foye started at shooting guard in both of the previous preseason games.

If that happens in the regular season, I will throw my remote at the screen.

With all the developing talent at that position at the Nets’ disposal, there should be no instance where Foye, the heir apparent to Wayne Ellington, sneaks into the starting lineup.

But this battle has played out in many a coach’s mind: Do I play the veteran over the rookie/young player because experience is a quality that can help my team win today’s game? Or do I live with the incremental mistakes a younger player will likely make in the moment so it hastens his development for when he will be surrounded by more accomplished teammates?

Most coaches choose experience over development — you know, the X player “gives us the best chance to win” rote explanation — but Atkinson, under the direction of general manager Sean Marks, promised a new way of thinking.

It remains to be seen whether the Nets commit to this in practice.

MORE: Lichtenstein: Nets Betting Culture Change Will Eventually Lift Franchise

In a better example (because Foye only started because Bojan Bogdanovic was recouping from a draining Olympic experience), how much will 21-year-old sophomore forward Chris McCullough, who makes a lot of mistakes, play this season when veterans Trevor Booker and Luis Scola sit above him on the depth chart?

Also, keep an eye out for whether rookie guard Isaiah Whitehead pushes 29-year-old Greivis Vasquez, who has looked slow while recovering from an ankle injury that limited him to 23 games last season and kept him out of the Olympics. Whitehead had a miserable night in Miami (1-of-8 shooting, two turnovers, and five fouls in 13 minutes), but the Nets have often mentioned how much they like him.

Offense Vs. Defense

Let’s face it, the Nets are going to be very bad defensively no matter the lineup Atkinson sends to the floor. Their pick-and-roll execution has been awful in the preseason, and they don’t get back in transition. It’s not going to get any better when star center Brook Lopez starts playing 36 minutes per game either.

However, certain options, such as giving sophomore wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as much playing time as he can handle, will yield better results on this end than, say, having Bogdanovic guard an elite wing scorer for long stretches.

Of course, there is the matter of Hollis-Jefferson’s jump shot, which can be best described as still a work in progress and at worst as a soul crusher to a team’s offensive spacing.

Since the Nets seem to have more of the defense-optional types of players as opposed to the pure shutdown defenders, let’s hope Atkinson finds a way to integrate Hollis-Jefferson into the offense.

The only other competition of note is Booker versus Scola, who has developed a fairly efficient (40 percent last season) 3-point shot at age 36 but can’t guard a chair. Booker is the better rebounder and defender, but he is not a threat from the perimeter. Can Atkinson, who has been running four- or five-out sets that spread the floor as his base offense for much of the preseason, make do with the congestion that would come with playing Hollis-Jefferson, Booker and Lopez together?

Threes Vs. Twos

Atkinson has worked under both Mike D’Antoni and Mike Budenholzer in previous gigs, so he understands the math behind the 3-point shot.

With Lionel Hollins at the helm the past two seasons, Brooklyn played a pound-it-inside style, piling up points in the paint with Lopez and Thaddeus Young. The Nets attempted the fourth-fewest 3-point shots in the league — they were last when Hollins was axed in January.

Atkinson has the Nets firing away from long distances this preseason. Only the Rockets have launched more 3-pointers per game than Brooklyn’s 33.3 in the preseason. Even Lopez has the green light to shoot from beyond the arc this year.

Gone are the days of Iso-Joe, Iso-Brook, Iso-Jarrett, etc. He may be saving it for when the games count, but Atkinson has called few straight post-ups. The ball is moving, albeit around the perimeter.

Atkinson’s assumed preference for the long ball has created an interesting competition …

Sean Kilpatrick Vs. Joe Harris

At the Nets’ media day two weeks ago, the player who received praise from the most sources for his summer workout program was guard Kilpatrick.

Shortly after the trade deadline last season, Marks gave the 26-year-old Kilpatrick an NBA opportunity by calling him up from the D-League. Kilpatrick stood out for his natural scoring ability, averaging 13.8 points per game over the final 23 contests.

After Kilpatrick’s two 10-day contracts expired, the Nets signed him to a two-year extension, with 2016-17 guaranteed. Kilpatrick was expected to take on the “Microwave” role as first scorer off the bench this season.

After signing relatively late in the summer free agency period, Harris entered training camp prepared to dispute that notion.

Joe Who?

The 25-year-old Harris was a 2014 Cavaliers second-round pick who appeared in only five games last season. But he has piqued Atkinson’s interest by being aggressive and efficient from 3-point land (7-of-10) and making hustle plays. He has frankly outperformed Kilpatrick over the course of the three preseason games.

Both players will be safe at the final cutdown day. The Nets have 15 guaranteed contracts among their 20 training camp invitees. Yogi Ferrell, Beau Beech and Egidijus Mockevicius — the latter two have yet to appear in a preseason game — will undoubtedly be assigned to the Nets’ new D-League affiliate on Long Island. Chase Budinger and Jorge Gutierrez have little shot at sticking around when the season commences in Boston in two weeks.

Atkinson has three more exhibitions to evaluate the above situations (and others) involving his rotation and how he wants his team to play.

The early takeaway is that though the losses will likely continue to mount, this team could actually be more fun to watch.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1


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