By Steve Lichtenstein
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With the Hawks in town to play the Nets on Sunday, the topic of conversation around both locker rooms often turned to Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn’s head coach who worked as an Atlanta assistant the previous four seasons.
Atkinson has been credited with abetting, to varying degrees, the development of players on both sides.
For example, Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder was an undersized, bricklaying point guard when he was a mid-first-round pick in 2013. Now, he’s about to get paid $15.5 million per year on a new four-year contract.
“I learned a lot when (Atkinson) was here with the Hawks,” Schroder said. “We worked on a lot of things, and I appreciate everything he did. He was talking to me my first year when I wasn’t playing and (told me to) be patient. I used to watch film with him almost every day in practice at the arena.”
Often left out of these chats is that Atkinson has had to undergo his own development process this season as a rookie head coach while navigating the ship of a relatively ragtag group.
Atkinson knew this was the least optimal job at this level when he took it. Bereft of assets, the Nets were doomed before he even started.
Atkinson’s job was made harder due to the organizational strategy of rationing minutes to Brooklyn’s best players while utilizing systems that were not geared toward the personnel’s strengths. Losses mounted as Atkinson relied on a fairly even minutes’ distribution to 11 or 12 players, most of whom had never proven anything in this league. They misfired on a ton of 3-pointers while playing at the NBA’s fastest pace.
All in the name of player development.
So, who could Atkinson go to for pep talks when the Nets were, say, on their 1-22 stretch without injured starting point guard Jeremy Lin that included an oh-fer in February?
“I haven’t, but it’s on my list,” Atkinson said prior to Sunday’s affair on whether he has reached out to anyone during the season. “Listen, I know I have a long way to go. That’s a great thing about having this opportunity is to realize how far you are from being really good — from communication to in-game stuff. I can’t wait until the offseason to improve.”
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Mike Budenholzer, who kept Atkinson around when he took over the head coaching job in Atlanta prior to the 2013-14 season, did contradict things when he said he still keeps in contact with Atkinson off the court.
“My advice to him is to keep doing exactly what he’s doing,” Budenholzer said. “I think he’s doing a great job. They’re building a foundation — the way they’re playing, the way they’re competing. I need Kenny to give me advice.”
This was before the Nets again played the spoiler role (they also knocked off the Hawks, 107-92, last Sunday in Atlanta) by beating the sinking Hawks, 91-82, in front of 15,040 fans at Barclays Center. It marked the first time in 22 tries — and first in 14 attempts this season — that the Nets took a back end of a back-to-back.
In the larger scale, Brooklyn has gone 9-10 since March 1, the night of Lin’s third game back following a 44-game absence due to hamstring woes.
As I noted in my prior post, part of this resurgence has been due to their opponents’ negative environments. That’s just the normal end-of-season nuttiness that makes everyone wonder why the league needs to schedule 82 games.
However, though the Nets no doubt benefited from the rustiness of Atlanta’s Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore, both of whom missed last week’s affair due to injuries, the Hawks really needed Sunday’s game to keep pace in a tight race for the last couple of playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference. This was no tank job.
On a similar note, even though the Nets don’t possess a lottery pick to tank for, their players could have easily thrown in the towel after the utter irrelevance of these results became obvious rather early in the season. Yet, to Atkinson’s credit, the Nets, despite facing overwhelming talent deficits on so many nights this season, have never been accused of giving up.
On the contrary, I’ve listened to opposing coaches all season marvel at how hard the Nets play, how they stick together and how they’re improving. They usually compete like they’re fighting for something more meaningful than a negligible chance at passing the Suns as the league’s worst team.
Look at Brook Lopez, a veteran who made exactly three of 31 attempts from behind the 3-point line during his first eight seasons with the franchise. This season, he has gone 130-for-370 (35.1 percent), tops among NBA centers. Sixty-two points away from becoming the Nets’ all-time leading scorer, he has been reborn.
Lopez, who poured in 29 points (along with five rebounds, five assists and five blocked shots) Sunday before exiting with leg cramps with two minutes remaining, has completely bought in to Atkinson’s way, making it easier for the Nets’ many young players to follow.
Of course, Atkinson is prone to making rookie mistakes, just like his novice players do. Most contentious among the recent ones was when he allowed the Celtics to pull away during a mid-March loss while Lin was waiting at the scorer’s table for over three minutes. Call timeout. Give a foul. Do something to get your closer in the game.
Atkinson copped to the error before the next game and moved on.
Again, it’s all part of the development culture in Brooklyn.
As Lin said, “I think (Atkinson has) definitely improved. I’m not an expert on coaching, but in terms of his overall presence, his managing the game from the sideline, play calls, all that, I feel like he’s done a great job. I know he’s really hard on himself — he’s always looking: ‘How can I improve? How can I improve?’ That’s kind of consistent with what I knew about him, which is why I felt like just give him some time, and he’ll get there.”
The “time” and the “there” in the above quote are variables when you’re talking about the Nets. Too many obstacles, such as no chance at a lottery pick until 2019, stand in their way of mere respectability in the near term.
I do have a hunch, however, that whenever the Nets are ready to significantly move up in class, Atkinson will be fully developed.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1