By Steve Lichtenstein
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“Freedom” is rarely associated with negative side effects.
In the case of Nets basketball, however, freedom as an underlying principle has been one of the root causes for this season beginning to spiral out of control. Brooklyn dropped to 1-2 on its five-game road trip and 4-7 overall with a 112-104 loss in Denver on Tuesday that, despite the final margin, seemed more like 48 minutes of garbage time.
The trip will conclude with a difficult back-to-back in Portland and Utah over the weekend.
In their second season under head coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ players have had unbridled green lights to make plays as they see fit on the court. Such autonomy may run counter to a goal of maximizing wins, but it’s an explicit part of Brooklyn’s development culture.
The players, of course, love it. Even during the deepest depths of their miserable 20-62 campaign last season, the Nets were generally a positive bunch. There wasn’t any reported backbiting or throwing guys under the bus. They instead raved about having the freedom on the court to try to get better.
So what if the Nets were the second-worst team in the league when it came to turnover rate, or jacked up the fourth-most 3-pointers despite a fifth-worst efficiency from deep. Players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were pushed to make wild forays to the basket. Others, like Trevor Booker, were encouraged to expand their range and launch with impunity from behind the arc.
That’s how reserve forward Quincy Acy could miss six consecutive 3-pointers in Phoenix on Monday night and feel no guilt about bricking a seventh in the final minute of a tight game.
The Nets pulled out the win over the Suns, 98-92, but more important than the outcome, at least in my mind, was the sight of Atkinson finally pulling back on some rope.
Four minutes into the game, veteran forward DeMarre Carroll took an ill-advised jump shot and was summarily sent to the bench. Carroll sat for a few possessions until his substitute, sophomore Caris LeVert, coughed up a live-ball turnover and was yanked at the next whistle.
Atkinson continued with this ploy at key points for the remainder of the contest, most prominently with point guard D’Angelo Russell, who is too often guilty of taking bad shots or committing turnovers.
When Russell is on, however, like during the fourth quarter on Monday (when he scored 13 of his 23 points), he can carry a team.
The problem, unfortunately, is that Russell is just 21. He plays as if he’s already a superstar instead of a young player who has the potential to become one. As such, you can expect to see a lot more teaching moments as the season progresses.
They came early and often during the second night of a back-to-back in high-altitude Denver. Russell turned the ball over eight times in his three quarters of action, while misfiring on eight of 14 field-goal attempts, a good number of them contested.
Again, though, Atkinson did not limit his constructive criticisms to Russell. Center Timofey Mozgov, who has been one 7-foot pile of trash since coming over from the Lakers with Russell in June’s Brook Lopez trade, was admonished for his carefree defense on Denver’s sublime Nikola Jokic, who finished with a career-high 41 points. Brooklyn has now allowed a league-high six opponents, all but one (Devin Booker of Phoenix) a big man, to breach the 30-point barrier.
The Nets’ atrocious defense will be a topic for another day, however. For now, the question remains whether Atkinson will continue to hold players accountable when Brooklyn has the ball. Will he curtail LeVert, who has struggled mightily this season from the perimeter (22.2 percent from deep) and is piling up the turnovers trying to force the action? How much more can Atkinson wield the playing-time stick on Russell before it is no longer a deterrent? When they return from injuries, will power forwards Hollis-Jefferson and Booker still attempt to be focal points when they are both so much more efficient letting others bring the games to them? And will Atkinson realize that Mozgov brings nothing to the table and should be behind Tyler Zeller on the depth chart going forward?
Atkinson used a practice day following Friday’s loss to the Lakers to attempt to rejuvenate the offense. The Phoenix game featured more ball and player movement, even if the field-goal percentage (40.2 percent) didn’t reflect it.
But the Nets fell back into their old habits in Denver. The sets were often poorly spaced. NBA teams don’t ordinarily station four players above the foul line on the same side of the floor. The “motion” offense was typically limited to one cutter from above the 3-point break to the top of the key, which was easily defended.
Subsequently, the players tried to create too much on their own. The one-on-one, hero-ball mentality is just not sustainable whether it’s Russell, LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, or anyone else on this roster.
I will note that the Nets have been besieged by injuries in the early going — point guard Jeremy Lin went down for the season in Game 1 and an already thin frontcourt was missing Hollis-Jefferson, Booker, and Jarrett Allen on Tuesday. The Nets have four new starters this season, which could also explain some of the incohesiveness.
However, I’m not sure much would have changed had Brooklyn been at full strength. The culture is ingrained, with freedom casted as a necessary component of player development.
Even if such liberty carries a heavy price paid in the loss column.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1