By Steve Lichtenstein
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When I hear opposing coaches across the NBA marvel at the job being done in Brooklyn by the Sean Marks/Kenny Atkinson tandem, I wonder if they’re just being nice.
What can you say about a franchise mired in the league’s lowest depths over the last few years with little hope of rising in the foreseeable future?
Warriors coach Steve Kerr was Brooklyn’s latest admirer, telling the media scrum prior to Golden State’s 118-111 victory at the Barclays Center on Sunday how impressed he’s been with the Nets’ culture change.
Kerr said Marks inherited “the worst hand to play with as a GM of anybody in the history of this league” when Marks replaced the disgraced Billy King in February 2016.
“That may be hyperbole, but I don’t know if I can find another example of a guy taking a job with a bad team with no draft picks,” Kerr said. “And yet, (Marks) has hired a great coach — Kenny’s doing a great job. You can feel (the culture change) when you play them. They play with energy and passion. So they’re building something. Obviously, it’s going to take more time. There’s a foundation being laid — I can see that.”
You just can’t see it in the standings, where the Nets are now 6-10 after their third loss in four games, starting with the Nov. 11 contest during which guard D’Angelo Russell was felled by a knee injury.
Despite the loss of Russell (out indefinitely following surgery) and backcourt mate Jeremy Lin (done for the season after an opening night knee injury), the Nets are still playing Atkinson’s way, even if they don’t have enough talent to succeed playing that way.
The Nets are the fastest-paced team in the league, averaging nearly 107 possessions per game this season. Only four teams shoot worse from 3-point range, yet Brooklyn hoisted an unconscionable 48 3-point field goal attempts Sunday, making 16, for a substandard 33.3 percent conversion rate.
Against the high-flying defending champs, the Nets should have had no shot, especially after falling behind by 28 points midway through the third quarter.
Well, the Nets actually had several shots. Uncontested 3-point shots. Contested 3-point shots. Foul shots.
They just didn’t fall. The Nets somehow snuck back into the game in the fourth quarter with their grit and had opportunities to shock the NBA universe, but they could not get any closer than four points after Warriors superstar guard Stephen Curry fouled out with three minutes remaining.
I can disagree with Atkinson’s rotation preferences and strategies. For instance, you would have thought he read somewhere about Curry’s marksmanship, yet the Nets’ help defenders sagged into the paint all night as he curled around screens, with and without the ball, to get free looks — Curry finished with 39 points on 14-for-24 shooting from the floor. But I know Atkinson isn’t allowed to put the ball in the basket.
He is getting better at holding his players accountable. See: Mozgov, Timofey, the lumbering center who deservingly hasn’t seen the light of day in the last two games after starting the first 13 contests of the season. There’s less of a rec ball mentality this season.
As for Marks, many of his personnel maneuvers haven’t paid the expected dividends, but is it his fault that his point guards can’t stay healthy, especially after investing so much for a highly regarded Performance Team that was supposed to help ward off injury bugs?
Since the Nets have no first-round draft pick of their own until 2019, Marks opted to take calculated risks in his two offseasons. Last summer, Marks emptied his meager asset bank (center Brook Lopez, the swapped Boston first-round pick originating from King’s failed 2013 blockbuster for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and most of Brooklyn’s ample salary cap space) in trades for Russell, Mozgov and wings Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll.
Aside from Carroll, net gains from these deals, if any, will likely be deferred into the future.
You never can know what a new owner has in store, but there have been no indications that Joseph Tsai, the Taiwanese mogul who reportedly agreed to purchase 49 percent of the Nets from Mikhail Prokhorov with the option to assume majority control in four years at a locked-in valuation of $2.3 billion, will want to start from scratch.
It is assumed Tsai is on board with this slow process, even if it means torturing the fan base for however long it takes.
It can be frustrating watching baby steps in Year 2 of this regime following last season’s 20-62 disaster. We were on board with the one mulligan, but I’m already at the point where I no longer want to hear about “how hard the Nets play.”
Yet we’re headed for another season in which most of the Nets’ victories will be moral.
In the meantime, the Barclays Center will continue to be inundated by fans of the Nets’ opponents. For the second time in a week, Nets fans were soundly outnumbered Sunday in their own arena.
No wonder Kerr (and Boston’s Brad Stevens last Tuesday) spoke so highly of Brooklyn. It felt like home.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1