By Steve Lichtenstein
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The era of good feelings didn’t last very long in Brooklyn.
Nets players have been gushing over interim coach Tony Brown’s positive demeanor in contrast to the surliness that characterized Lionel Hollins, who was axed a week ago in a “reset” that also saw general manager Billy King “reassigned” within the organization.
When the Nets defeated the rival Knicks on Wednesday, there were plenty who were ready to lay all the blame for the club’s 27 losses in its first 37 games at Hollins’ feet.
As you can tell from the Nets’ wasted weekend — two fourth-quarter horror shows in losses to Portland on Friday and in Atlanta (where Brooklyn flat-out quit) on Saturday — that sentiment now seems a bit premature.
With games against the Raptors, Cavaliers, Jazz and Thunder on tap in the next seven days, it’s going to be — to paraphrase Brooklyn forward Joe Johnson — just as bad here as when Hollins was in charge.
The most galling item to me during the depressing weekend was a report on Friday by Andy Vasquez of the Bergen Record in which his sources could not name a single player who liked Hollins. As if Hollins’ favorable/unfavorable rating was material to the Nets’ horrendous first-half record this season.
But what if we inverted that question? How many Nets players are liked by coaches around the NBA?
Not too many, if we are to judge by their trade values.
Let’s not forget that according to various media reports, King was all set to offload center Brook Lopez, the Nets’ best player, at last season’s trade deadline for a superfluous backup point guard (Reggie Jackson) who wanted out of Oklahoma City, plus filler. At the last minute, the Thunder said, “Nah,” and went in another direction, opting instead to go after Utah’s Enes Kanter.
At the same time, lottery-bound Minnesota thought so little of forward Thaddeus Young, whom the Nets re-signed for four years at $54 million this past summer, that all they wanted from King was a relic (Kevin Garnett) who was more valuable when he didn’t play than during the approximately 20 minutes he ran in those designated games he deigned to dress.
I will argue that Lopez and Young were playing the best all-around basketball of their respective careers under Hollins. Lopez still isn’t very good at anything other than scoring, but you could see that he was at least making an effort to pass more out of the post and be more engaged on the defensive end, especially on the boards. Young not only was a daily double-double threat as an undersized big, but he was one of few Nets who possessed both the athleticism and the will necessary to provide sparks through hustle plays.
In addition, trigger-happy guard Jarrett Jack is somehow sixth in the league in assists and rookie wing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the 23rd overall pick in the draft, made a real impact when he entered the starting lineup.
Unfortunately, Jack and Hollis-Jefferson suffered major injuries over the past month and a half. Hollis-Jefferson could return from his fractured ankle sometime in February, but Jack is lost for the remainder of the season with an ACL tear.
The Nets just don’t have enough talent on their roster to pick up the slack. There isn’t a coach alive who could make lemonade out of these lemons.
Bojan Bogdanovic is still an abomination, Shane Larkin plays one good game a week, and Andrea Bargnani is, well, all I will say is that there is no reason for this enigma to receive any more minutes during this lost season.
I won’t fault Brown for throwing everyone out there to see what sticks, playing 11 or 12 guys every night. Sure, he contributed to the Portland loss by leaving his five-man reserve unit on the floor too long when the Blazers’ starters returned for the stretch run. But this is how you learn about what you have. Where else can you see, for instance, what happens to a defense when Bogdanovic and Sergey Karasev share the floor with Bargnani?
All this concentration on positive self-esteem hasn’t really been beneficial. In this admittedly small sample size, only Johnson and Donald Sloan have performed better under Brown than Hollins, and neither player will be in Brooklyn’s plan for the future.
That future will also include a coach other than Brown. Based on owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s past, he will attempt to lure a big name to Brooklyn. Oh, I suspect he will fail, but imagine what would happen if he succeeded.
The two most talked-about candidates are former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and University of Kentucky patriarch John Calipari. I wouldn’t put either of them in the “players’ coach” category.
I get that Barclays Center can be somewhat quiet, but that doesn’t fully explain how I could hear Thibodeau screaming at his Bulls players from all the way in the upper deck.
Calipari may have learned some valuable lessons from his previous experience almost 20 years ago with the franchise in New Jersey, but I’d bet that it won’t be easy for him to make the switch again from overseeing the players who bow to him in college to the professionals who quickly tire from one-note messengers.
When you look around the league, five NBA titles haven’t even softened Gregg Popovich, the standard-bearer who still routinely glares at and heckles his Spurs when he is displeased with what sees on the court. I’ve seen him call a pair of timeouts in the first few minutes of a one-score game just to get his players’ attention.
Of course, it’s not as noticeable because the Spurs are incredibly apt at identifying and developing players to fit their system.
The bottom line is that nice guys can finish first, last, or in-between, and the same holds true for not-so-nice guys. It all depends on the talent on the roster and what the coach can get out of that talent.
In that regard, I am not suggesting that it was wrong for the Nets to fire Hollins. Prokhorov is in desperate need of a new general manager and any qualified one would want to hire his own coach. Better to cut the cord now with the Nets stumbling into the NBA abyss.
Though I, too, found a good number of Hollins’ coaching strategies curious at best and malpractice at worst, I don’t for a second believe the Nets are where they are because of his temperament.
If Brown or anyone else can keep smiling while the Nets stagger through the season’s second half to maybe 20 wins, they’re a better actor than a coach.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1