Atkinson Should Redefine Roles For Some Players, Adjust Defensive Approach


By Steve Lichtenstein
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The NBA trade deadline passed Thursday with little bang considering all the pregame hype and with more whimper from Nets fans who already were less than excited about the remainder of the season.

In the initial stages of a nine-game road trip and on a 16-game losing streak following a pair of weekend blowouts in Denver and Golden State, Brooklyn’s bleak future remains unchanged.

Not that I expected anything transformational from Nets general manager Sean Marks given the awful hand he’s been dealt. And yes, the Nets added a first-round pick in the 2017 draft (plus forward Andrew Nicholson and since-waived guard Marcus Thornton) after dealing Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough to the Wizards. But while on one hand I was happy that such a package yielded something more than a John Wall autograph, every statistical study shows a low probability that such a selection (likely in the mid 20s) will produce a quality NBA player.

MORE: Lichtenstein: With Bogdanovic Trade, Nets’ Marks Looking 3-4 Moves Ahead

It turned out that once again the biggest winner in Brooklyn at the deadline was center Brook Lopez, who has beaten back every trade rumor in his nine seasons with the franchise. How is he still here? Despite a flurry of big men moved in the last couple of weeks, from stars (DeMarcus Cousins) to stiffs (Roy Hibbert), Marks couldn’t find anyone willing to match his price, even after he allegedly moved the 20.5-points-per-game scorer to a discount rack.

After failing to monetize his most valuable asset, Marks went out of his way Thursday to call Lopez “the face of the franchise,” though I’m not sure if that’s a compliment given how disfigured this team is.

At 9-49, the Nets make you want to avert your eyes. Point guard Jeremy Lin finally returned to the court Friday in Denver after missing 44 of the first 56 games due to hamstring woes, but he’ll probably continue to be on a minutes restriction for most of this road trip.

There’s no point in rushing him back anyway. Coach Kenny Atkinson continues to treat this job as if he’s running a rec league, making sure all of his young men get a chance to play. As I’ve noted numerous times, it’s hard to win NBA games playing 11 or 12 guys, all of whom average nearly 20 minutes per game or more. My concern is that Atkinson operates like he can’t practice accountability while still maintaining a positive working environment.

Here are a few ways Atkinson could make watching his team play more palatable as the season winds to its gruesome close:

1) Redeploy Foye

I think I speak for all Nets fans: There is no reason for Atkinson to continue to start Randy Foye, the relatively useless 33-year-old guard. He’s not big enough to guard wings like the Warriors’ Klay Thompson, nor is he fast enough to stay in front of most of the league’s point guards. He’s shooting just 36.6 percent from the floor and 33 percent from deep. How much of a calming presence can he possibly be when the Nets are minus-15.3 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor in the last 15 games since he was inserted into the starting five? Not counting Lin’s small 30-minute sample, only reserves Quincy Acy and Justin Hamilton have worse net ratings.

I get that Marks and Atkinson appreciate having high-character veterans in the locker room, but it’s way past time for Foye to join Luis Scola on the far end of the bench.

2) Free Hollis-Jefferson — By Reining Him In

This one is less obvious, but I believe what the Nets are doing with forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the old cliché of pounding a square peg into a round hole. Everyone knows Hollis-Jefferson lacks a competent stroke, so why is so much of Brooklyn’s offense running through him? When you’re as aggressive as Hollis-Jefferson has been, you will score some points. He posted averages of 9.6 points and 7.5 rebounds in 23.7 minutes per game in February, when he became a starter. Seems fairly solid. But he also turns the ball over frequently — only four players (and, yes, Foye is one of the four) averaging more than 20 minutes per game since Feb. 1 have higher turnover percentages than Hollis-Jefferson’s 18 percent. Now add in all of the bad shots near the rim, which are like turnovers in that they often lead to transition opportunities for the Nets’ opponents.

I’m not entirely sold on Hollis-Jefferson as a power forward, either. Atkinson feels that what the Nets surrender due to Hollis-Jefferson’s lack of bulk dealing with bigger players in the paint can be made up on the offensive end by utilizing his speed and athletic advantages to attack the basket. But again, I refer you to the previous paragraph — and we’re caught in a loop.

Hollis-Jefferson has the potential to develop into an elite wing defender, a quality that is in short supply in the NBA, never mind on this Nets roster. I understand the spacing issues that arise when he plays small forward, but why diminish the one thing he does well?

3) Put The Fence Back Into The Defense

As expected, given the personnel, the Nets’ defense has been a disaster in every metric this season. They place 28th in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions. They’re also 25th in turnovers forced per game. Given that the Nets cough up the ball more than any team (second worst when accounting for pace), you can see how this bottom-ranked, minus-3.9 margin per game is a huge problem.

Earlier in the season, Atkinson tried a more aggressive approach defending pick-and-rolls. You know, how good teams do it. The bigger defender blitzes the ballhandler so that he must either turn around or try a risky split if he doesn’t want to give up the ball. The Nets’ problem was that with so many slow guys such as Lopez, Bogdanovic and Foye on the floor, they weren’t active enough in getting into the passing lanes to cause disruptions.

However, with Lin healthy and long-armed rookie Caris LeVert joining Hollis-Jefferson in the starting lineup, Atkinson should adjust to have his defense try to force more turnovers. Spencer Dinwiddie or newly acquired K.J. McDaniels, both listed at 6-foot-6, are much better options than Foye if switches are required.

Lopez’s defensive flaws are a big contributor as to why the Nets have been hemorrhaging points this season. Opponents know they can run pick-and-rolls using his man as the screener to create open looks all night. Lopez often lays back in the middle of the paint, allowing the ballhandler an uncontested shot coming around the screen. Lately, the roll man has routinely been left wide open for layups as well.

The solution has to involve Lopez blitzing the pick-and-roll and then hustling back as best he can if the more athletic help defenders behind him can’t create the turnover.

It’s not perfect, but nothing will be until the Nets replace the anachronistic Lopez in the middle. Oh well, I’m sure those trade rumors will resume in advance of June’s NBA Draft.

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

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