The Brooklyn Nets 2016-2017 Preview: Up From Below
“Cause I’ve already suffered, I want you to know God
I’m riding on hell’s hot flames, coming up from below.”
— Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes
Last year, the Brooklyn Nets, by any liberal definition of the word, were an absolute trainwreck. Surely, expectations had plummeted after the organization finally cut the cord on Deron Williams, dealt their best prospect since Brook Lopez for another raw rookie, and hired the cagey, old-school Lionel Hollins to coach a young, immature Nets team. Unfortunately, nobody could’ve been prepared for half a season with Donald Sloan and Shane Larkin manning the point — so things, got, well, dark.
To jog your memories — since you’ve often pushed them down deep inside of you — here’s a quick rundown of the awful things that happened in 2015-2016:
— Deron “Made me question if I even wanted to play basketball when I was done with that contract.” Williams was bought out.
— Head coach Lionel Hollins was fired after a 10-27 start and Tony Brown, the interim replacement, didn’t fare much better — winning 11 games the rest of the way.
— General manager Billy King was fired alongside Hollins, finally in too deep of a hole to coax his way out of another time. The Nets re-assigned him within the organization and the last time we heard from him, he was still claiming he’d have turned the franchise around with more chance.
— The Nets gave up 120 points or more on seven different occasions — their highest total allowed was a whopping 139 points to the Orlando Magic in March — and, on the flip side, they held their opponents to under 100 points just 16 times. Of those 16 games, the Nets’ record was just 9-7, which is to say simply this: there was no concrete formula to victory for that uninspiring team.
— This was mostly because the Nets carried, at one time or another, six players that are currently not on an NBA roster — Andrea Bargnani (Spain), Markel Brown (free agent), Sergey Karasev (Russia), Shane Larkin (Spain), Donald Sloan (China), and Henry Sims (free agent). As of publishing, Thomas Robinson has officially survived the final roster cut with the Los Angeles Lakers, and both Wayne Ellington and Willie Reed signed with the Miami Heat this summer.
— Joe Johnson was bought out in February after averaging 11.8 points with Brooklyn over a way-too-much 33.9 minutes per game. He then signed with the Heat and bumped his total to 13.4 PPG and his FG% leapt from 40% to 52%.
— Again, this roster depended on Andrea Bargnani for a scoring punch off the bench and that was after the Nets handed the injury-riddled, no defense-chucker a player option in year two. Thankfully, Bargnani requested a buyout in February as well, stating that the Nets had promised him more playing time — but, you know, people break promises when you make us put your trigger-happy shooting to Ante Up.
— The Nets averaged just 6.5 three-pointers per game, good for 26th-worst in 2015-2016. Additionally they handed out 14.8 turnovers every contest, 19th-worst, and their pace was, unsurprisingly, painfully slow and tied for the 20th-slowest mark at 97.4.
This made for sloppy, boring, and ineffective basketball.
— They lost more games in the first half than I could count — or dare to recollect — and I eventually revolted, writing our game grades on snow-related items, running diaries, and Shel Silverstein-inspired poems.
But, finally, it’s a new season with new — err, or lack thereof — expectations. As they always say, it’s the darkest before the dawn, right? (Or, for as long as Andrea Bargnani is on your roster — one or the other.) The dismissal of Hollins and King lead to the hiring of Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks; Hollis-Jefferson, the returning piece of the aforementioned Plumlee deal, seems like he might be a defensive force; and the Nets landed Jeremy Lin in free agency.
However, it’s not all coming up Milhouse for the Nets in 2016-2017 — they still don’t have a bench ready to succeed, the system may have surpassed Brook Lopez, and, well, Trevor Booker alone isn’t going to fix a defense that bled points and nearly came in dead-last for efficiency last year.
And yet, after a full summer of drama, signings, and a lackluster preseason, it’s hard not to be excited about dusting off the cobwebs for another go-around on the carousel of impending Nets nausea. Without further ado, here’s your super-mega cheat sheet for the upcoming season — bookmark and save it to impress your co-workers at the watercooler — or don’t, whatever, because everybody is going to make fun of you for the pick swap with the Boston Celtics anyways.
The Brooklyn Game Player Previews
Jorge Gutiérrez, Egidijus Mockevicius, Yogi Ferrell, Chase Budinger, Beau Beech, Jeremy Lin, Isaiah Whitehead, Caris LeVert, Greivis Vasquez, Joe Harris, Randy Foye, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Anthony Bennett, Chris McCullough, Trevor Booker, Luis Scola, Justin Hamilton, Brook Lopez
Miscellaneous Posts of Interests
Nine Thoughts To Keep Your Spirits Up Heading Into The 2016-17 Nets Season
TBG’s Far Too Early Fantasy Basketball Cheat Sheat
Roundtable: Uncovering the Brooklyn Nets’ best lineups
Did the Nets actually improve their bench this offseason?
Mazzeo: Atkinson was key component in Nets landing Lin
Bojan Bogdanovic predicts playoff berth for Nets
Brook Lopez is the lone Net in Sports Illustrated’s Top 100
Analyzing Kenny Atkinson Through Preseason
by Ryan Carbain
The team hasn’t played a single minute of basketball that counted this summer and fall, but new head coach Kenny Atkinson has not been shy about the offensive style he wants to run. “[T]his will be a little bit more Atlanta-San Antonio style,” Atkinson told ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo, “A little bit more touches from other guys.”
So what’s that mean? Perhaps unsurprisingly, Atkinson is trying to install the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks’ version of the motion offense. For those of you that are uninitiated, a motion offense is a free-flowing offense governed by a certain set of rules. These rules emphasize ball movement, floor spacing, cutting, weaving, and screening. In the case of what the Spurs and Hawks try to run, pace also plays a critical role.
The goal of the offense is to find the best shot available by taking advantage of what the defense gives you. So, if Jeremy Lin moves the ball to a gifted shooter on the weak-side and he’s open, that player is free to launch early in the shot clock. (Bogdanovic does so at about 1:38 here.) However, if Trevor Booker receives the ball as a dive man on the pick and roll and he sees a help defender coming to clog the lane, he might consider swinging it out to a player rotating to the corner for an open three.
There’s really only one cardinal sin of the offense: hesitation. Failing to pop a clean look or make a quick movement is the easiest way for a player to get an early hook.
The Spurs and Hawks play both 4-and-1 motion and a 3-and-2 motion sets and we’ve seen the Nets try those styles under Atkinson already as well. These numbers refer to the number of players outside the paint and then those in the post. A 4-and-1 motion offense, the more commonly used option, will begin with just one player in the post, typically the big man who gets into position first. Hence, you’re seeing Brook Lopez start a lot of possessions outside the paint, as he’s a few ticks too slow to be one of the first out the gate.
The 3-and-2 set, as you likely guessed, means there are two post players in the paint — one in the high post and the other lurking in the weak-side low post. Theoretically, a lineup like that might see Booker playing at the nail, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson lurks the baseline.
There are no set plays, so Atkinson isn’t calling much from the sideline and whomever has the ball will dictate most of the action. While it may seem like random improvisation, it’s not and you’ll probably see Lin pass to the player on the weak-side, immediately curl around somebody in the post, get himself the ball back, and then attack a now off-balance defender. Or after the pass, Lin may cut to the corner while the new ball handler initiates a pick and roll with the post man — these will not be coincidences.
The actions in a motion offense will always require another. So, if Lin is cutting to the weak-side corner, then a player stationed there may cut to the top of the key or set a screen for another cutter. Obviously, the subtle nuances take getting used to and anticipating the movements of your teammates doesn’t always come naturally — so expect many hiccups early on (and you’ve probably seen plenty of them in the preseason).
That freelancing is complex as is, but the Spurs and Hawks throw in a lot of counters and misdirection on top of it all. For example, there’s the “Hammer Action” that the Spurs are notorious for. Brett Koremenos, a former Grantland writer described the motion: “[I]n which, a ball handler drives toward the baseline on one side of the floor in order to make a pass to a shooter floating toward the opposite corner with the help of a back screen, is a classic example of San Antonio sleight of hand.”
Yeah, I can hear you thinking: but what about the pick and roll? All summer, we’ve all read a host of articles guaranteeing stellar symmetry between Lopez and Lin — but through the preseason, that itch was largely left unscratched. But, rest assured: pace, floor-spacing, and the pick and roll are critical to what Atkinson is trying to do here. Whether it was Koremenos for Grantland or Mike Prada analyzing the burgeoning Hawks when Kenny Atkinson was an assistant there, these offensives have been well-loved over the years. Both the linked analyses point to one key similarity: an attacking point guard working out of the pick and roll often, so don’t freak out quite yet.
So, then, the Nets will have a top offense in 2016-2017? Well, not so fast. After all, it took Mike Budenholzer a full season to turn it around in Atlanta before he won 2014-2015’s Coach of the Year Award. And, frankly, the Nets do not have the cast of shooters that either team boasts.
However, the pace will be quick, the ball will move, and sometimes the Nets may actually shoot a team out of the building. It’s not going to be a Spursgasm on day one, but it will loads more fun than the Nets’ long-standing reliance on Iso-Joe.
And, really, that’s all you can ask for in a lost season like this.
Matching Up Against the Atlantic Division
The Boston Celtics quietly finished 48-34 last season, as they continued to earn more headlines for what they could be (largely due to the picks that are owed to them by the Nets) rather than what they are — the 4th-best defensive team in the NBA. They made a splash this offseason by signing Al Horford (inarguably the second-best free agent on the market), and landed one of the top-five talents in the draft in Jaylen Brown. The Celtics play aggressively on both ends of the floor and may well be the model that the Nets strive for in the coming years. As for this season, it’s difficult to suggest that the Nets have the depth or athleticism to match the rotations that elite head coach Brad Stevens has at his disposal. — Domenic
Despite the Celtics’ bounty of the aforementioned Horford, the Toronto Raptors still have the most talented team in the Atlantic Division. The Raptors’ All-Star backcourt tandem of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will continue to dominate games and, alongside DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas, their starting five is better than any other in the division. Athletes like Norman Powell will stifle Brooklyn’s shooters and the Nets’ lack of two-way threats will be their undoing against a team that is likely to be the Cleveland Cavaliers’ biggest obstacle en route to a third-consecutive NBA Finals trip. — Andrew
New York Knicks
While the New York Knicks have made some glamorous additions, Carmelo Anthony is still their best player and the franchise continues to pin their big playoff hopes on him. Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, and Courtney Lee are all good signings — if they can stay healthy — but there are some fair questions about the Knicks’ paltry depth chart. Although it’ll be Anthony hitting the last-second shots and Noah doing the dirty work down below, this team will only go as far as Kristaps Porzingis takes them. For the Nets, a good focus would be to force Anthony into making tough choices and shots — hi, Rondae! — and to limit the Porzingis fever whenever these two rivals play. — Simon
Processing . . .
Believe it or not, the Philadelphia 76ers are still going through the process phase following the abrupt end of the Sam Hinkie era last season. Ben Simmons, the no. 1 overall pick, is another top lottery pick to have their rookie season delayed before it even started for Philadelphia and it’s all starting to feel like a bad dream. The 76ers made some veteran signings during free agency, bringing in Jerryd Bayless, Gerald Henderson, and Sergio Rodriguez to go along with Dario Saric, Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor.
The Nets were 2-2 against the 76ers last season, one of them coming after Bojan Bogdanovic’s 44-point game. Even with another year of low expectations for both sides, there’s no reason why the Nets can’t go 3-1 against their fellow cellar-dwellers. — Jerry
Predicting the First Month of the Season
11/29 vs. Clippers
The return trip to Brooklyn should fare well for the Western Conference powerhouses once again. Paul and the Clippers remain in the league’s upper echelon, just a small tier below the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors and act as one of the few teams that may be able to dethrone their combined dominance. Additionally, their trio of DeAndre Jordan, Griffin, and Paul is better than any NBA-wide combination not comprised of players from the aforementioned Warriors. The Clippers’ athleticism will overwhelm Brooklyn in transition and Jordan’s defensive versatility will neutralize the Lin-Lopez pick and roll. The hometown version ends just as badly as the away trip does. — Andrew
2016-2017 Official Roundtable
I’m eight-seeding so hard right now. Hollis-Jefferson is a stud in the making, Lin ascended to god-tier status in New York, and Lopez starts hitting three-pointers at a 40% clip — why not, right? Atkinson may be a magic maker and he intentionally used as little Lin-Lopez pick and roll as possible this fall. If Bojan Bogdanovic chips in with some Rio-esque performances and Booker provides the rebounds that Thaddeus Young often didn’t grab last year — then there’s no reason to let your dreams die, kids.
The Brooklyn Nets likely won’t compete for playoff contention in 2016-2017 and that’s fine. In fact, they might even finish dead-last in the Eastern Conference — make no mistake, that’s certainly still in play. But, for once, there are no expectations of deep playoff runs or veterans anxious at the chance to leave the franchise. There aren’t D-Leaguers masquerading as starting point guards and, according to many, the bad taste and culture is out of the locker room and, believe it or not, the team actually enjoys spending time together. The Nets used to be one of the slowest teams in the league, stuck in a bygone era of three-point shooting under Lionel Hollins. This year, if Atkinson’s preseason offense is any indication, then, at the very least, they’ll be more fun.
So, when the losses are piling up and you feel like tearing your hair out over Scola’s matador defense — remember that word again. Fun.
No, really, think about it. The Nets will be a fun basketball team again. When was the last time they were fun? They made it to the second round once thanks to Paul Pierce’s epic block against Toronto — but was the rest of the season all that fun? Since moving to Brooklyn, the expectations have been either sky-high or boring as hell — but this? This is an in between we haven’t seen since they traded Jason Kidd in 2008, in all honesty. When you go straight from 12-70 to owner Mikhail Prokhorov promising an NBA Championship in five years or less, you’re either going to be happy or disappointed — full stop.
Whether or not the Nets even win more games than last year, the organization has the chance to give the fanbase something they haven’t felt in some time — and certainly not since they moved to New York — and that’s by creating a culture worth rooting for. Only one franchise wins a championship every season and the Nets won’t likely be contenders until they own their draft picks again in 2019 — but let’s start here.
With Atkinson and Lin, there are no more grandiose pipe-dreams, bloated payrolls, or inflated egos. Atkinson spent all summer signing those that actually wanted to play for Brooklyn and Marks went out of his way to unearth young, athletic prospects that could grow into something special down the line. It’ll take two more years or maybe more, but, for once, it’ll be fun to enjoy the ride.
The Brooklyn Nets will be bad in 2016-2017 and beyond — but, finally, they’re worth investing in again.