Brooklyn Nets where Sean Marks, Kenny Atkinson said they’d be

Brooklyn Nets Kenny Atkinson (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Kenny Atkinson (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /
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Brooklyn Nets
Brooklyn Nets Kenny Atkinson (Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images) /

2. Atkinson making patience pay off

Kenny Atkinson was a first-time head coach — at any level — when he was hired by the Brooklyn Nets in April 2016.

He experienced some growing pains with a gutted roster, as the Nets were 20-62 in his first season before improving to 28-54 in 2017-18.

The Nets are 28-24 this season, already matching last year’s victory total, and are 20-6 since ending an eight-game losing streak in early December.

Along the way, a coach who could be rigid in his game-day approach has become much more creative with his adjustments and strategies.

In Atkinson’s first season, the Nets were the worst third-quarter team in the NBA by a large margin.

Opponents just demolished Brooklyn with halftime adjustments, as the Nets were a minus-274 in the third quarter — almost doubling the next-worst team on the list, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were a minus-150.

Last season, the Nets were markedly better after halftime, ranking 13th in the league with a plus-27 margin.

This year, Brooklyn is sixth in the NBA at plus-79 and no team has been better than the Nets since Dec. 7, when they began their 20-6 burst. The Nets have played third quarters to a plus-105 net over that span, 10 points better than the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors’ plus-95 rate.

Atkinson added some offensive wrinkles this season, switching the primary set from a 4-out to a 5-out and to maximize center Jarrett Allen’s ability to set screens and roll to the rim. Ed Davis has also thrived in this role.

Defensively, Atkinson has compensated for an injury-depleted roster by employing a 2-3 matchup zone at times and has liberally switched between the zone look and conventional man-to-man schemes to keep opponents off-balance.

Atkinson acknowledges his growth as a coach, telling the media Tuesday (h/t Barbara Barker of Newsday):

"“From the first day on the job to now, it’s been night and day. We joke that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing in the beginning, quite honestly. Now, I feel like I’m better equipped and more confident. I feel so much more comfortable. “Obviously, winning a little bit more helps that.”"

He says the growth he’s experienced mirrors that of his team of mostly unknowns.

"“I think we’re kind of on the same growth patters. So I think it’s kind of a cool thing. I’m growing in step with them. They understand I make a ton of mistakes, they make a ton of mistakes. “I keep saying, we’re both humble. I have a long way to go as a coach,. They know they’ve got a long way to go as players.”"

It is not a conventional playoff roster, to be sure. You have to look hard around the locker room to find the lottery picks, but you’ll trip over second-rounders and undrafted players.

If general manager Sean Marks assembled an unconventional collection of talent, Atkinson has molded that group into a winning one.

The roster breakdown, by draft position, doesn’t scream “superteam,” to be sure.

Lottery picks

  • D’Angelo Russell (No. 2 overall by Los Angeles Lakers, 2015)
  • Ed Davis (No. 10 overall by Toronto Raptors, 2010)

Mid-first round

  • Caris LeVert (No. 20 overall by Indiana Pacers, 2016)

Late first round

  • Jared Dudley (No. 22 overall by Charlotte Bobcats, 2007)
  • Jarrett Allen (No. 22 overall by Nets, 2017)
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (No. 23 overall by Portland Trail Blazers, 2015)
  • Shabazz Napier (No. 24 overall by Charlotte Bobcats, 2014)
  • DeMarre Carroll (No. 27 overall by Memphis Grizzlies, 2009)
  • Dzanan Musa (No. 29 overall by Nets, 2018)

Second round

  • Allen Crabbe (No. 31 overall by Cleveland Cavaliers, 2013)
  • Joe Harris (No. 33 overall by Cleveland Cavaliers, 2014)
  • Spencer Dinwiddie (No. 38 overall by Detroit Pistons, 2014)
  • Rodions Kurucs (No. 40 overall by Nets, 2018)

Who needs a draft?

  • Treveon Graham (signed as 2015 undrafted free agent by Utah Jazz, 2015)
  • Alan Williams (signed as 2015 undrafted free agent by Phoenix Suns, 2016)
  • Theo Pinson (signed as 2018 undrafted free agent by Nets, 2018)
  • Mitch Creek (signed as 2014 undrafted free agent by Nets, 2018)

Voters have tended to favor coaches from teams that win big, with the last NBA Coach of the Year from a team that finished with fewer than 50 wins was Sam Mitchell of the Toronto Raptors for going 47-35 in 2006-07.

The Nets are currently on a 44-win pace and the last Coach of the Year recipient from a team with that many wins or less happened in the last century, when Doc Rivers won the award after leading the Orlando Magic to a 41-41 mark in 1999-2000.

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Atkinson faces an uphill climb in that race, unless the Nets keep rolling out wins. If they stay ridiculously hot, even through all the injuries they have and are currently dealing with, Atkinson’s COY case will be hard to ignore.