Brooklyn Nets: Rotation roulette a byproduct of getting healthy

Brooklyn Nets Kenny Atkinson (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Kenny Atkinson (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said after Thursday’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers that the rotation is going to be in flux for a bit.

The Brooklyn Nets lost for the sixth time in eight games on Thursday, getting outmuscled and outplayed by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second half of a 113-99 decision.

The game marked the return of veteran forward Jared Dudley to the active list after he had missed 16 games with a strained left hamstring.

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Dudley isn’t the only player who has returned to action of late. Caris LeVert played in just his fourth game Thursday after missing 42 games with a dislocated right foot, while it was the fifth game back for Allen Crabbe following 26 games on the sidelines with a bruised knee.

Throw in Treveon Graham returning from missing the final game before the All-Star break for personal reasons and Rodions Kurucs being available after he sat out the same game as Graham because of a sprained left elbow and what you have is a jumble.

Kurucs was the odd man out on Thursday, as he took his first DNP-CD since a Dec. 5 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was his 11th DNP-CD of the season and he’s also missed six games due to injury.

Prior to missing the last two games for Brooklyn, he had started 29 consecutive games, so it was a rapid descent to the outer reaches of the rotation.

Atkinson told Anthony Puccio of Nets Daily that getting the rotation figured out was going to be a process.

That answer may not make a lot of fans happy, but the simple fact is that a byproduct of getting healthier as a team is having to shuffle the rotation to reintegrate those returning players into the mix.

It did not help matters, as far as understanding Kurucs’ sudden return to the oblivion of the end of the bench, that the three players used at the 4 position combined to have little, if any, positive impact on the game.

Graham started and in 17 minutes was 0-for-4, all from 3-point range, with one rebound and one assist. He played to a minus-3.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was the first 4 off the bench and in 15 minutes was 1-for-6 with four rebounds, two assists, a steal and a turnover. He finished with two points and a minus-6 rating.

Three of the five shots he missed were blocked at the rim, twice by hulking Portland center Jusuf Nurkic, and once by young combo forward Jake Layman. (Two words for RHJ: “head fake.”)

Dudley logged seven minutes in the fourth quarter and statistically did nothing — he didn’t take a shot, get a rebound, dish an assist or turn the ball over. But the Nets played at a plus-8 while he was in and the ball was hopping on the offensive end much more crisply when Dudley was in.

LeVert made his second straight start, going 4-for-11 overall with 12 points, hitting 1-of-2 from deep with an assist, two fouls and a turnover while playing at a minus-13.

Graham and Hollis-Jefferson are prized for their defense, an aspect about each player Atkinson has mentioned many times.

If only this were hockey, where Graham/Hollis-Jefferson could defend like crazy and then run off the floor at the center stripe while another player with some offensive competence could run onto it.

The end result Thursday was that the starting unit was far too small to deal with Portland’s size. LeVert was the second-tallest starter on the floor and he was playing the shooting guard spot. That’s a problem, even in the small-ball, pace-and-space crazed NBA of today.

The Blazers started Maurice Harkless — at 6-foot-9 — at the 3 and Al-Farouq Aminu — at 6-foot-9 — at the 4. The Nets countered with 6-foot-6 Joe Harris and the 6-foot-5 Graham. So that 60-49 rebounding advantage for Portland starts to become more clear at that point.

Kurucs hasn’t been great of late.

He hasn’t scored in double figures since the Nets’ Jan. 23 win at Barclays Center over the Orlando Magic and in the last nine games he started averaged 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds in 21.7 minutes per game, shooting 29.2 percent overall and 20.7 percent on 3.2 3-point attempts per game.

But he provides something at the forward spots — he had been starting at the 3 before his latest benching — that is lacking from the rest of the available options: the simple fact he is 6-foot-9.

He’s probably too thin to be completely effective against bigger 4s in the NBA. But he at least has a fighting chance to use his quickness, verticality and athleticism to get a rebound or two.

The Nets haven’t had an effective stretch 4 since Atkinson has been coaching the club. Hollis-Jefferson last season was about as close as it came and even then, he’s not ideal for the system because he’s not a floor-spacer.

Of course, if Graham continues to shoot 26.3 percent from 3-point range, neither is he. Dudley was at 32.2 percent before he was injured. Kurucs is now at 30 percent from deep on the season.

Some have posited that two-way player Alan Williams could be an option at the 4. Williams has been lighting it up with the Long Island Nets in the NBA G League, earning a spot on the league’s midseason Eastern Conference All-G League team (in lieu of the league having an All-Star event).

He’s averaging 20.6 points and 13.3 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game for Long Island, shooting 49 percent overall. He’s taken 42 3-pointers in 29 games and made 11, a 26.2 percent clip.

So, that’s not really an upgrade over the present cast of characters at the 4 and at 6-foot-8 and 265 pounds, Williams struggles to defend on the perimeter, sort of a necessity in the age of the stretch 4.

It is the one position where general manager Sean Marks has failed to make an impact during his three-year tenure in Brooklyn.

The buyout market at the stretch 4 is thin because every team in the NBA is seeking bigs who can shoot. Markieff Morris, released by the New Orleans Pelicans, was reportedly pursued by the Nets, per Shams Charania of The Athletic, but he signed with Oklahoma City.

Who else is out there?

Carmelo Anthony, the 34-year-old former New York Knicks star, is still unsigned after being bought out by the Chicago Bulls, but he hasn’t played in a game since early November after being in limbo with the Houston Rockets much of the season.

Michael Beasley was bought out by the LA Clippers and signed earlier this week to return to China, per Jeff Goodman of Stadium.

Omri Casspi was bought out by the Memphis Grizzlies, but is also recovering from surgery to repair a torn right meniscus and may not be healthy enough to play again this season.

Henry Ellenson, a former first-round pick of the Detroit Pistons who was bought out of his rookie deal, signed a 10-day contract with the Knicks on Wednesday, per Ian Begley of ESPN.

So the free agent options are pretty thin, as well, unless the team makes an unexpected play for Anthony, who can still score, but was a neutral to minus defensive presence before he was 34 years old.

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It appears that ultimately, the 4 is a position that Atkinson will have to continue to play mix-and-match with for the remainder of the season.