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Atkinson Draws From Past to Energize Nets

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson is doing a remarkable job thus far, drawing inspiration from his various NBA stints.

Ben Dowsett

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When Kenny Atkinson finished up his professional playing career, it was quickly apparent he’d remain in the game on the management side. He served as Director of Player Development for the Houston Rockets during the 2007-08 season, reporting to some young hotshot general manager named Daryl Morey fresh into his first season at the helm. Atkinson moved to the coaching side the following year as an assistant with the New York Knicks. He was once again under a first-year boss – this time Mike D’Antoni, who came aboard in New York the same year. After four seasons in the Big Apple, Atkinson joined the Atlanta Hawks’ coaching staff, and within a couple years he’d become acquainted with Mike Budenholzer.

As Atkinson crosses the 10-game threshold in his first gig as an NBA head coach with the Brooklyn Nets, it’s clear he hasn’t forgotten his past. In fact, he’s using it as a template.

Atkinson’s Nets drew about as little fanfare as a modern NBA team can manage prior to this season. They lacked the on-paper skill to even think about qualifying for the playoffs, and shortsighted moves from a previous regime cut off any potential draft-related excitement at the knees. This was expected to be a mostly boring collection of players who’d generally stand around and watch Brook Lopez post up (until he got hurt or traded), struggle to defend and ultimately leave little lasting impression on anyone before forking over a likely top-five pick to the Boston Celtics.

However, that hasn’t been the case thus far.

Through roughly an eighth of the season, Atkinson has this group playing, well, real basketball. They sit 18th in the league in per-possession net scoring, despite having the seventh-toughest schedule in the league to this point and already missing Lopez and Jeremy Lin for a couple early games. They’ve beaten playoff teams from last year – the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons – and have thrown real scares into potential East contenders such as the Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets. And they’ve done it all with some key assists from Atkinson’s past mentors.

Budenholzer’s Hawks embraced their star-less identity from the jump with a cohesive, movement-based system designed to maximize specific skills and create creases in the defense. Atkinson’s Nets are operating under similarly inclusive principles: Six guys are taking at least seven shots a night, and five different Nets in the rotation are using over the league average of 20 percent of team possessions while on the floor. No one on the team is over Bojan Bogdanović’s 28.3 minutes per game.

Systems-wise, Atkinson is drawing from Budenholzer as well – but with a very D’Antoni-esque flair. The Nets use a ton of off-ball movement and screening, much of which is generally unscripted aside from a few basic tenets. Ball-handlers like Lin, Bogdanović and early standout Sean Kilpatrick have a ton of freedom to read the defense, and the unpredictable nature of the offense has helped close skill gaps in more than one game already this year.

This is where a few cherry-picked D’Antoni themes are visible. Atkinson knows his team is trotting out with a talent disadvantage most nights, so he wants his offense picking every bit of low-hanging fruit available to (somewhat) even the playing field. The Nets are playing at the second-fastest offensive pace in the league, per inpredictable.com, pushing any little edge in transition and looking for early chances to catch the defense off guard. They’re attempting the fourth-highest percentage in the NBA of shots “early” in the shot clock, per NBA.com SportVU figures (15-18 seconds), and the 10th-highest percentage of “very early” shots (18-22 seconds).

Lopez – suddenly a three-point gunner who matched his entire career attempt total from deep by his seventh game of the year – is setting drag screens as soon as the ball crosses halfcourt, and has full license from Atkinson to fire away early in the clock if guys leave him:

Lean too far expecting the drag screen, Cody Zeller? No matter, Lopez just won’t bother to set it.

He’s only hitting about a third of them, but Lopez’s range is opening things up for the entire offense. The Nets generated 15 open or wide open threes per game last season (no defender within four feet); they’ve more than doubled that so far this year, and lead the entire league in these attempts by a decent margin.

Individually, Lopez has never looked more comfortable on the floor. The freedom Atkinson has given him with his three-point shot is clearly rubbing off elsewhere. Lopez is decimals from the highest percentage at the rim he’s shot in his career, and his entire shooting profile from within 10 feet has actually improved markedly thus far even as he steps outside way more often.

A conservative defensive scheme against most pick-and-rolls has Lopez perfectly cast as a last line of defense at the rim. He’s posting easily his best season here since SportVU began tracking contested rim attempts (excepting a 17-game small-sample outlier in 2013-14): The 39.1 percent opponents are shooting at the rim while Lopez is nearby ranks fourth-stingiest among 53 guys defending at least five per game, mere points behind Hassan Whiteside and actually decimals ahead of Rudy Gobert.

Plenty of guys give you more when they’re having fun on the court, and the effect has been visibly apparent with Lopez. Watch him closely throughout this entire set that leads to another open three: This isn’t free-flowing offense that happens to get an acceptable shooter a look late in the shot clock – this is designed for Lopez. How could any seven-footer not enjoy plays like this drawn up for him?

From a philosophical standpoint, though, Atkinson’s overhaul in Brooklyn is straight out of the Morey Handbook For Team-Building. The Nets are pushing the analytical envelope with their offensive approach: Trying fewer mid-range shots than anyone but Morey’s Rockets (they’re hitting theirs at a much higher rate than Houston), and trailing only the vaunted Cavaliers in corner three-point attempts and only the Rockets again in above-the-break attempts.

No team has attempted more spot-up field goals, per Synergy Sports data, generally a sign of a healthy offense generating productive shots. The Nets finished a play from the post on 10 percent of their possessions last year, one of the five highest rates in the league; they’re down under seven percent for this year, now in the league’s bottom half. This is a clear philosophy from Atkinson, and it’s helping the Nets stick with teams they don’t match up well against on paper.

There’s no doubt that the Nets will still lose plenty of games this year. The talent gap is real on most nights, and it could grow in a hurry if Lopez is dealt before the deadline to help restock the barren draft cupboard left by the last administration. At some point, good defenses are going to figure out how to better snuff out depth options like Yogi Ferrell, Justin Hamilton and Joe Harris.

What Atkinson has done so far borders on remarkable, though. Even with his only two true starter-level players in Lopez and Lin in and out of the lineup, Atkinson has kept the group competitive on a nightly basis. He’s helped resurrect Kilpatrick’s career, a process that began under the previous regime last season but has been allowed to fully blossom with more freedom and trust.

Atkinson will find more confidence in the details as time wears on. This is just a promising start to a very long game. His foundation is built on principles from some of the most respected minds in the game, and it’s taken hold quicker than anyone could have expected. Prepare yourselves for a world where the Nets might be fun again.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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