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.
NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future
Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.
On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.
Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.
Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with athe season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.
Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.
“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”
Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.
“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”
Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.
“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.
While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.
“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.
Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.
There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.
“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”
Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.
“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”
Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.
“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.
Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.
“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.
When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.
Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers
Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.
The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.
The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.
With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.
Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:
“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.
“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.
“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”
There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.
Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.
Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.
Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.
Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.
LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.
“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.
“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”
The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.
NBA Daily: Calderón’s Late NBA Start
Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.
There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.
“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”
Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.
“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”
That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.
“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”
As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.
“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.
“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”
He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.
“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”
The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.
“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”
That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.
“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”
Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.
“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”
He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.
Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.