Dec 20, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson reacts to a call against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Nets 116-104. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
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It’s hard being a rookie head coach. It’s even more difficult when you don’t have much talent at your disposal. Much like his young players, Kenny Atkinson is making his fair share of mistakes as the Brooklyn Nets‘ shot caller.
A head coach has a ton of responsibility as the leader of his team, and if they underperform, it goes back to him. They’re expected to draw up plays that work (of course, the players need to execute), manage the game, and put his team in a position to win.
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With this Nets team, none of that is easy. Despite holding the worst record in the NBA, they don’t have the worst roster, but the players they do have aren’t used to being so involved with their ball club. Take Joe Harris, for example. For the first two years of his career, he was a bench warmer for the Cleveland Cavaliers and spent most of last year in the D-League. Now, his minutes are above 23 a night, and he’s attempted the fifth-most shots on the team.
Atkinson is fortunate enough — if you consider it that — to be in a spot where there are no expectations. Heading into the 2016-17 season, many experts picked the Nets to be the worst team in the league, meaning that the franchise would have ample opportunity to mess around, experiment and see what works.
Because there is carte blanch as far as minutes go, Atkinson has nine players who average 20 minutes a night, and he will routinely go ten guys deep.
Jan 6, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Jeremy Lin (7) and the bench react during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Barclays Center. Cleveland Cavaliers won 116-108. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Since he has a plethora of bodies at his disposal, Atkinson is never reluctant to look toward his bench and execute a mass substitution if his starters aren’t getting it done. Within the last four games, we’ve seen angry Kenny spite his starters and clear the bench after slow beginnings.
It first happened against the Washington Wizards on December 30, and ten guys were used in the first eight minutes — yes, more guys had checked in for the Nets than minutes were played. Expectedly, they got blown out that game. The most recent time came two contests later, except it wasn’t as drastic. A very sluggish start against the Indiana Pacers forced Atkinson’s hand yet again.
Regarding basketball, it’s a great move. Evidently, the starters weren’t performing, so there’s no point of leaving them in if the bench guys are outplaying them. Moreover, Brook Lopez and Sean Kilpatrick are the only guys on the team who are consistently better than everyone else, so the drop-off in talent isn’t too bad off the bench. The game against the Pacers justifies this, and all but one player off of the Nets’ bench finished without a positive plus/minus (Anthony Bennett had a zero). Conversely, every starter had a negative plus/minus.
Having obscure rotations doesn’t impact the team as much as you’d think because they’re building chemistry and trust with each other. This would not work for a team like Cleveland or Golden State, but they can get past that during the regular season because they have the talent. Taking an established team like that and messing with the rotations destroys the chemistry that they’ve built, and it’s a big reason why teams of that caliber struggle when their better players get injured.
Although Brooklyn has that problem, it’s not an excuse, and Atkinson is doing what he can with what he has.
Jan 6, 2017; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) shoots over Brooklyn Nets guard Bojan Bogdanovic (44) during the third quarter at Barclays Center. Cleveland Cavaliers won 116-108. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
If there’s one thing that I don’t like about Atkinson’s decisions, it’s his defensive matchups. Specifically, Bojan Bogdanovic.
I do not want to discredit Jimmy Buckets’ skill as an offensive player because there are very few players in the league who can check him. With that said, Bogdanovic is a terrible defender. The game was on the line and with Chicago having the final shot, it should’ve been Rondae Hollis-Jefferson out there. He’s not an All-Defensive guy, but he’d have a better chance of getting a stop.
Of course, Atkinson’s “questionable” decisions are for him to gauge how certain guys do in certain situations, and then he adjusts accordingly. He’s not afraid to go out and try different things, which is encouraging. Especially during a rebuild. It’s important for everyone, fans included, to acknowledge that this team is not good. And no one should be screaming for Atkinson to be fired after this first season.