By Tom Dowd
The record may not show it, but the Brooklyn Nets made an impression during the 2016-17 season. Working through injuries, playing to a nearly .500 record over the season’s final quarter, one opponent after another that came through Barclays Center was impressed by the team’s effort and competitiveness.
“It was great that I got that feedback, because it was part of staying positive through the season, because you did hear that,” said coach Kenny Atkinson of his first season. “I think this year, we’ve got to take a step. Playing hard isn’t enough. We’re going to play a little smarter. There’s a step to make.”
What that step looks precisely like, Atkinson isn’t entirely sure. But he knows he’s playing a different hand than the one he was dealt a year ago.
You know things are different because Atkinson is fielding questions about a minutes crunch, and looking at guys who started 20-plus games a year ago coming off the bench, fighting for playing time. Depth is a strength, even as Atkinson considers the rotation a work in progress.
It’s something that will begin to sort itself out when the Nets open their 2017-18 season on the road against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night. The game will tip off at 7:00PM, live on YES. The Nets will open their home schedule on Friday night against the Orlando Magic, with the Atlanta Hawks visiting Brooklyn on Sunday.
“Very excited,” said D’Angelo Russell in anticipation of his first game as a Net. “Has a first day of school feeling. New situation. Everybody wants to get out there for real now. Definitely excited.”
For starters, Atkinson sees more offensive firepower. The Nets were not just one of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the NBA last year, they were among the tops in finding open looks from behind the arc. And they played the fastest pace in the league. So finding opportunities was not the concern. Converting them was.
“I feel like we have more shooting,” said Atkinson. “That’s big in this game, especially the style we play, the reliance on the 3-pointers. I would hope we’re improved, on the offensive end, while still keeping our defensive principles.”
That optimism starts with Allen Crabbe. The 6-foot-6 swingman seems to be an ideal fit for Atkinson’s system: a knock ‘em down shooter with the length to be a plus on the defensive side as well. A year ago Crabbe was the league’s No. 2 3-point shooter, making 44 percent of his attempts.
His presence has already changed the way the Nets react on the court.
“I see it already. These guys, especially Jeremy (Lin) and D’Angelo, they see things. When Allen Crabbe’s on the court, it’s like having Odell Beckham out there,” said Atkinson. “They’re looking for him, and they’re finding him, within the constraints of our offense. I love it. I haven’t said anything. But they know the guy was the second-best 3-point shooter in the league. Even our big guys are setting random screens for him in transition. It’s not even part of the offense. But they know.
“There is a certain amount of respect for what he can do.”
Crabbe suffered an ankle sprain during training camp, as did second-year swingman Caris LeVert. Both players missed the first two preseason games. Patiently acclimating them to the lineup is part of what has Atkinson uncertain about roles to start.
“I think this year, we’ve got to take a step. Playing hard isn’t enough. We’re going to play a little smarter. There’s a step to make.”
Coach Kenny Atkinson
“As those guys get more integrated we’ll be able to refine their niche in the rotation,” said Atkinson. “I think we just have more shooting, more wing shooting. I think our offense will take a step up because of that.”
Russell brings a different style to the offensive end. Playing both guard spots for the Lakers last season, he shot 35 percent from 3-point range. At 6-foot-5, he has the strength, savvy and skill to navigate through and around a defense. His 15.6 points per game in 2016-17 were a top-10 mark for a 20-year-old guard in NBA history. He also averaged 4.8 assists per game.
Going back to his final year of high school, Russell will be playing for his fifth head coach in five years. He spent one season at Ohio State, and the Lakers changed coaches after his rookie year.
So the styles keep changing, and he’s found a new one in Brooklyn. One he finds to be a comfortable fit so far.
“I enjoy it. Definitely a fast pace. Got shooters around,” said Russell. “Playing at that pace, getting up a lot of threes. We’re moving at a different pace than I’m used to.”
He’s looking forward to getting started.
“I think we’ve got a good exciting group,” said Russell. “Young guys, sprinkle in a few vets. Just looking forward to every game, trying to go in the right direction. Don’t want to look back on the season and have any wasted moments or wasted time. Going into the next season, as long as we’re going in the right direction, it’s all I can really ask for.”
The radio broadcast of the Nets season opener against Indiana will be streamed on WFAN.com, beginning with the pregame show at 6:50PM. The game will be joined in progress on WCBS at 8:00PM.