Kenny Atkinson spent a season laying down a template.
Sean Marks spent the summer filling in the blanks.
The result is that as the 2017-18 season begins, the Brooklyn Nets look more like the team Marks and Atkinson have said they’re trying to build than at any point since Marks took over as general manager in February 2016.
“I hope we saw the beginnings of it last season,” said Atkinson. “It’s a system based on ball movement and player movement. I like the process we put in place. We obviously have to improve in a lot of areas. There’s multiple guys handling the ball, there’s multiple guys coming off screens that are in different positions all the time. The formation of our offense changes depending on how we come up the court, so it’s important that we have versatile players.”
There’s an emphasis on perimeter size that enables positional versatility, youth, athleticism, and shooting ability. Marks’ major summer acquisitions fit those profiles and are expected to fill major roles.
D’Angelo Russell is a 6-foot-5 combo guard, equally capable of running the point or playing off the ball. The 21-year-old, selected second overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, is entering his third season after averaging 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per game last season.
Two new swingmen should pump up the Nets’ 3-point shooting percentage. DeMarre Carroll is reunited with Atkinson, the pair having spent two seasons together in Atlanta while Atkinson was an assistant with the Hawks, while Allen Crabbe has arrived from Portland.
The 6-8 Carroll saw his career take off with Atlanta before going to Toronto, and over the last four seasons has averaged 36-percent shooting from 3-point range. The 6-6 Crabbe was the NBA’s No. 2 3-point shooter last season with a 44-percent mark.
Timofey Mozgov fills a hole in the center spot, along with the Nets’ first-round draft pick, rookie Jarrett Allen.
“Adding D’Angelo, Mozgov, DeMarre, Allen Crabbe, I think there’s a plan behind everything the front office does and they went and got certain things to fill certain pieces and based on the information we had received through last year’s season, I think these are specific parts designed to make us better,” said Jeremy Lin. “Now it’s on us to make it all mesh and make it all work.”
While the new arrivals will reorder the team’s rotation, the trickle-down effect is enviable depth to the roster. Eight returning players — guards Sean Kilpatrick, Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead, Joe Harris, and Lin, plus swingman Caris LeVert and forwards Trevor Booker and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — averaged at least 20 minutes per game for the Nets in 2016-17.
“I do think there’s development through competition,” said Atkinson. “Minutes, we’re going to have to compete for minutes. The players know that, and that drives development also. I think you saw last year we used our entire roster. We’ll continue to do that. I think there’ll be plenty of opportunity to develop the whole roster.”
In his first season as coach, Atkinson’s Nets exhibited a clearly defined style of play. They were aggressive offensively and led the NBA in pace — defined as the average number of possessions per 48 minutes — at 103.58. They led the league in drives per game with 35.2 and were fourth in 3-point attempts with 31.6 per game. They shoot threes, attack the rim, and leave mid-range jumpers at the curb.
“I think the pieces that we have are going to help us,” said Lin. “I think D’Angelo’s going to be huge for us. I think DeMarre’s going to be huge for us. We need his voice, his leadership. We need the little things that he does. Obviously Crabbe and Mozgov are going to play big-time roles as well. And I think you’ll see guys like Caris and Sean who will continue to take big steps forward and help us out a lot.”
Underlying all the strategic and personnel decisions is the culture Marks and Atkinson are striving to build. It’s an environment of accountability, selflessness and equality, backed by the best in support from performance staff to facilities.
“Every time a new guy comes in, that’s one thing that’s preached most in the meeting,” said Hollis-Jefferson. “In practice, it’s about building family habits, building a great culture, a great environment. That’s something; it has to be in them. You don’t want to have to teach an adult how to be a certain way. We see this potential in these guys and that’s why we go after them. Because you can build off of guys like that with their head on straight who wants to be coached, who wants to be in a family environment.”
Ask any number of players about their playing time, position or role — from Hollis-Jefferson, who started Brooklyn’s last 34 games last season, to new arrivals Carroll and Crabbe — and you’ll get a similar response.
“I’m a basketball player,” said Carroll. “I expect to play anywhere coach puts me on the floor. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day. I can play 1 through 5, whatever coach wants me to do.”
That’s a template worth building around.