image via Newsday
Previously, I deconstructed Kenny Atkinson’s offensive system and influences in his first season as Brooklyn Nets head coach. When run successfully, it’s a system that gets everyone involved, working for open looks from the perimeter and easy buckets at the rim. The Atlanta Hawks, under Mike Budenholzer, has built a consistent winner using a similar system as today’s Nets. Without a true superstar, the Hawks system maximized the talent of their core. To this day, Atlanta is still a top Eastern conference team, with an overhauled roster. Another Atkinson influence, Mike D’Antoni, is a coach of the year candidate this season. Steve Kerr comes from a similar coaching lineage as Atkinson (they’re stepbrothers), and his team has done OK too. So, by signing Atkinson, the Nets should have an efficient, ball-swinging, Spurs-esque system with a touch of D’Antoni point guard whisperer magic, shouldn’t they?
*SPOILER* – They don’t. The 2016-2017 Nets are far from being Hawks North, the Empire State Warriors or El Hijo Del Spurs.
The Nets are in the bottom five of several offensive categories. Take a look.
Even with these low efficiency rankings, the team ranks high in several volume stats (three pointers made, three pointers attempted, and free throws made), which indicates the blistering pace they play, and the Morey-ball influence. So obviously the Nets aren’t having issues taking shots or drawing fouls.
Even with a liberated, free-flowing offensive system, the Nets are still on pace to lose 60+ games once again. Obviously, the defense has been shaky, (Nets D breakdown soon!) but the offense has also struggled. At times, the Nets play beautiful basketball, passing, driving, and cutting until they find an open shot. The team plays competitively for a couple of quarters, but then it just…stops. Completely. In Nets scoring droughts, ball movement dies, dribbling goes nowhere, and shots are forced. It’s puzzling at times to see the offense drop off a cliff. The team can’t be perfect every possession, but some of these offensive #woes are frustrating to watch.
Are there issues with the system?
The system itself, is not the root of the team’s offensive #woes. Running the offense relies on quick decision-making out of sets, and, hypothetically, the offense should generate good looks on most possessions. The Nets have had major offensive lapses against poor defensive teams, not just elite defenses like the Spurs, Hornets, and Heat (yes, the Heat are in the top 10 in defensive rating). The team may still be learning the offense and the endless scenarios of a simple set. Just look at this breakdown of the 2013-2014 Hawks. Even with a team oriented system, the Nets still face offensive #woes. Cue the torture film!
Poor Ball Movement
Kenny Atkinson’s system encourages passing and cutting. The Nets have had possessions and games where they move the ball well. But often times, the team initiates the offense, makes one pass, and the ballhandler either shoots immediately or drives to the rim for a contested layup or turnover. This style may stem out of Weak, Strong, or Horns sets. The Nets’ best offense comes when they swing the ball side-to-side, sliding the chess pieces. The Hawks show that here.
They start off from the Strong side set, and swing it to Demarre Carroll off of the double stagger screen, a staple of that system. Carroll dumps it to Mike Scott in the pinch post, and finds Kyle Korver on a drag screen. Korver takes a few dribbles into the lane, leaving Carroll open for a corner 3. There were 6 passes in that set, with off-ball screens on each swing. The San Antonio Spurs move the ball well too.
But they’re the Spurs. It’s in their cultural DNA. Nets fans are hoping Atkinson inherited the good genes.
Cutting down on ball movement is understandable if a player is hot, or if the defense plays the passing lanes well. But the “one and done” possession occurs too often. This happens with Spencer Dinwiddie here, off of a Nets offensive rebound.
He had a fresh shot clock to work with, so he could have reset the offense. Of course, there was also the infamous Kobe Dinwiddie moment against the Heat.
More on the Miami Heat game fourth quarter later.
Here, Sean Kilpatrick cuts to the middle on a Strong set, cutting the movement that would have initially gone to Trevor Booker. He takes it to the lane, lofting a floater over LaMarcus Aldridge with 16 seconds on the shot clock. In that play, Kilpatrick could have looked for secondary off-ball movement, but he opted for an early shot.
Randy Foye is the ballhandler off of a Quincy Acy screen. Acy slips the screen and pops to the top of the key. Foye barrels into the lane and into Acy’s defender, 7-footer Dewayne “The Rock Johnson” Dedmon. He loses the ball with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. This possession had no passes, a straight drive.
In a similar sequence against the Hornets, Foye denies an Acy screen and gets past Marco Belinelli. He drives into the lane, where the help defender, Marvin Williams, contests straight up. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was the open corner man. Although he may not be a shooter, RHJ is shifty enough to drive and dish, especially with so much time (18 seconds) on the shot clock. Poor ball movement is not an individual issue. It’s a team wide ailment.
Even when the Nets do move the ball, the passes may not be effective. A good pass doesn’t have to be a Steph Curry nutmeg to Zaza Pachulia. A good pass spurs movement from both the defensive and offensive personnel. The Hawks do that here.
Kyle Korver commands team-wide attention upon receiving the ball. It forces the defense to keep their eyes locked on him, allowing the offensive players space to breathe. Nothing fancy there, just strong passes creating movement. Obviously, skilled offensive players command attention. The Nets may not have players as magnetic as Korver, an assassin, but their passes leave a lot to be desired.
Per NBA.com, the Nets are ranked fourth in the NBA in passing, with 321.4 passes per game. The team makes lots of passes, yet rank 20th in assists. Compare that to the Spurs, who rank 4th, and the Hawks, who rank 6th in team assists with lower passing totals. That puts the Nets at 24th in pace-adjusted assist to pass ratio. The weak passes, paired with poor off-ball movement drain the shot clock, leading to ineffective isolation plays. Even in Mike Budenholzer’s first season as head coach, his 38-44 Hawks were second in assists, only trailing the peak-level Spurs. (The KG/Paul Pierce Nets were 24th in assists that year, if you were wondering.)
The Nets also commit lots of turnovers. Several turnovers come off of errors on lazy or misplaced passes. These passes may not be Shane Larkin tossing a simple pass into the stands one to two times a game, but they can be crippling to the Nets’ momentum on offense.
Against the Hornets, the Nets start the possession moving the ball well out of Horns, initiated by Bojan Bogdanovic. He draws defenders in on a drive, finding Quincy Acy, then RHJ on a mismatch. Acy sets a good screen on Batum to get Bogdanovic back to the perimeter. But RHJ throws a lazy one-handed pass at the extended arm of Batum, causing a turnover. Credit Batum for his length and effort, but the pass by RHJ could’ve had a bit more behind it.
Another passing issue leading to Net turnovers is committing to the air. Several Nets have turned the ball over on drives because of telegraphed passes. The player dribbles into the lane looking to shoot, but sees no angle with a big looming down low. The player desperately jumps and tosses the ball to a frozen teammate.
Bogdanovic does this coming off of Horns, ambling into the lane. Cody Zeller contains the drive well. Bogdanovic jumps and fires it overhead to Foye in the corner, but the pass is intercepted. Committing to the air made the pass predictable. It gave the defense time to see where Bogdanovic was looking, and cause rotation for the interception. Kilpatrick commits to the air and pays here…
And Isaiah Whitehead does the same when faced with a double against Minnesota
Telegraphed passes lead to terrible turnovers. Say that five times in a row.
One tenet of the Atkinson system, adapted from the Pacefather, Mike D’Antoni, is early offense. The Nets have held down the R button all season long, leading the NBA in pace. Good offense early in the shot clock can catch defenses napping, or create mismatches on unprepared defenses. The Nets have been moderately successful at getting fast break points, ranking 13th in the league. But their transition and early offense has been a bit too erratic at times, with some possessions seemingly out of control. Take a look at these Nets early offense possessions.
Think to yourself, What Would Mike Do? Would Mike want those shots? Would he applaud and tell the players to keep working? Or would he turn around and walk towards the bench with his arms folded, his go-to move.
All those possessions ended early in the shot clock. I’ve seen Atkinson call an angry timeout when players take these shots, but those plays occur on a game-to-game basis. Early shots are like a drunk text. When you commit to it, you don’t think it’s a bad idea, and see only the positives. But upon failure, you, waking up hungover the next morning, and the Nets, running back on defense to contain a fast break, end up with nothing but embarrassment.
There are ways to play fast without actually being fast, pace wise. Within a half court set, the offensive players can cut and screen hard, firing passes leaving the defense scrambling. The Spurs (Yes, them again) do this well with their bench unit.
They use up a lot of clock, but the movement is quick, controlled, and precise. The players are moving quickly, but they make precise passes, and look for a shot instead of heaving one up once they see the clock running down. The Warriors play with D’Antoni speed and Popovich movement, and move the ball faster than the Spurs (https://youtu.be/o8ssFDSe9fg). The players don’t have to fire away early in the shot clock if the ball moves faster than the defense.
If these are the only issues, why hasn’t the team won more games?
The #woes detailed here are from the current on-court product. There still are glaring holes in the roster makeup, whether it is by injury (TAKE MY HAMSTRING, JEREMY SENPAI) [te echo de menos, Greivis] or by missed offseason moves (you’d look great in BK black, Allen, Tyler, Donatas, Kent, Marvin, Dwight, and Sergio). There are also some offensive miscues that are indefensible. This was the case for the entire Nets squad in the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves last Saturday.
As many have stated this season, the Nets don’t have an effort issue; they have a talent issue (said in my best morning sports radio “hot take” host voice.) The team lacks a true playmaker, key to any successful offensive system, and an interior banger, among other things. While the team may be fighting, the players may stand no match against the NBA’s upper class. It makes for frustrating basketball as the losses pile up. This season has been a mental test for the entire Nets organizational bubble, on-court and off.
There will be frustration and head scratching moments, for sure. There will be fourth quarter collapses (spoiler for my next piece.) But the players still compete every night, no matter who the opponent. For the Nets, #THISISPROGRESS. We may as well #EmbraceTheFuture for now. (Can the Nets marketing team start a trendy hashtag going soon? Please?)