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Nets’ Atkinson wants ‘more’ in season four

Brooklyn head coach believes in building around current approach

May 9, 2019 JT Torenli
Head coach Kenny Atkinson worked wonders to help turn previously enigmatic point guard D’Angelo Russell into a bona fide All-Star this past season. The Nets will continue their player development focus as they go into this offseason, where they can sign multiple high-priced free agents, including Russell. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

There is no guarantee that Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler is going to stroll through the doors of the HSS Training Center in Sunset Park this summer and help turn the Brooklyn Nets into an instant championship contender.

What is undoubtedly assured, however, is that Brooklyn General Manager Sean Marks and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson are going to keep on keeping on with what they have done to resurrect this franchise over the past several seasons.

“A huge credit to Sean and his group,” Atkinson said last week during the duo’s presser in our fair borough following the team’s rather rude first-round playoff ouster at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers.

“We got the right players, we signed the right players, we drafted the right players, we traded for the right players,” Atkinson added. “That’s really the story of the season and now the challenge for us and Sean is, I know the message yesterday was, we want more.”

Wanting more and getting more, as we will soon see, are two disparate entities in the NBA today.

While Durant tries to grab a third straight title with Golden State, albeit with a potential calf injury that might keep him out of a critical Game 6 matchup with the Houston Rockets Friday night, the Nets will be eager to begin building toward a second straight playoff campaign, be it with a front-line superstar or without one.

Atkinson won a league-low 20 games in his first season at the helm in 2016-17, jumped up eight wins in Season Two here in Brooklyn and, most notably, led the Nets to their first winning record in five campaigns this past season.

At 42-40, the surprising Nets reached the playoffs for the first time in four years and even stole Game 1 in Philadelphia before Joel Embiid and the Sixers buried them soon thereafter.

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Free agent point guard D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star for the first time in his career, fellow backcourt brethren Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert finished the campaign strong despite having to overcome injuries and Joe Harris emerged as the league’s top long-range shooter on a team that lives and dies by the 3-ball.

Add in the unexpected impact of second-round pick Rodions Kurucs, the continued development of spindly second-year center Jarrett Allen and the veteran contributions of DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley, and the Nets appear to be a team that is poised to continue making noise in the Eastern Conference.

Despite being swamped by Philadelphia in the opening round of the playoffs, Caris LeVert and the Nets made huge strides in 2018-19, something they hope to build on next year as they pursue the Brooklyn-based franchise’s first-ever NBA title. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Despite being swamped by Philadelphia in the opening round of the playoffs, Caris LeVert and the Nets made huge strides in 2018-19, something they hope to build on next year as they pursue the Brooklyn-based franchise’s first-ever NBA title. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

But according to Atkinson, that will only occur if the Nets’ work ethic and commitment to improvement are just as strong as they were following his first two seasons at the helm, when the team went a combined 41-123.

“I don’t think we’re sitting here satisfied,” Atkinson said of his team’s unexpected playoff push. “Obviously, it’s always been about strategic and gradual improvement.

“And I’d like to continue that without making outlandish statements about championships and all that stuff. I think we’re going to double down on the way we’ve been doing things no matter what our roster looks and a heavy emphasis on development and culture.”

Russell is likely priority No. 1 after a breakthrough campaign that saw him will Brooklyn into the postseason down the stretch.

He can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, as will a slew of other superstars, and Marks has the means to sign at least one, if not two, maximum contract players in advance of 2019-2020.

He also has three picks, including a pair of first-round selections, to help build the roster during next month’s NBA draft at Downtown’s Barclays Center.

A strong foundation, buoyed by the leadership of Russell, a proven player-development guru in Atkinson and a patient approach by the ownership tandem of Mikhail Prokhorov and Joe Tsai have provided an idyllic setting here in Brooklyn for free-agents-to-be to shop their wares this summer.

But Marks isn’t likely to bring in a high-priced star who isn’t buying into what he and Atkinson have been selling here the past three years.

At least not at the expense of flushing virtually everything they have built in the lead-up to this critical offseason.

“So, moving ahead, next year a lot will depend on where the roster fits before we set out and say our goal,” Marks noted. “Whether it’s playoffs or wherever it may be in the playoffs, it’ll be predetermined by how that roster looks.”

There will be plenty of time for window shopping and hemming and hawing over exactly whom the Nets need to sign this summer to become an elite team in the East, rather than one that just turned a lot of heads before flunking out in the opening round.  

But the key to their success thus far, be it challenging players during summer workouts, finding under-the-radar talent or just plain culture and character building, has convinced the Nets that more of the same will likely serve them better than something shiny and brand-new.

“I’m really proud and convinced that this is the way to do it,” Atkinson said.

“Considering the predictions and everything before the season, it kind of confirms a little bit, ‘Hey this is the right way to do it.’ Our process is right and we’re going to keep it in the same direction.”

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