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Lichtenstein: Don't Kill Kenny For Nets' Regression To The Mean

By Steve Lichtenstein
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The 90-minute ride home couldn't erase the bitterness I felt after watching the Nets' fourth consecutive loss, a disgraceful 104-99 defeat to the Kings at Barclays Center on Wednesday.

There can be no excuse for Brooklyn's flat first quarter and middle school-ish late-game execution against a sad-SAC club on a back-to-back.

This team deserved to be ripped every which way.

However, after scrolling through social media, I now feel it's necessary to take a somewhat contrarian view by not piling on Kenny Atkinson.

And, no, the second-year Nets coach hasn't given me special access or appeared as a guest on our City Game podcast.

Still, if you think the Nets' 11-19 record is on Atkinson, you're living in a fantasy world. This is who they are.

Atkinson wisely served up the requisite mea culpas for his part in Wednesday's debacle, but he should not be held responsible for the irrational exuberance from some fans following Brooklyn's less-than-dreadful start to the season. The Nets may be "better equipped" to handle the devastating injuries to starting guards Jeremy Lin and D'Angelo Russell than they were when Lin was felled for 46 games last season, but no one should have expected this outfit to compete for a playoff berth.

On the contrary, Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks have gone out of their way at every turn to emphasize that there is a big-picture strategy in place, one that might sacrifice short-term excitement in favor of the long-term goals.

It's equally important to remember that this product, as wretched as it is right now, is a collaborative effort. Atkinson, for instance, can't be blamed for the inadequacies in Brooklyn's frontcourt, an issue all season and on full display Wednesday thanks to Marks' offseason "talent acquisition mode" regardless of position.

Nets F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
The Nets' Rondae Hollis-Jefferson reacts during the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Barclays Center on Dec. 20, 2017. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Nets had no answers for beefy Kings forward Zach Randolph, who poured in 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting in just 26 minutes. Randolph went around slow-footed Tyler Zeller, over the shorter Quincy Acy, and straight through Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a wing masquerading as a power forward because of his perimeter-shooting shortcomings.

That was bound to happen after Marks traded away Trevor Booker, his most physical interior presence, two weeks ago for a big man the club had no intention of using in Jahlil Okafor (until "when we throw him out there, he's in a position to succeed," Atkinson said.), a redundancy in wing Nik Stauskas, and a second-round pick in 2019.

Atkinson refused to label his predicament as being short-handed, but it's not like he has a host of viable options.

Yet fans groaned audibly at Atkinson's usage -- more specifically, the perceived over usage -- of Acy, especially after Acy's tragically comic fumble out of bounds with 11 seconds remaining.

Acy can be maddening, but Atkinson recognizes he provides something no other Nets big can -- spacing. He's a legitimate threat from 3-point range, even if his 33 percent efficiency doesn't seem like it.

Unlike 19-year-old rookie center Jarrett Allen, Acy has to be guarded. That's particularly important to Hollis-Jefferson. You can see the clogged toilet that is the Nets' motion offense with an Allen/Hollis-Jefferson or Zeller/Hollis-Jefferson front line regain flow during Acy's 99 minutes this season playing with Hollis-Jefferson. Brooklyn produces 118.3 points per 100 such possessions and sports a plus-18.6 net rating, miles better than the next-best big-man combo that has played as many minutes together.

"I feel like with Quincy being a good shooter, it makes the team a lot better, especially with me going downhill being able to kick it out to shooters," Hollis-Jefferson said.

Social media was also all over Atkinson for riding wing Allen Crabbe, who went 2-for-10 from 3-point range and clanked a 19-foot mid-range jumper that could have tied the game with 53 seconds remaining.

"(The Sacramento defender) gave me space," Crabbe said. "I feel like I'm a good shooter. It just wasn't my night. Just got to get back in the lab and just keep working."

Crabbe had been Marks' obsession ever since Portland matched his ridiculously generous four-year, $75 million restricted free agent offer sheet during the 2016 offseason. Last summer, Marks got his man, dealing deadwood Andrew Nicholson to the Blazers, who just wanted out of Crabbe's contract.

The Nets have invested in Crabbe as a possible core piece for the future. Not so much for Joe Harris, who had more of a hot hand Wednesday, but sat during crunch time.

Defensively, the half-court scheme, as laid out recently by The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor, is what's causing Brooklyn to hemorrhage points. Again, it's an organizational decision to allow opponents to shoot uncontested from certain mid-range areas off standard pick-and-rolls. Never mind that NBA players like Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, Indiana's Darren Collison and virtually every big man with range the Nets have faced can knock down these shots at high rates -- the Nets are going to continue to trust their analytics.

Now, it's certainly fair to knock Atkinson for certain in-game maneuvers. He should have used a time out somewhere in the final minute Wednesday when the Nets had several chances to complete the comeback from 21 points down in the first half. Instead, the Nets settled for contested jumpers, with point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who is no Russell, playing hero-ball twice without success.

"Our execution was not great -- I'll throw myself in that kind of bucket with the guys," Atkinson said. "I could have done a better job at the end of the game. I always debate --we're a team, when we have a chance to go, instead of taking a timeout, we want to go.  That's just our philosophy."

It's one of many. Everything the Nets do -- from their "shoot-to-kill" 3-point barrages to their breakneck pace to their frustrating rest scheduling -- is all part of Brooklyn's Marks-ist doctrine.

For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1

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