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Lichtenstein: What We've Learned From Nets' Road Trip

By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets will conclude their 19-day, nine-game circus road trip -- an annual slog -- after Friday's tilt in Philadelphia.

Brooklyn's 104-99 loss in Toronto on Tuesday was its fifth in the first eight games of this swing. However, for a team that has been out of playoff contention since point guard Jarrett Jack went down in Boston right after the new year, the outcomes really aren't all that relevant.

This isn't even a "bridge year," as so many NBA analysts have called it. No, former general manager Billy King blew up that bridge with his failed maneuverings in his Reign of Error before he was reassigned and coach Lionel Hollins was fired Jan. 10.

Despite what Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov believes, his team is not a player or two away, especially since the odds of a transformational free agent choosing to take his talents to Brooklyn this summer are almost nil.

So if you've been deranged enough like me to have sat through these games, including those late-night affairs, you shouldn't fret over all the blown opportunities in fourth quarters or the ugliness of the losses to the Lakers and Timberwolves. Nor were the Nets' nail-biting victories over the Jazz and Nuggets a harbinger of better days ahead.

That doesn't mean we didn't learn anything from this latest stretch. Here are the top takeaways:

1) This is Sean Marks' team.

Hired as King's successor on the same day as the trade deadline, Marks wasn't given ample time to make any deals, but he has certainly made his, um, imprint on the franchise in his first month on the job.

Marks' first step to change the organization's culture was orchestrating a buyout of the enigmatic Andrea Bargnani's contract, endearing Marks to all Nets fans except those who profited from the clicks to their videos of the reserve center's boneheaded plays.

As I previously posted, the buyout of 34-year old forward Joe Johnson after the Nets' 112-104 loss to Portland in the first game of the road trip wasn't my favorite move, but I give Marks credit for replacing Johnson's roster spot with D-League call-up Sean Kilpatrick. In his four games, Kilpatrick has averaged 11.8 points with 50 percent shooting from 3-point range. Kilpatrick's show of athleticism should earn him a second 10-day contract on Wednesday.

Marks, the former San Antonio assistant general manager, then reached into the Spurs' tree to choose his own right-hand man, hiring Trajan Langdon on Tuesday. Langdon brings his international basketball expertise to Brooklyn, which will have to look far and wide to find talent in coming years since it does not possess its own first-round draft choice until 2019.

Where Marks goes for his next decision will be even more intriguing.

Interim coach Tony Brown will be thanked for his service at the end of the season and will surely get letters of reference from certain Nets players who grew tired of Hollins' gruff manner. The Nets, however, will be looking to bring in their sixth different head coach when they begin Year 5 in Brooklyn next fall.

Will it be someone else in the Spurs' pipeline, such as assistant coach Ettore Messina? Or will Prokhorov insist that Marks go for a big name, such as former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy or, heaven forbid, University of Kentucky coach John Calipari?=

Stay tuned.

2) Nurse is what the doctor ordered.

Many are concluding that the Nets' sudden rise in 3-point efficiency was directly related to Hollins' departure. After all, Brooklyn is shooting a league-leading 40.1 percent from long range in its 27 games under Brown after 37 games with an NBA-low 31.5 percent 3-point rate.

Lost in the shuffle was the hiring of David Nurse as shooting coach on Jan. 21.

In Brown's first seven games as head coach, the Nets' 3-point shooting percentage was still well below average at 34.2 percent.

Nurse, who runs a private practice that instructs players at all levels on the art of shooting, also practiced what he preached, according to the YouTube video in which Nurse knocked down what he claimed to be a record 19 3-pointers with only one basketball in one minute.

Nurse's medicine started to kick in during the Nets' 116-106 upset of the Thunder, a game where Brooklyn shot 8-for-17 from behind the arc. In their last 20 games, the Nets' 3-point accuracy has been 42 percent.

Players such as Bojan Bogdanovic, Markel Brown and Wayne Ellington have been much more efficient since Nurse has been around to offer guidance.

It's no mystery why Brooklyn has been playing its most competitive basketball of the season during this stretch. With 3-point shots falling, center Brook Lopez has found more room inside and gone to school on opposing teams, averaging 23.7 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting.

The Nets, however, only won seven of those 20 games because

3) There's still no "D" in the Brooklyn Nets.

How bad is Brooklyn's defense? Before his buyout, the stuck-in-the-mud Johnson was typically assigned the opposition's top wing scorer.

That task usually now falls on Ellington or Bogdanovic, a scary strategy. Add in the lead-footed Donald Sloan or the undersized Shane Larkin guarding opposing point guards, and it isn't hard to comprehend why perimeter defense has been a major nightly problem for Brooklyn.

Markel Brown has been somewhat of a disappointment in this area. A year ago, Hollins inserted the then-rookie into the starting lineup to inject some athleticism into the wing defense and Markel Brown responded with solid efforts against some of the best the NBA has to offer.

After spending much of this 2015-16 season mysteriously glued to the bench (by both Hollins and coach Brown, I would emphasize), Markel Brown was given a second chance about a month ago.

While Markel Brown has shown improved offensive capabilities, he seems to have taken a step back on the other end. He still is susceptible to back-door cuts, he is a magnet for screens, and he'll foul a 3-point shooter seemingly once every other game. Even his on-ball defense, his greatest strength, hasn't been as sharp as last year.

Still, he should be starting. I'm guessing that coach Brown just likes the dynamic on his current bench mob, with Larkin, Brown, Kilpatrick, Thomas Robinson and Willie Reed.

Unfortunately, Brooklyn's new-look offense hasn't been enough to overcome its overall drop in defensive efficiency. In those aforementioned last 20 games, the Nets have given up 109.8 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-worst rating in the League. Under Hollins, the Nets were surrendering 104.5 points per 100 possessions.

Of course, Hollins not only had the benefit of having Jack at his disposal for much of his short-lived season, but the Nets also were getting dominant defensive performances from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson until a fractured ankle at a Dec. 5 practice shelved the rookie wing.

When Hollis-Jefferson was on the floor, the Nets were holding opponents to 98.9 points per 100 possessions. In those same 19 games, the points allowed by the Nets per 100 possessions jumped to 106.2 when he took a breather.

The good news is that the Nets announced Monday that Hollis-Jefferson is finally back to practicing and, once he is deemed to be in "game shape," he'll be back on the court creating havoc on the Nets' defensive end.

As for Brooklyn's other rookie …

4) Chris McCullough is not ready for prime time.

Count me as one who had unrealistic expectations when the Nets' first-round draft pick (29th overall) returned from a devastating knee injury from his college days at Syracuse University.

McCullough played his first NBA game a month ago -- and I'm not sure what to think.

The 21-year old is 6-foot-11 and has some skills. However, what does it say about any player who has been DNP'd so often on a club that is 18-46? By a coach who has rotated everyone other than Sergey Karasev into the game every night?

I'm not sure how I feel about McCullough's penchant for mid-range jump shots, given his size and athleticism. Of his first 25 field goal attempts, 15 have come from beyond 15 feet, per He is 1-for-6 from 3-point land.

For someone who has been with the team all year, even though he couldn't play, McCullough doesn't seem to have any understanding of the Nets' defensive schemes.  His 113.1 defensive rating is worse than Bargnani's.

I know, he needs time to develop. I was way too quick to write off Derrick Favors, and look what that got the Nets — the D-Will Drama.

McCullough seems to be more Channing Frye (assuming McCullough can increase his shooting range) than the brutish Favors, but the Nets will have to be patient with the growing pains to find out for sure.

After all the failed quick fixes, maybe it's best if all Nets fans are as well.

For a fan's perspective on the Devils and Nets, please follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1

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