How mortgaging the future left the Nets tangled
The Brooklyn Nets shot for the stars -- and ended up on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush. Now without a meaningful way to rebuild or contend, they're embarking on a different journey.
BROOKLYN NETS COACH Kenny Atkinson has a thick towel around his neck and an office with a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline. There's an exercise bike there, and Atkinson is on it, pedaling furiously.
It's 4:30 in the morning.
A few hours earlier, the Nets lost another game, and this is the punishing ritual of the coach of the worst team in the NBA. After paltry few hours of sleep, he watches the loss again, on a laptop mounted to his bike. When the Nets screw something up, he turns up the resistance knob on the bike.
He types madly on the keyboard as ideas come, his hands already damp with perspiration. The worse the team plays, the harder he pedals. The harder he pedals, the more he sweats on the laptop. "If you sweat on them too much, the whole thing blows up," Atkinson explains in his distinctive Long Island drawl. He's a first-year coach on his fourth laptop.
The Brooklyn Nets don't win much, and they're not tanking. Their 11-52 record is worst in the NBA, and because the Celtics have the right to swap draft picks with them this June and own the unprotected rights to their first-round draft pick in 2018, this is the one team where losing doesn't help the cause in any way.
"I'll be quite honest with you," Atkinson says. "There are people I really respect who told me, 'You're insane if you take this job.'"
Atkinson accepted the challenge knowing that futility would be his companion for the foreseeable future. But what Atkinson can't accept -- what he won't accept -- is when the players depart from the ethics Atkinson is determined to impart, in the name of building a Spurs-like winning culture. What Atkinson can't stand is when the players lose their resiliency, when an 8-0 run balloons to a 12-0 run, then 18-0, because in their haste to make it better, his team strives to recapture momentum all at once with a grand basketball gesture that falls literally and figuratively short.
In those situations, Atkinson pleads, "Get back to your habits!" Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't, so when Brook Lopez takes 12 dribbles from the 3-point line, or Randy Foye glides over the screen instead of going hard through it, or Trevor Booker fails to retreat quickly in defensive transition, the evidence awaits the coach at 4:30 the next morning, glowing on a laptop in a dimly lit office that should be dark -- and vacant -- at that hour.
"So when we lose that culture, when those habits go out the window, that's when I put my bike on level 20," Atkinson says. "That's when I punish myself."
The self-flagellation continues until another laptop blows up, another game is lost and another day begins with no tangible traction in the standings.
Losing is a strategy in the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers transformed it into a multiyear "process" that is just now beginning to bear fruit. The Lakers have no alternative but to clandestinely embrace futility as a silver lining in an otherwise mind-numbing season, with a high draft pick and the infusion of young, raw malleable talent as its balm.
Without the benefit of that salve for the next two drafts, Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks are faced with a daunting proposition: How do you establish a culture of winning when all you do is lose?