Look, the Nets get it. They understand most people don’t think they’ll do all that well this year. They know they’re in the middle of a complete rebuild and that their roster is populated with a who’s who of guys looking for a second, third or fourth chance.
From an outside perspective, they’re a team steeped in low expectation. Internally, though, the stakes are extremely high for a new regime insistent on changing the culture in Brooklyn, and it’s becoming more and more evident the closer Kenny Atkinson’s crew gets to the regular season.
“Coach Kenny is tough,” said Greivis Vasquez, who’s had about half a dozen NBA coaches for comparison. “It’s grit and grind . . . He holds us accountable, he lets us know, and that’s important, because he doesn’t have a preference for anybody. He treats everybody equally . . . ”
“When I was in high school, I went against Ty Lawson, but I didn’t know who Ty Lawson was, as well as Kevin Durant. I didn’t care. I feel like Kenny doesn’t care. He just wants to go out there and coach and compete. He’s given us confidence. He’s a player’s coach.”
And right now, confidence is a highly sought-after commodity in Brooklyn. ESPN’s projections have them finishing last in the Eastern Conference — tied with the 76ers, who would at least get a lottery pick for their trouble (the Nets don’t have control of their first-round draft pick until 2019). They also have them finishing with one fewer win than they had in last year’s woeful 21-61 season. What’s more, ESPN isn’t alone in thinking this season will be a rough haul. So, what’s a team to do?
“I don’t think we’re concerned with that,” Atkinson said. “We’re going to have fun, we’re going to compete very hard.”
His attitude has trickled down to his players. Vasquez, Brook Lopez and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all expressed excitement at the team’s general direction. It’s a fairly common sentiment — after all, most players are hopeful during training camp — but this sort of optimism had been generally absent last year.
“I think the strategy and the direction that we’re going, it’s really good,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “I’m really proud of our guys. They’re working hard, putting a lot of effort in.”
Lopez added that practice takes on a unique type of intensity when Atkinson is running the floor, because he’s so hands on — often pausing practice to show his players where they’re making mistakes.
“He’s showing us exactly what we need to do, running to the corners or whatever it may be — getting back in transition, showing us the transition defense, pick and rolls. He gives us a lot of examples,” Lopez said. “No question, it’s different and unique in the league. You never see that.”
Time will tell whether this will pay dividends in one way or another, but Vasquez, for one, is convinced. Speaking of how Atkinson holds all his players accountable, he acknowledged that “that doesn’t guarantee we’re going to win 50 games.”
“But I’ll tell you what, I’ll guarantee fans, you guys, everybody, is going to be thankful for what we’re building over here.”