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Kenny Atkinson sees hope and progress for his Nets at All-Star break

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson reacts against

Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson reacts against the Miami Heat in the first half of an NBA basketball game at Barclays Center on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When the season was young, the Nets ranked as one of the biggest surprises in the NBA. A team widely panned as the league’s worst was 4-5, and two of those wins came after Jeremy Lin suffered his first hamstring injury in the fifth game.

That initial surge of optimism faded long ago as the Nets — without Lin for all but 12 games — have struggled. It turns out they are exactly what the critics forecast, a 9-47 team that is 8 1⁄2 games worse than the 29th-best team in the NBA at the All-Star break.

The Nets rank 30th in points allowed (114.2), plus-minus (-8.8) and turnovers (17). They are fourth in three-pointers attempted (32.4) but only 26th in three-point field-goal percentage (34.0).

In short, with the NBA’s weakest roster, general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson haven’t found any way to stem the tide of losing. The Nets have lost a franchise-record 16 straight home games and 25 of their past 26 games overall. Yet, as tough as it may be to sell to the fans, Atkinson maintains that his team has made incremental progress as the franchise overhauls the playing style and creates a new culture.

Describing the rays of hope he sees, Atkinson said: “I think the intangibles are: What’s your team’s work ethic? What’s their spirit like? How are they coming into practice every day? How are they approaching the games? How’s their focus? Those are the things we’re looking at, and we cast an eye towards our young players. How are they doing? How are they improving?”

Considering the depth of their problems, the most amazing part of the Nets’ season is how hard they still are playing. Their past 11 straight losses all have come by 10 or fewer points. There was one brief locker-room flareup, but the Nets have held together despite constant lineup changes.

“This is the most positive group I’ve been around in my three years with three teams,” said Spencer Dinwiddie, who was claimed out of the D-League and has been starting at point guard in Lin’s long absence. “It’s just a great group of guys. Spirits are always high even through the losses.

“I think I was a little bit shocked at first, having been on other teams. Nobody can like losing or tolerate losing, but to be able to have that collective buy-in and stick to the program, I think it talks to the character of the guys. We have that belief in the coaching staff and the GM, the whole regime.”

The most obvious area of progress is the development of the Nets’ three young core players, second-year forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, rookie wing man Caris LeVert and rookie Isaiah Whitehead. Atkinson credits the Nets’ recent defensive improvement to the decision to make Hollis-Jefferson the starting power forward. LeVert’s athleticism and defensive prowess are eye-opening, and second-round pick Whitehead has surprised with his toughness and grasp of the system.

The major question as the Nets approach Thursday’s NBA trade deadline is whether to take what they can get for long-time franchise center Brook Lopez or to give Lopez and Lin a chance to play together when Lin returns for the start of an eight-game road trip Friday in Denver.

That decision ultimately belongs to Marks, who has said he will listen to all trade offers. According to multiple reports, the Nets are asking for two first-round picks for Lopez, a high price that means there’s a strong chance he will survive the trade deadline.

“I’d love to see them together, see how they mix, how they work,” Atkinson said of the “Brook-Lin” pairing. “I reminisce about those first games when Jeremy was throwing to Brook in the post and cutting off the post and all that kind of action that looked really good in the beginning. The post stuff I was surprised because Jeremy’s never really played with a pure post-up guy. So it was great seeing that. I’d like to see more. Can’t wait ’til Denver.”

Lin, for one, is eager for the opportunity.

“I’m realistic enough to understand that we haven’t had a fair look at what this team is really going to look like,” Lin said after returning to practice last Tuesday. “I played like five games and then another [seven] games, which is just such a small sample size.

“Right now, we have guys playing a little bit out of position and guys being asked to do certain things that maybe they haven’t had to do in their career. So that’s not really fair to them. When I come back, I want to be able to help this team and be what they envision me to be. I think post-All-Star break is enough games to see that.”

Atkinson has praised Lopez for all the adjustments he has made, from developing his three-point shot to fit in the spread offense and working harder to improve his defense to the positive attitude he has maintained. Missing out on the chance to show how effective he might be with Lin on the floor has been the biggest disappointment of the season.

“I think we did a great job of jelling in the offseason through our workouts,” Lopez said. “He’s such a smart player, such a gifted point guard, and he elevates whoever he plays with. We’re obviously missing him. He’s such a great player and great leader, he’ll improve a lot of players, including me.”

That’s what Marks, Atkinson and the rest of the Nets’ organization need to find out.

New York Sports