Approaching the All-Star break, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson took stock of his beleaguered team, which is mired in a 1-11 slump, and said, “I do think these guys are fried a little bit mentally.” He could have added “physically,’’ too.
It’s not as bad as the horrid 1-27 stretch last season that carried just beyond the All-Star break, but there is an eerie similarity. Atkinson hopes the return from injury of starting power forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and backup point guard Caris LeVert will spark a rebirth, much as the return of Jeremy Lin did last season.
Here are five issues the Nets must confront in the final quarter of the season and looking to the future:
WILL WE SEE SOME PROGRESS?
When Lin rejoined the starting lineup last season, the Nets went 10-11 before he missed the final game. It will take a similar near-.500 finish for the 19-40 Nets to reach 30 wins, a 10-game improvement over last season. Much like last season, the Nets must make big gains on defense. Their defensive rating (110.0) in their recent 4-17 stretch is tied for 24th in the NBA. Their offensive rating (101.4) is 29th, reflecting that they ranked 29th in three-point percentage (33.4) in that stretch while ranking second in three-point attempts (36.1).
WHAT WOULD A HEALTHY ROTATION LOOK LIKE?
The Nets are 1-9 since losing Hollis-Jefferson (groin strain), underlining his value to their interior defense at power forward and his ability to score inside. LeVert’s value to the second unit is similar as an effective perimeter defender and a player who drives to the rim. Atkinson has tried DeMarre Carroll at power forward with Joe Harris starting at small forward, and has tried using Quincy Acy at power forward and leaving Carroll at the three. He might have to try starting tough defender Dante Cunningham at the four until Hollis-Jefferson returns.
CAN D’ANGELO RUSSELL REGAIN A STARTING ROLE?
Atkinson faces a sticky situation. Long-term injuries to Lin and Russell allowed Spencer Dinwiddie to establish himself as an effective starting point guard. Russell could play alongside him, as was expected with Lin, but Allen Crabbe has emerged as the Nets’ most dynamic outside shooter and scorer. In his past four games, Crabbe averaged 25.3 points and shot 50.7 percent, including 42.9 percent from three-point range (21-for-49). He’s rebounding (5.5) and playing tough defense, too. Atkinson has tried giving Russell time with Dinwiddie and Crabbe, but LeVert’s return will squeeze those minutes.
WHERE IS THE JAHLIL OKAFOR EXPERIMENT HEADED?
General manager Sean Marks traded for Okafor, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft, on the assumption that the Nets might develop him to fit their system. But he has been used sparingly, averaging 6.2 points and 3.0 rebounds in 13.0 minutes in 22 games. In his past four games played, Okafor averaged a minus-15.3 rating in slightly less than 13 minutes per game. He will be a free agent this summer, so the Nets must give him an extended opportunity to show he can score and improve his defense or part company with him.
ASSESS PENDING FREE AGENTS, STRENGTHEN FRONTCOURT
In addition to Okafor, Acy and Cunningham are pending frontcourt free agents. Harris is a pending free agent in the backcourt, and the Nets must decide whether to make a qualifying offer to Nik Stauskas, who came with Okafor in the trade with Philadelphia. The Nets’ major weakness is a lack of size that would allow them to defend opposing big men who can stretch the floor with outside shooting. It will be tough to address in the draft because their first-round pick from Toronto currently is 28th.