MEXICO CITY — When the Nets completed their trade with Philadelphia for underachieving center Jahlil Okafor and little-used young wing Nik Stauskas on Thursday, general manager Sean Marks said he was banking on Kenny Atkinson and the coaching staff to develop their latent talent. The Nets’ 100-95 win over the star-studded Thunder later that night provided growing evidence that Marks’ faith is well-placed.
The victory gave the Nets a 10-14 record, which is a marked improvement over last season, when their 10th win came on March 1. Skeptics might view that as the lowest of bars to clear, but it’s important to consider whom the Nets are playing without and who is taking up the slack.
Point guard Jeremy Lin (ruptured patella tendon) was lost for the season in the opener and D’Angelo Russell, who shifted from shooting guard to point guard, has been out since Nov. 11 with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. But Spencer Dinwiddie, who was signed out of the G League last season, has played exceptionally well as the starting point guard, and second-year man Caris LeVert has shifted from wing to backup point guard and shown marked improvement.
Since leading scorer Russell went down, the Nets have gone 5-6, with three of those losses against last season’s NBA finalists, Golden State and Cleveland, and one against Houston, which has the best record in the league. In their past six games, the Nets are 4-2, including three road wins and Thursday’s neutral site win.
They have a chance for their first three-game winning streak when they face Miami (11-13) on Saturday night at Arena de Ciudad México.
“I feel like we’re improving,” Atkinson said after the Nets held the Thunder to 16 fourth-quarter points for the win. “I feel like we’re getting better game by game. I feel much more comfortable with the roster we have. We’re deeper.
“I always say development is continuity. Now we’re into this a little over a year. I think of Spencer Dinwiddie’s dunk at the end of the game and how much he’s improved, how much Caris has improved, how much Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson] has improved. So I think it’s a combination of a deeper roster and our players getting better.”
Dinwiddie struggled with foul trouble against the Thunder but still had seven assists and five key fourth-quarter points. LeVert, whose 21 points and 10 assists were career highs, Hollis-Jefferson (17 points, plus-16 rating) and shooting guard Allen Crabbe (15 points, six rebounds) all logged more than 30 minutes at Mexico City’s 7,382-foot altitude.
It was another example of their development with the Nets’ performance team. “We obviously are an organization that believes in sports science, and we did some different things that guys in the NBA are not used to,” Atkinson said. “Our players bought in, and I think it helped us.”
The so-called “process” in Philadelphia didn’t work for Okafor and Stauskas, but they have a fresh opportunity to become part of the Nets’ process, which is beginning to produce significant gains.