Commitment to building their team culture wasn’t a matter of lip service for the Nets in the first season of their rebuild under general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson. It sustained them through a grim 1-27 stretch and led to an upbeat 10-12 finish after the All-Star break.
Following an offseason of dramatic personnel changes in which the Nets traded all-time franchise scoring leader Brook Lopez to the Lakers, they return with a roster that is significantly deeper and more talented. Change requires major adjustments, especially regarding playing time and roles. But once again, culture kicked in as new and old alike demonstrated how much they want to be in Brooklyn with their commitment to team bonding during the offseason.
D’Angelo Russell, who was the centerpiece of the Lopez trade, spent the summer settling into his new home, as did veteran shooters DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe, who arrived in two other trades. First-round draft pick Jarrett Allen dived into the voluntary summer program. The only late arrivals were center Timofey Mozgov, who also came in the Lopez deal but spent his summer with the Russian national team, and free-agent center Tyler Zeller, who signed shortly before training camp.
Improvement was evident early as the Nets went 3-1 during the preseason, showed a renewed commitment to defense and impressed with their three-point shooting and the conditioning necessary to play at the fastest pace in the NBA.
“We’ve invested a lot of time in being a tight-knit group,” Jeremy Lin said after their third straight preseason win, a 34-point blowout of the Knicks. “I don’t know how much time, but for so many new faces, we have spent a lot of time around each other and with each other.
“We’re almost too unselfish at times. It’s a fine balance, but I would much rather have it in this direction, where we’re just moving it, swinging it and guys are getting excited for each other. That’s what team sports are all about.”
Atkinson couldn’t have been more pleased with training camp and especially how well the Nets played on defense, holding their opponents to below-40 percent shooting in all three wins. “Every day in the offseason counts,” Atkinson said. “They volunteered to be around each other instead of staying in their own little corners of the world. I think it plays a big part in it.”
Because of the depth, Atkinson must call on players who got major minutes last season to adjust their expectations. Second-year wing Caris LeVert finished last season as the starting small forward but appears likely to come off the bench with a high-energy second unit that should play a pivotal role in wearing down opponents.
“We’ve got a lot of talent, especially at the wing position,” LeVert said. “We’re going to be fresh when we get on the court. We can bring as much energy as possible. Kenny did a great job getting the right guys, and we’re just learning how to play with each other right now.”
The Nets were fourth in the NBA in three-pointers taken last season but only 26th in three-point shooting percentage. The addition of Russell, Carroll and Crabbe, who was second in the NBA in that category with a .444 percentage, should make the Nets a more consistent shooting team. Backup perimeter players Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Sean Kilpatrick are good shooters who are fighting for playing time.
“I anticipate us to get a lot of open shots this year because we have playmakers, but also to knock down more of them,” said Lin, who has been finding chemistry with Russell on the starting unit. “We’ve got so many guys who are capable, it’s like anybody can get hot. That’s pretty cool to see.”
Veteran Trevor Booker said the Nets will miss Lopez and his 20.3 scoring average, but the excitement is palpable for a team with a revamped roster and entertaining playing style.
“Brook was a big piece, but without him this year, the ball is going to move a little bit more and we’re going to play at a faster pace,” Booker said. “Over the summer, everybody was in the gym getting better and working with one another. The chemistry started to build then, and it’s going to pay dividends in the end.”