For a game with so many implications behind it, the Nets sure didn’t treat it as such. A win tonight would have tightened the Nets’ grip on a playoff spot while also helping to keep their first round draft pick - which the Hawks ironically own through a pick swap - out of the lottery.
Allowing Atlanta to shoot 64 percent from the field on their way to a 66 point first half certainly wasn’t the way to do that. The Nets kept it close early, but as their starters checked out, so did their defense. The Hawks’ constant movement stupefied Brooklyn, as they used extra passes and weak side cuts to carve up the Nets defense carnivorously. And if you can believe it, things actually got worse in the 2nd half. The Hawks put up 42 third quarter points, before mercifully calling off the dogs in the fourth.
In a game where the Nets could have made a statement, it was disappointing to see them only make a whimper. There’s nowhere to go but up after a game like this, so the Nets will have to rebound quickly. They hold just a one game lead for a playoff spot and finish the season with match-ups against 5 playoff teams before facing Orlando in the finale.
FULL BOX SCORE
Rather than dwell on the loss, let’s pose a question. How can the Nets learn from this?
Just a few seasons ago, the Hawks were in a position very similar to that of Brooklyn. The pieces were in place to compete, but not to contend. They had a coach in Larry Drew who was respected, but not innovative. They had a roster chocked full of talent, but talent that wasn’t fit for the newly developing styles of the NBA.
Once Danny Ferry was hired as the Hawks’ General Manager, he quickly changed the status quo in Atlanta. While the casual NBA fan tabbed Ferry as crazy, he made a series of calculated moves that have set up a standard for success that should sustain within the Hawks’ organization for years to come. Let’s take a look at a few areas where the Hawks have excelled and see how the Nets could use Atlanta’s example to improve their own organization.
Once he joined on in Atlanta, Ferry quickly determined which parts of the core were worth holding on to. Al Horford and Jeff Teague are the only remaining Hawks from the team that Ferry inherited. He shipped out a few hefty contracts right away (Brooklyn’s own Joe Johnson as well as Marvin Williams) and allowed Josh Smith to sign elsewhere the next season. All 3 of them were icons of regular season success in Atlanta. All 3 were supremely talented, but red-flagged players. Johnson for his tendency to default to iso-ball, Smith for his decision making/attitude, and Marvin Williams for his Marvin Williams-ing.
For every bloated contract that Ferry jettisoned, he procured an equally intelligent one. In moneyball-esque fashion, he found the unheralded talent that slipped through the cracks. The perennially underrated Paul Millsap, 2 yrs./19 million. The American Sniper, Kyle Korver, 4 yrs./$24 million. And a trio of multitalented wings, DeMarre Carroll, Kent Bazemore, and Thabo Sefolosha. for a combined $8.5 million per year. Ferry continued to tear apart the thrift store to find the vintage jerseys and unassuming antiques, items worth infinitely more than what he paid for them. These 5 key players that he has signed - 2 of whom were featured in February’s All-Star Game - combine to make about one million dollars more this season than Joe Johnson is currently making in Brooklyn.
Ferry has cultivated a roster that is Queen on paper, but The Beatles on the court (I swear that makes sense in my head), and the Nets would be smart to follow a similar path. If/when they are able to clear the decks of their current glut of cap-hogging contracts, it is more important that they spend their cap space smartly rather than quickly. Instead of spending high on a Reggie Jackson or a Draymond Green, spend it wisely on the next of their kind.
The players are important, but no team can compete for an NBA championship without the right coach. While I could use much more detail to say this, I’ll keep it simple: Danny Ferry hired a hell of a coach in Mike Budenholzer. Sure, one could argue that attaining a top-5 NBA coach might take a stroke of luck. They could argue when it comes to hiring first-time head coaches that for every Budenholzer, there’s a Jacque Vaughn.
But it’s not just about the fact that Ferry hired a first time coach who is leading his team to their winningest record in franchise history in just his second season on the job. It’s that the Hawks now have a coach who is adaptive. A coach who is innovative. A coach who understands things like the benefits of limiting minutes and how to tailor a system to the strengths of his personnel. In a league that is thriving on offensive spacing and ball movement, Coach Bud’s squad leads the league with an assist percentage of 67.9 and is 2nd in true shooting percentage behind only the historically-excellent Warriors. All while maintaining a top-10 defense and fostering a rotation where no single player averages more than 33 minutes per game.
Meanwhile the Nets hired Lionel Hollins. A solid get. He has proven that he can lead a team deep into the playoffs. But is he the right coach to have as the game of basketball evolves? The same guy who was recently quoted as saying, “I don’t think managing your minutes lengthens your career by one minute”? It remains to be seen. But there’s adequate proof to believe that his stubbornness will get in the way of the need to adapt his outdated schemes and way of thinking to a more modern approach.
If things don’t work out between Brooklyn and Hollins, it would be smart for them to nab someone with a Popovich-ian mindset. Whether it be by plucking someone from the Spurs bench or not, it will be important for the Nets to find a coach who understands the evolutionary nature of the NBA game and who is willing to make the proper adaptations.
Draft Pick Philosophy
Since Danny Ferry took over in Atlanta, the Hawks haven’t been perfect in their drafting. Nonetheless, they have done solidly enough with their choices, while also showing an understanding for how valuable a draft pick is.
In his 3 drafts with Atlanta, Ferry’s best picks have been Dennis Schroder (17th overall, 2013) and Mike Scott (43rd overall, 2012). Schroder has flashed enormous potential this season, with some fans envisioning him as the longterm starter at point guard ahead of Jeff Teague. Scott has blossomed into a solid role player and the perfect guy to have as the 7th or 8th man on a contender.
But it isn’t in the drafting of these two players that the Hawks have made their coup. It was within one of Ferry’s calculated moves, where he pulled off what could eventually be seen as a Bonnie and Clyde-esque thievery. While trading Joe Johnson to Brooklyn the Hawks received what was seen as simply a throw-in compared to the other picks that they were getting. It was a pick swap for 2014 and 2015, allowing them to switch draft spots with the Nets in either year. While the swap was meaningless last season, it could become a top pick this season if the Nets were to miss the playoffs and have some Cavalier-esque lottery fortune. Because of Ferry’s inclination to ask for the pick swap, and Billy King’s willingness to indulge it, a scenario exists where the team with the NBA’s second best record could add a number one overall pick to their roster in the offseason.
The lesson here is, the Nets need to value draft selections. They mortgaged their chance at a future for what they had hoped to be a quick fix. They emptied their cupboard of assets for the acquisition of very solid players like Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But none of those players were truly elite-level talent worthy of what the Nets surrendered. And now they’re stuck fighting for the bottom seed in a historically weak conference.
After reading these past few sections, it might seem that Brooklyn’s future is bleak; that no hope exists beyond yearly fights for the 8-seed. But the purpose of this article is, in fact, exactly the opposite. Team’s go through rough stretches. Just 3 years ago the Hawks were in a similar situation, mired in mediocrity. It took a few pushes of the right buttons, but here they are now, serious contenders to compete in the NBA finals. While the Nets have put themselves in an unenviable position, a few smart moves could have them back amongst the league’s elite.