Deep Threats: Kenny Atkinson and the Nets' New Offense

It would be an understatement to say that the Nets were not a three-point shooting team last season. They were 25th in three-point makes last season and 26th in attempts; despite ranking in the top half of the league in three-point percentage, Brooklyn seemed averse to taking shots from behind the arc. Lionel Hollins never emphasized the three-point shot as part of his offensive game plan; his Memphis teams were 30th in the league in three-point attempts in three of the four seasons that he coached there. The only Hollins-led team that strayed from the bottom five in three-point attempts was the 2014-2015 Nets—who were 20th.

Kenny Atkinson has not been in Brooklyn for long, but he has already dramatically altered Brooklyn's offense. After ranking third in three-point attempts during the preseason, the Nets have continued to fire away from behind the arc. The Nets set their franchise mark in three-point attempts in the opener with 44 attempts and followed that game with 33 attempts against the Pacers, 35 attempts against the Bucks, and 31 attempts against the Bulls. Atkinson spent his last four years as an assistant under Mike Budenholzer for the Atlanta Hawks, and his offense looks remarkably similar to the motion offense the Hawks have played in under Coach Bud. The season is still young, but Brooklyn's offense already looks dramatically different from the 2015-2016 version.

Lionel Hollins developed a reputation as an old-school coach with a disdain for analytics; his aversion to stats and analysis was an overstatement, but his offensive sets were not among the most modern in the league. The Nets under Hollins relied on isolation plays or two-man sets that led to the off-ball players standing around and waiting for a play to develop. Brook Lopez would frequently receive the ball in the post and be left alone to attempt to back his man under the basket, with occasional help from cutters:

The lack of off-ball movement during this play is intriguing and was common in Hollins' offensive sets. Other than Shane Larkin bringing the ball up and Thomas Robinson running into the center of the lane, Lopez and Kilpatrick are the only players in motion during this set. When Kilpatrick releases the ball, all five Hornets defenders are bunched up in the paint, and despite being wide open—Larkin and Brown might as well not be in the play.

The Hornets may have all five defenders in the paint, but the Nets' positioning at the end of the play does not leave much room to punish Charlotte for doing so. Brown and Larkin are behind the three-point line, Lopez is maybe a step outside of the paint, and Thomas Robinson is directly under the basket. Even if Robinson were able to get an offensive rebound, Markel Brown is  the only player open for a kick-out, and he did not come close to the ball at any point during the prior possession.

Brooklyn ran isolations on 6.8 percent of their possessions last season according to Synergy Sports (which was right about league average) and ran traditional post-up plays on 10 percent of their possessions, good for 5th overall. The frequency of isolations and post-ups created a Brooklyn offense that often only involved one or two players on any given play.

Kenny Atkinson's previous team in Atlanta was almost the opposite of last year's isolation-heavy offense in Brooklyn. The Hawks have been 7th in three-point attempts in the past two seasons after ranking second overall in 2013-2014 and ranked in the bottom five in both post-up and isolation attempts. Mike Budenholzer's offense relies heavily on passing and off-ball movement and focuses on creating quality looks for whoever might be open:

 

The play does end with a bit of over-dribbling by Kent Bazemore and some standing around by the rest of the Hawks players, but all five players are in motion until the last four seconds of the shot clock. Even when they do not have the ball, the Hawks players are either running into open space or trying to set back screens to create openings for other players to slither through. Their positioning at the end of the play looks dramatically different from what the floor looked like for Brooklyn in the prior sequence:

Instead of having all five defenders in or around the paint, Chicago has all five players outside of the paint. Furthermore, all five Atlanta players are behind the arc. This has the disadvantage of basically giving the rebound to Chicago, and Atlanta struggled on the glass last season. However, the play results in a good three-point look for Bazemore after Paul Millsap passes on an open three-pointer to search for a better shot.

The season is barely underway in Brooklyn, but the Nets' offense appears to have little in common with last year's style of play and far more in common with the sets run by Atkinson's previous team. Only 6.4 percent of Brooklyn's plays have been post-ups and only 3.6 percent of their plays have been isolations, according to Synergy Sports. Those plays have mostly been replaced by spot-ups and transition plays; 25.8 percent of Brooklyn's shots this year have come on spot-up jumpers (up from 18.7 percent last year), and 16.1 percent of their shots have been generated in transition (up from 12.6 percent last year). Brooklyn has also sped up their pace, climbing to 6th overall early in this season after ranking 19th overall last year. The ball is shuttling around the perimeter, and players are letting it fly from behind the arc:

Justin Hamilton has a decently open look from the corner but swings the ball to a more open Joe Harris as Monta Ellis closes out on Hamilton. Sean Kilpatrick and Greivis Vasquez have also shifted into open spots behind the three-point line, and Brooklyn will hopefully get more proficient at swinging the ball around the perimeter as the season goes on. Their spacing, however, looks quite different from last year already:

The only player in the paint is Luis Scola, who drew a couple of Pacers defenders in to create the open look for Hamilton (who has looked fantastic on the offensive end so far and is particularly useful as a big man who needs to be respected from behind the arc). The player and ball movement have left Indiana's defense in disarray. There are two yellow jerseys surrounding Scola despite him being far away from the ball, and the remaining three players are scrambling out to Harris but they are at least a step behind.  They do a better job of rotating on this Sean Kilpatrick triple, but Kilpatrick (who has picked up right where he left off after a strong finish to last season) is still able to make them pay:

Scola is the only player who is not in motion during this sequence, but even he remains behind the arc. Hamilton's three-point range forces Myles Turner to remain behind the pick and keep an eye on Hamilton behind the arc. Glenn Robinson gets caught trying to help on the pick-and-pop for a fraction of a second—enough time for Kilpatrick to catch the ball and go for the triple.  The clogged paint that Brooklyn often had to tackle last season is now completely empty:

The Nets still have a lot of work to do in terms of getting adjusted to their new offense. They are only shooting 28.7 percent from behind the arc after the first four games, and will occasionally pull the trigger too quickly from three-point range, as Harris does by ignoring both Kilpatrick and Vasquez and as Kilpatrick does by ignoring Scola in the corner. If they want to become Hawks North (or Spurs Northeast, depending on your view of the originality of Coach Bud's offensive scheme), Brooklyn will have to get better at passing up open looks for more open ones.

In addition, Brooklyn will need to do a better job of using their three-point shooting to get better looks inside the arc. They are averaging more points per possession on two-pointers than on threes (shooting 49.8 percent on two-pointers). Their new spread attack will leave the lane open for Brook Lopez to get good looks near the rim. Lopez is almost halfway to matching his total number of three-point attempts from last season and will probably continue to shoot from out there, but he is also a canny passer from the post who can draw defenses into the paint to create openings for others on the perimeter. Atkinson will continue to look for ways to involve the plodding Lopez into a more up-tempo offense (although the recent comments about resting Lopez on every back-to-back this season and restricting his minutes when he does play are troubling), and the paint will definitely be open for him if the outside shooters continue to fire away.

Jeremy Lin will also be a key factor in the offense going forward and may even surpass Lopez as the primary option on that end of the floor. Lin has only been league average from three in his career, but he is a speed merchant who drives to the rim with reckless abandon. He's done a solid job of drawing defenses and kicking out to open shooters in both the preseason and in the first three games. Defenses were able to abandon the paint when the bench-heavy lineups in the Harris and Kilpatrick shots above are on the floor, but they will not have that luxury when Lin is in the game and attacking the basket. Atkinson may look to play Lin with some of those shooter-heavy bench lineups going forward; while those units will struggle on the defensive end, they might be able to score enough to make up for it—choosing between guarding a wide-open shooter from downtown or allowing Lin to jet to the rim will be a tough choice to make, and one that will lead to good looks for the Nets.

A four game sample size is too small to draw many long-term conclusions, but the amount of three-point looks in both the preseason and the first few games are an indicator that the entire Brooklyn roster will have a green light from beyond the arc. The only two players who are not currently averaging one or more three-point attempts per game are Isaiah Whitehead and Chris McCullough, both of whom attempted their first 3-pointers of the season against Chicago. Kenny Atkinson seems to have brought an offense reliant on movement and three-point shooting with him from Atlanta, and if nothing else it will make Brooklyn games more fun to watch than they were last season.


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