BROOKLYN — Before there was Kevin Durant, and before there was Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets sat where the Minnesota Timberwolves sit today. In the middle of the 2015-16 season, Brooklyn fired Lionel Hollins and sputtered their way through the final 45 games of the year with an interim coach in his place. Like the Tom Thibodeau hiring in Minnesota, Hollins was an old school guy who was hired on the pedigree of what he had done in the previous stops of his career. But also like Thibodeau, Hollins was not able to translate the success he had found with previous veteran groups and impose that onto a much younger group in Brooklyn. The move was a failure.
The following season, the Nets hired Sean Marks to be the team’s president of basketball operations and an all-out cultural reset ensued. Marks hired a relatively young first-time head coach in Kenny Atkinson to instill the infrastructure of the reset. Like Ryan Saunders, Atkinson had spent the better part of a decade on various benches as an assistant coach. He was a new school guy, resolute to implement a system completely polarizing from the style of play Hollins had the group playing with. After finishing 27th in 3-point attempts under Hollins the previous season, Atkinson bumped Brooklyn up to fourth in attempts from deep in his first season.
“It was a long, long process,” said Atkinson before Wednesday evening’s opener against Saunders and the Minnesota Timberwolves when I asked him about that transition in his first year. “It started with getting the staff and the organization on the same page that this is how we want to play. Kind of setting the culture, it took a while. You could argue it took three years before it really started to kick in.”
Atkinson’s Nets may have jumped up to 4th in 3-point attempts that first season but they were 26th in 3-point field goal percentage. There was a change, but as he said, the effectiveness didn’t really come until just last season — when Brooklyn final became an above-average 3-point shooting team.
“Listen, I know Ryan, he’s a heck of a young coach, he’s a talented guy,” Atkinson continued. “They obviously have some really good players over there, but it’s just gonna take some time to get everybody on the same page.”
It may just prove to be one of few positives blips in what proves to be a long and tenuous transition, but in their opening effort, Saunders’ Wolves played like a team that might be a little further along the line. Fueled by Karl-Anthony Towns’ 36 points and perhaps the best defensive of his career, the Wolves looked nothing like the Thibodeau Wolves. KAT was locked-in defensively, trusting his teammates to work with him on a string. And the 7-footer lived on the perimeter where he attempted 11 shots from beyond-the-arc — canning seven of them. It was more 3s than Towns attempted in any of the 204 games he played for Thibodeau.
“I told you this. You thought it was bullshit,” Towns said in the locker room after the game. “Unity, cohesiveness, (the trip to) the Bahamas was not a joke. This is something that is real.”
Towns’ implication here is that the cohesion he sees within his locker room has expedited the long process Atkinson describes. By having a group of players that not only believes in what Saunders is preaching but having that be their preferred method of play, he believes this can work immediately. Maybe there is a difference in how players in today’s NBA are willing to embrace this style of play. Maybe 2019 is different than even 2016.
“When you got that kind of unity, and everyone is going to do what they say, everything works out,” Towns continued. “Being able to talk to people, that’s one of the biggest things I’ve always said about our team. We could do something special.”
That ability to talk to each other proved particularly valuable in the victory. Robert Covington said in the locker room after the game that inserting Josh Okogie into the game to defend Kyrie Irving on the final possession of the game was his idea. Okogie hadn’t played at all in the overtime period but was inserted cold to square up Kyrie.
“Yeah, I said something to Ryan,” Covington explained. “I was like, ‘you need to put our unit in.’ They were trying to figure it out, and I’m like, ‘ yeah, we need Josh and Jake in. We need them to win.’
“They were trying to figure out lineups anyway. So I’m like, ‘just trust, put Josh in.’ And that’s the type of relationship that me and Ryan have. So, we made the adjustment, and Josh did his job.”
Apparently that wasn’t the only instance in which Saunders took input from one of his players. After Andrew Wiggins only made three of the 12 shot attempts he took in the first half of the game, Towns thought it was time to get his two-man pick-and-roll game with Wiggins going.
“I thought that they were very keyed-in on me especially,” Towns explained. “Just talking to Ryan, I was just trying to tell him that our best option was to get a pick-and-roll to Wig to get him going downhill.”
The shift in how Wiggins was being utilized in the second half clearly shifted his demeanor. Though he still missed more shots than he made (5-of-13), he was clearly putting pressure on the rim that was attracting multiple defenders in a way that freed up his teammates for open looks or gave them a clear path for the offensive rebound.
“The only way I was going to take a jumper down the stretch was if they leave me completely wide open,” said Wiggins, who admitted the new shot selection initiative is still going to be an adjustment. “My main focus was getting to the rim. I feel like I had success doing that… I felt like when push came to shove, we went to what our unit was comfortable with.”
Now, this can all shape up to sound like Saunders is just a happy bystander wearing the coach cap. But that isn’t the case. The system that positioned Towns on the perimeter to get of eleven 3s, that was Saunders’ system. And the group that Covington referred to as “our unit,” Saunders very likely played a role in putting that in place in training camp. But perhaps the clearest-cut coaching move Saunders made was in the decision to start Treveon Graham.
Before the preseason began, Graham was viewed by many — including me — like a rotation afterthought. For Graham to start, and to play more than everyone other than Towns and Wiggins, that was a relatively bold move. Graham posted a better plus-minus than every starter other than KAT, and he had a string of fourth quarter hustle plays that saved a sinking Wolves team.
“He’s one of the guys that’s going to make the identity of our team special on the defensive end,” said Saunders postgame of Graham. “He’s another guy that I think people, especially back in Minnesota, will end up liking on our team because these guys do have grit, and they have some toughness to them.”
The Wolves are going to need that toughness about them. They’ll need it because this is only one game. Atkinson is right, there is a long road ahead. Change takes time. The Bahamas trip may be real, but so is the upcoming schedule. The Wolves open their home slate against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat on Sunday, and then they go on the road to play Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Ben Simmons and the pace-and-space killer that is the Philadelphia 76ers.
The book will soon be out Saunders’ new system. Adversity will strike. But like Atkinson’s 2016-17 Nets that kept bombing 3s despite clanking more than their fair share, the Wolves will need to be resolute in their commitment to the system. As great as it is to go into Brooklyn and win the season opener, this all about something bigger; it’s about where this team can be in the future. Today, the Wolves are the Nets of 2016-17. They’re even better than that. We’ll see. Three years from now, though, if Saunders and company want to be a true contender, they need to grow as an entire organization.
“We’re drilling home what the philosophy for us is going to be moving forward,” said Saunders. “We’re committed to this philosophy. We’ll test that philosophy, and then guys are able to feel it a little more. There’s work to be done. We understand that, as there always is. But I also feel good about what we were able to do in terms of our pace, in terms of the shots we were getting. I like the steps that we’re taking.”