The Nets, of course, have been left little choice thanks to the handiwork of previous front offices. With the notable exceptions of Brook Lopez ($21.1 million) and Jeremy Lin ($11.5 million), who account for more than 40 percent of the team’s payroll, the Nets are largely made up of leftovers and afterthoughts, a band of role players from the margins.
“We’re all trying to make it,” said Atkinson, a career assistant who grew up on Long Island. “We’ve all been humbled.”
As if the climb were not steep enough, the Nets have also been trying to survive without Lin, who has been sidelined since Nov. 2 with a hamstring injury. Lin, the team’s starting point guard, has remained involved by manning a clipboard on the bench during games so he can chart a self-styled version of offensive-efficiency statistics.
“Linology,” Atkinson said. “It’s beautiful. It’s his way of showing he cares. He asked me if he could do it, and I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And he just does it, and he hands it to me after every game, and then I hand it to — you know, I’m not exactly sure where it goes.”
Atkinson would welcome Lin’s return to the court. The Nets have lost six of their past seven games, including four of five on a recent trip that included stops in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. After energizing fans with their up-and-down style of play at the start of the season, the Nets are hemorrhaging points on defense. The latest statistical model from the forecasting site FiveThirtyEight has them finishing with a 25-57 record, which, to be fair, would be a four-win improvement from last season.
No one ever suggested that the road to respectability would be easy. At least the Nets are trying. Perhaps that is all anyone can ask of them this season.
“We play hard,” Luis Scola, a veteran forward, said at a recent shootaround. “What that’s going to mean in terms of wins, no one really knows. But we play hard.”
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said that this latest iteration of the Nets reminded him of the first team he coached, the Orlando Magic, back during the 1999-2000 season. The Magic, he said, were loaded with undrafted players who were determined, selfless and capable of upending opponents who took them lightly.
“We had a bunch of renegades,” Rivers said last week. “They were just an amazing team to coach. I actually thought that’s how all your teams would be — that you’d have all these guys who were hungry every night and listened. I was wrong.”
Rivers made these remarks about an hour before the Clippers went about the uncharitable business of pulverizing the Nets, running out to a 28-point lead — in the first quarter. Hunger and passion count for only so much when there is a seismic disparity in talent. And the Clippers have a lot of talent.
“Flush it,” Atkinson said after the Nets’ 127-95 loss, “and get ready to play tomorrow night.”
As a player, Atkinson spent 13 years hopscotching across Europe, where he was employed by no fewer than 14 teams. His longest contract was for two seasons. In Germany, his team’s uniforms were laundered by Dirk Nowitzki’s mother. In Italy, a trainer offered him a black-market cellphone. In the Netherlands, he played for a team called the Demon Astronauts.
“It’s such a strange existence,” he said. “You come home in the summer and people are like, ‘Where have you been?’ And you’re back and you’re waiting for your next job, and your mom is asking you where you’re going next season. I remember one time I had my bags packed to play in Italy, and I wound up in Germany.”
But Atkinson said he loved everything about it: the culture, the competition, the camaraderie.
“What’s the word in Spanish? Trotamundos,” he said, which translates to globe-trotter.
In his new role, Atkinson thinks his trotamundos past helps him relate to his players. Consider some of their stories. Justin Hamilton spent last season in Spain. Joe Harris was waived by Orlando in January after having foot surgery. Yogi Ferrell, summoned from the team’s N.B.A. Development League affiliate to shore up the point guard position in Lin’s absence, went undrafted. Even Trevor Booker, one of the Nets’ big-ticket acquisitions in the off-season, had been coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz.
“Some people just have bumpier paths than others,” Harris said.
Atkinson’s path included four seasons as an assistant with the Knicks and then four more with the Atlanta Hawks. There came a point when he began to entertain the notion that he might get a crack at a head-coaching gig. The Hawks were winning, and Atkinson had earned a reputation around the league as a maestro of player development.
So he decided to prepare for a potential opportunity by doing additional work on the side, like diagraming his own out-of-bounds sets — imaginary plays that no one would ever see.
“I tried it for about a week,” Atkinson said, “and then I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ You can’t simulate being a head coach. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Still, Atkinson did what he could to find head-coaching “reps,” as he put it. He coached in Europe during the summer. He coached teenagers at invitational camps. He coached the Dominican Republic national team at the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship in Mexico City, where his fluency in Spanish was helpful.
“But I also knew that if I ever got the chance, I would need to learn on the job,” said Atkinson, who described the leap from assistant to head coach as “monumental.”
With the Nets, Atkinson started out as a self-described micromanager, leaving his imprint on everything he touched. He put himself in charge of the franchise’s summer-league team, not only to get more coaching reps, he said, but also to show his assistants how he wanted things done. He is learning to delegate, but letting go remains one of his greatest challenges.
“It’s like the first 100 days of the presidency,” he said. “You better get your stuff in, and your staff better know what you want.”
Atkinson, an early riser by nature, is not getting a ton of sleep these days. When he was assistant coach, he was more successful at squeezing in afternoon naps. But now, he said, he finds that his mind races with visions of future opponents, with play calls and personnel decisions and game tape that needs to be spliced in time for team meetings.
“Reducing film to its essentials is torture,” he said, “because I want to put 8,000 clips on there.”
But Atkinson also knows enough to listen, he said — a lesson that he took from his time in Atlanta, where Coach Mike Budenholzer is known for seeking the advice of his staff and his players. So Atkinson asks questions and makes adjustments. He enjoys having conversations. He wants the Nets to be a democracy, even if he has veto power.
Atkinson had one such conversation last week with Hamilton about a pick-and-roll coverage. Hamilton wanted to do one thing (leave the screener sooner), and Atkinson wanted him to do something else (stay in the designated coverage), and they hashed it out after studying some film clips.
“I haven’t had that type of communication with a coach in a long time,” Hamilton said.
These are the small moments, Atkinson said, that build on themselves and lead to success. Or at least that is the hope.
After the Nets lost back-to-back games to the Clippers and the Lakers last week, Atkinson gave his players the day off. They needed a chance to breathe, and perhaps he did, too. So he awoke early to go for a swim — as a boy, he spent his summers at Jones Beach — and he relished the solitude.
“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “I’m searching for the answers.”