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Kenny Atkinson: Pleased with progress, but wanting more

After losing two straight, to Charlotte and Houston, the Nets are at 17-21, a pace to win 37 games, nine more than last season and 17 more than Kenny Atkinson’s first year as head coach. It’s also the most wins a Nets team has accumulated before New Year’s Day in 13 years, although that’s partly a function of the NBA’s early starts the last two years.

So, Greg Logan, asked Atkinson how he saw the team progressing.

“I wouldn’t say big time progress. I’d say kinda on the track that we’ve been on. It’s calculated progress — trying to find the right word — incremental progress. We’re not skipping steps. We’re going on the right road,” Atkinson said, quickly adding, “But again, I think we all want more. if I look at our record, I wish it was three more wins or four more wins. But I like the track we’re on. A marginal improvement rate from last year if we can keep on this pace. So that, I’m pleased with.”

There were a number of coded words and phrases we’ve heard throughout the two and a half seasons of Markinsonism, led by “not skipping steps,” which we’ve always translated as not trading their young players for veterans just to accelerate the rebuild, make the playoffs.

And a number of national writers, led by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst have said while the Nets might be buyers at the deadline —now less than six weeks away— they’re not willing to dump their kids.

No doubt, the Nets have made progress, as a team and as individuals. The East is so volatile that a playoff run is not out of the picture. Winning 37 games may not get you there, but 40 almost certainly would.

Before he got hurt, Caris LeVert was showing indications he could be “The Man” or at least “a man” who could recruit “The Man” this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie is a bonafide contender for Sixth Man of the Year and the Nets tied him up for at least two years a couple of weeks ago. D’Angelo Russell, while still inconsistent, is a better defender and giving the Nets 18/6/4, which is damn good. Joe Harris could lead the league in three-point shooting.

Rodions Kurucs, despite looking tired the last two games, is a steal of the Draft and maybe, just maybe, a stretch-4 candidate going forward. Jarrett Allen, who everyone should remember is two months younger than Kurucs, has improved his rebounding and stamina. Not to mention his high-profile blocks.

And with the addition of pieces like Ed Davis, Jarrett Dudley and increasingly solid performances by Old Reliable, DeMarre Carroll, the bench is much stronger. All good.

The Nets have to be optimistic as long as they can stay healthy. They were 6-7 before LeVert went down and after the period of adjustment aka eight straight losses, they’ve been 9-3 December 7, mostly with a starting line-up whose average age is 22.4, one of the youngest, if not the youngest in the NBA. During that stretch, they beat four playoff teams, the Nos, 1, 3 and 8 seeds in the East and the No. 4 seed in the West.

So what’s next?

Something subtle may have taken place Saturday afternoon. Atkinson said he didn’t play Russell and Davis to rest them, noting some of his players were “beaten up.” He also pulled Dinwiddie early in the second half. All of that gave Shabazz Napier and Kenneth Faried a chance to show their wares and they responded, Napier with a career-high 32 points and Faried with his first 20-10 game in a year. If the Nets ulterior motive was to showcase one or both for a trade, this didn’t hurt.

The NBA is now moving into transaction territory. Next Friday, teams can start to sign 10-day deals. Ten days after that is the deadline for signing players to new two-way deals. Then, February 7 is the trade deadline. That means over the next 18 games, the Nets will have to decide which road to take, push for the playoffs or continue the rebuild.

At the very least, we expect Sean Marks will continue to re-stock the draft cupboard. Although they have all their first round picks going forward plus the Denver pick in this Draft, teams in either a full or modified rebuild want more. They also have a hodge-podge of second rounders, none their own till 2022, and no doubt would like to add more. (If you can get Kurucs at No. 40, why not?)

One thing we believe will not change: the Nets hard-and-fast rule on character in their players. Atkinson described what happened when Theo Pinson, who scored his first NBA points, returned to the locker room post-game.

“The guys gave him a standing ovation,” said Atkinson. “These guys care for each other and it’s great. It gets me emotional.”

In the meantime, the Nets will take it as it comes, hoping LeVert will return sooner rather than later and that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s adductor strain is a day-to-day thing. Atkinson said before the second Charlotte game that he won’t rule out watching the schedule as spring approaches. Just not now.

“I think it’s too early for us to be thinking that way. We have so much basketball left to play. Quite honestly, you’re not even looking at the standings, you’re so focused on game by game. If this is late March or early April, I think it’ll be a little different deal.”

Here’s hoping…

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