Just two days ago, Kenny Atkinson talked about the having a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets next season.
Two days ago, Atkinson was the Nets’ coach.
Today, he is not.
In a move that seemed unnecessary at first glance, especially with the sub-.500 Nets headed for a playoff spot, Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks released a statement on Saturday saying Atkinson and the team mutually agreed to part ways.
“After discussions with Kenny about the progress of the season, we mutually agreed that a coaching change would be in the best interest of the team,” Marks said in a statement.
If Atkinson truly believed that, it means he didn’t feel he was reaching his players and couldn't get this group to the next level. That’s too bad because Atkinson, despite a 118-190 record in three-plus seasons with the Nets, did a fantastic job taking the Nets from bottom of the East to playoff team with little to work with, especially in his first couple of seasons.
He took over the franchise that was in rebuilding mode and had little in the way of assets – it was similar to the situation Brett Brown encountered when he took over as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Atkinson also loved the idea of coaching the Nets. Atkinson is New York native, he lived in Brooklyn and sometimes walked from his house to Barclays Center on game days.
A few seasons ago, he sat in a chair on the court at the team’s state-of-the-art practice facility in Brooklyn with a sweeping view of Lower Manhattan as a backdrop. Not only did he love the idea of coaching the Nets, he loved coaching the Nets.
It wasn’t an easy job with all that losing early in his tenure. He had to develop players while making sure they didn’t get so disappointed and frustrated that they checked out and didn’t improve – just like Brown did in his early days with Philadelphia. It takes a special coach to do that.
Nets guard Kyrie Irving will team up Kevin Durant next season. (Photo: Tommy Gilligan, USA TODAY Sports)
And just look at the work Atkinson and his staff did with players such as Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris. He knows how to develop players.
It would have been nice to see what Atkinson could do with two All-Stars like Irving and Durant on the court together. That won’t happen now.
Atkinson will get another chance to coach. Smart front-office executives know the job he did with Brooklyn.
His dismissal creates another intriguing wrinkle in NBA job openings. There will be huge interest in coaching a team that features Durant and Irving with quality complementary players. It's a team that should be among the best in the Eastern Conference next seasons. There will be immediate pressure on the next coach.
And it might not be the only high-profile opening. Usually, coaches are dismissed from teams that aren’t that good. That may not be the case this offseason.
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Houston’s Mike D’Antoni is in the final season of his contract, and at this point, unless the Rockets overachieve in the playoffs, it’s unlikely D’Antoni returns, leaving a coaching opening on a team with James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
And Brown’s job is not safe in Philadelphia. The Sixers have underachieved this season and are the sixth seed right now. If Brown doesn't return, the Sixers job would be coveted because of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The New York Knicks, who just named Leon Rose their new president in charge of basketball operations, have Mike Miller as an interim coach. Though not as good as the other teams, it's still one of 30 jobs.
And there could be more openings, too.
Maybe Atkinson ends up with one of those jobs.
For certain, the Nets and Marks will have a quality group of coaches from which to pick. And it will be one of Marks’ most important decisions as the franchise heads into the Durant-Irving era.
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