Setting The Record Straight On Atkinson’s Nets Tenure
There is a tendency among some of Nets Nation to look wistfully back to the not-so-glorious days when then Head Coach Kenny Atkinson helped spearhead a resurrection program built around player development. With Friday’s announcement that Atkinson will be receiving his second chance at the helm of an NBA club in Charlotte, some of the history bandied about I’d label as revisionist.
Such glowing sentiments on the Atkinson era are understandable given this past Nets season that was wrought with drama over who would be physically and mentally available to play and current coach Steve Nash’s growing pains while learning on the job. Despite championship-or-bust hype, Brooklyn stumbled to a seventh-place finish and a four-game exit at the hands of Boston in the first round of the playoffs. Never has a Nets season ended in a more disappointing fashion since, well, maybe when the defending ABA champions were smoked in the first round by the Spirits of St. Louis back in 1975.
Ironically, Brooklyn’s 44-38 record this season bested every one of Atkinson’s three-plus seasons here, even the fun 2018-19 run that also ended with a first-round defeat. Atkinson and the Nets parted ways 62 games into the following season, just before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, with Brooklyn six games under .500.
Let’s set the record straight. Though I felt at the time that Atkinson at least deserved an opportunity to guide a fully-loaded Nets squad, he didn’t exactly get a “raw deal” either, as some have suggested. He reportedly knew that his voice was losing its impact and that the organization would be looking for a new coach that offseason; hence, the “mutual agreement” language in the press release.
I found Atkinson to be a likable sort, willing to converse with the media on all basketball topics (other than injuries--nothing has changed since). He was a local (Long Island raised) who worked his way up the coaching ladder to the highest level in 2016, understanding well the challenge of inheriting the equivalent of an expansion team, with few assets at his disposal following the disastrous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade from three years earlier.
The ensuing low expectations allowed Atkinson, with his staff, to focus almost exclusively on improving the limited resources he had. Good thing, too, for the Nets went a ghastly 48-116 over his first two seasons. Still, there was measurable progress, as there’s no denying that Atkinson helped a good number of relatively unheralded players (Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, etc.) earn sizable second contracts. D’Angelo Russell changed the narrative on his career with the aid of two seasons under Atkinson’s tutelage.
Of course, a lot of the credit for those success stories should also be laid at the feet of those players who put in the work, and not every project panned out like Dinwiddie did. There were plenty of Sean Kilpatrick-types who walked in-and-out of the doors to Brooklyn’s HSS practice facility during Atkinson’s tenure. Fans tended to obscure the pain from the reality of constant losing by musing such things as, “Hey, you see that Isaiah Whitehead dropped 24 points tonight? The Atkinson development train keeps on rolling!” when such performances called for a more sober response. Another reason why no one should be longing for a return to those days.
Following the surprising playoff qualification, Nets owner Joseph Tsai decided it was time for a mission change, spending a fortune in the 2019 offseason luring Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan to town as free agents. Would the Nets have engineered the Clean Sweep without the Atkinson-led surge up the standings? We’ll never know for sure, but I have heard that KD and Irving were always eyeing joining forces on a team in New York, and the James Dolan Knicks were a hot mess at the time. The Nets had a low bar to beat.
In any event, though KD was on a sabbatical while recouping from Achilles surgery and Irving was shut down after 20 games with a bum shoulder, Atkinson’s win/loss results in 2019-20 were still bound to trump development progress. During the team’s struggles that season, it was then determined that even with better talent, Kenny couldn’t cut it to the requisite degree.
As to why, some of those same fans who are now so fond of Atkinson probably forgot all their rants from that period that called for his head. Some of the same issues that have plagued Nash—timeout usage and small-ball bias, to name two—were also prevalent when Atkinson was in charge, Furthermore, Atkinson was a slave to analytics, no matter the situation, and Brooklyn paid a heavy price when his defensive schemes called for allowing professional shooters all the time and space they needed from mid-range areas.
Behind the scenes, there were reports that Atkinson lost the confidence of the Nets’ stars, and I’m not talking about Jordan’s tantrum over not starting over Allen. Atkinson never really hit it off with Irving, though in fairness few coaches have, and Durant, in street clothes, allegedly lit into the team in the locker room one night for its poor work habits. While reports have noted that neither explicitly demanded a coaching change, insiders knew then that Atkinson wasn’t long for the job.
Not every NBA coach knocks it out of the park in his first go-round like Boston’s Ime Udoka. Sometimes it takes a failed gig or two before a coach lands in the right situation, like Frank Vogel did three seasons ago with the Lakers.
It’s hard to predict that Atkinson will reach that peak in Charlotte. He certainly walks in with significantly better talent than he had at the start in Brooklyn—LaMelo Ball is already an All Star and Miles Bridges could be next, assuming he stays on as a restricted free agent. However, the team is seemingly stuck in mediocrity until owner Michael Jordan makes a major move.
Atkinson’s last two seasons as an assistant with the contending Clippers and Warriors likely gave him greater perspective as to how NBA games are managed, so maybe he’ll help get the Hornets to a higher level. On the other hand, I also don’t agree with those who believe his hiring makes it a sure thing.
It’s fine to root for a local good guy to succeed in a second chance, but let’s not engage in revisionist history about Atkinson’s time in Brooklyn.