What Lies Ahead After Brooklyn Nets, Kenny Atkinson Divorce

On July 1, 2019, the Brooklyn Nets turned the corner from one of the worst rebuilds in league history, emerging from their dark days with two of the game’s preeminent free agents. Two of the most sought-after superstars of the summer loot, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving agreed to join forces and come to Brooklyn with their eyes set on championships and banners.

Those expectations were never supposed to be met in year one. Durant was expected to miss the entire season as he recovers from an Achilles tear suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals.

At 28-34 on March 7th, the Nets were firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff picture but still falling short of their hopes after winning 42 games a season ago. The remedy to their shortcomings was, apparently, a mutual decision for a “change of the voice” in the locker room and on the sidelines.

Kenny Atkinson was relieved of his duties Saturday morning, and the divorce is one of the more conspicuous mid-season coaching changes in recent memory.

Perhaps the organization has done an impressive job of quelling tension in the eyes of the media and hiding issues from those on the outside. But something still seems amiss here. Atkinson defied expectations year after year and was seemingly beloved by his players. The Nets were on the short-list of best player development locations across the league, unearthing gems and helping youngsters mature and improve annually.

Jan 4, 2020; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert (22) reacts with forward Joe Harris (12) and guard Spencer Dinwiddie (8) in the fourth quarter against the Toronto Raptors at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Even Kevin Durant mentioned in the Nets’ season-opening press conference that Atkinson’s offense was part of what drew him to Brooklyn, per Ian Begley of SNY.

It would be irresponsible to speculate what actually led to the dismissal. Yet, it’s impossible not to line up a few tea leaves in this situation.

Expectations were certainly lowered from where they would be if Irving and Durant were healthy all season, and given the players at their disposal, a playoff berth is an outstanding accomplishment. Missing the playoffs would have been seen as a step backward, certainly, but the Nets haven’t been in danger of that most of the year and injury-related excuses/reasons are baked in either way.

Reports exist that Irving, a known stubborn head and locker room pariah, had ‘soured’ on Atkinson and preferred other candidates long-term to be their coach, but the validity of such a report is up for debate.

Perhaps more concrete facts will emerge during the next few months (they usually do). So we’ll leave the speculation for others and, instead of looking back, let’s move forward and assess what is next for each party involved beyond this season.

Nets general manager Sean Marks has named Jacque Vaughn the interim coach, though he’s highly unlikely to receive long-term consideration. Meanwhile, Atkinson, who built an incredibly strong reputation during his three-plus years in Brooklyn, will surely be sought after this summer to fill any vacancies that pop open around the league.

What’s Next for the Nets?

Feb 16, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; Team Lebron forward Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warrior (35) handles the ball against Team Lebron guard Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics (11) during NBA All-Star Game practice at the Bojangles Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Two words: SUPERSTAR APPROVAL.

While impossible (so far) to lay responsibility at the feet of Irving or Durant for Atkinson’s Saturday dismissal, the two clearly didn’t put up an objection or make a case for their coach to remain. Organizations do not keep their prized jewels in the dark on decisions of this magnitude; Durant and Irving had their chances to keep Kenny around or embrace his voice and message.

In the thick of a playoff race, the Nets must finish strong over the next 20 games and cannot view this firing as a reason to mail it in. They need an immediate surge to fend of the Orlando Magic for the 7-seed and avoid a first-round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Once the season ends, Marks will likely sit down with Durant, Irving and their respective agents to court suitors for the job. That aforementioned superstar approval is necessary for Marks to maximize buy-in from his franchise pillars, especially since next year is a fresh start with both finally (hopefully) healthy.

The title aspirations will lead to limiting the candidates to only those with championship experience.

The first name that comes to mind is Ty Lue, current assistant for Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers. Lue was Kyrie’s coach in Cleveland and helped him to an NBA Championship in 2016. His dismissal from the Cavaliers was mainly due to that franchise’s desire to hit the restart button, and Lue’s entire experience was with title teams.

During every season he’s finished as a head coach, Lue’s wrapped in the NBA Finals. The personal relationship between he and Irving could lead to his arrival in Brooklyn.

Oct 21, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue shouts out a play during the first quarter against the Atlanta Hawks at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Another guy on the short-list will be Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets. Since ownership changed in Houston last year, D’Antoni has been operating in a tricky situation. While he coaches a tremendous level of talent and is a perennial contender, the new regime has cut corners on personnel matters in efforts to avoid the luxury tax bill.

D’Antoni wasn’t given a contract extension prior to the season, a rarity in the coaching world, and is operating as a lame duck. If his time in Houston comes to an end, he’d be a logical fit with this Nets team due to his experience meshing superstars together, his high-octane offensive preferences and a rather nonchalant style that could cater to Irving.

As pure speculation, there are a few other names who could merit a long examination. Stan Van Gundy has been to an NBA Finals, coaches an aesthetically-pleasing style that meshes with this Nets roster and is better suited for coaching as opposed to front office work.

His brother Jeff Van Gundy is seemingly destined to come back to coaching at some point and may be waiting for the right opportunity. Jeff’s ESPNB broadcast colleague Mark Jackson would receive lots of support for the job in his home city, and his appointment would be far from shocking after he helped build the pre-championship Golden State Warriors into solid playoff contenders.

Bottom-line is that this isn’t a place for a starting coach or someone unproven. If the team was comfortable going with a voice that hadn’t been to the mountain top, Atkinson’s resume was as impressive as they could find.

What’s Next for Atkinson?

Jan 15, 2020; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson reacts during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps my own profession alters my perspective on this, but I’m just not super interested in where the Nets go from here. As a coach, I’m well aware of the volatility and instability that comes with the territory.

Terrific coaches get the short end of the stick more times than not, and Atkinson has certainly been shorted the opportunity to see through the rebuild he started at the ground level.

Frankly, Atkinson is a brilliant coach. His sets are open and simplistic, but he has a knack for placing his players in constant positions to succeed. That’s what coaching is all about!

He’s not demonstrative or abrasive on the sidelines, yet he’s a defensive strategist to the highest level and has consistently overachieved with the talent he’s been given. Most organizations could hire him tomorrow, and he’d be an improvement from their current general.

A few destinations make a great deal of sense for him, but for some reason, the Chicago Bulls stand out as the most sensible. They would instantly become a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference under his tutelage.

Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are a fantastic frontcourt to build with. Carter at the center of Atkinson’s offense as a creator atop the key could unlock the potential of others. Zach LaVine would be the lead guard and playing for a guy who helped D’Angelo Russell achieve All-Star status. The pace and spacing would allow LaVine and Coby White to thrive side-by-side.

Sep 30, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) guard Coby White (0) and center Wendell Carter Jr. (34)pose for photos during Chicago Bulls media day at the Advocate Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The obstacle in Chicago remains the stubborn nature of its front office and a seeming masochistic insistence on following through with current coach Jim Boylen. While the team has made some strides due to the persistence of Boylen’s tough messages, his in-game coaching and rotations leave quite a bit to be desired.

If the front office decides a fresh voice would benefit their youngsters—or if a new front office is finally brought in this summer—Atkinson should be their first call. He’s the perfect morale booster for their job and would get things rolling rather quickly.

We don’t know what other jobs will open up, or if Atkinson would be drawn to them. He’ll be a welcomed addition as the second-in-command on a number of coaching staffs. The San Antonio Spurs would take him as a sage voice. Mike Budenholzer would gladly reunite with Atkinson in Milwaukee. There may be an opening in Detroit for a full rebuild, and Philadelphia may decide it wants its own change of voice.

Frankly, NBA coaching vacancies come fast and often out of left field. Atkinson will have his fair share of options to consider.

What Atkinson achieved in nearly four years in Brooklyn is highly commendable. He’s proven beyond a doubt that he’s deserving of being an NBA head coach. Someone will certainly benefit from his services.

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