Does anyone actually think Kenny Atkinson deserved to be let go from the Brooklyn Nets when he was?
Sure, it was the first season after the “clean sweep” in the summer of 2019, which immediately placed Atkinson under a national microscope. However, the spotlight wasn’t then what it became the following season because Kevin Durant (torn Achilles recovery) hadn’t been playing yet. Atkinson was in his fourth year leading the Nets in 2019-20. Kyrie Irving had been playing, albeit sparingly, and those times it was due to injury, not yet other stuff.
In any event, the Nets were still competitive. They were 28-34, COVID hit America just days later and the team subsequently finished 35-37, making the playoffs as the No. 7 seed — as they did this year — and were swept by the Toronto Raptors... as they were by the Boston Celtics this season.
Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill reported that Atkinson wasn’t “fond” of coaching Durant and Irving, Irving had “soured” on him and that Irving wanted Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue to take over the team. Ironically, L.A. is where Atkinson went last season before becoming a top assistant with the Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors currently.
Atkinson is reportedly a finalist for the Charlotte Hornets' head coaching job, and it builds as the perfect meeting between both sides from a basketball standpoint if they’re on the same page otherwise. Having covered Atkinson during those Nets years, this potential pairing with the Hornets makes so much sense.
The pre-super-team Nets had a distinct charm about them, even though they sucked in the beginning by NBA standards. Atkinson was introduced in April 2016, two months after Sean Marks was announced as the team’s new general manager.
Brooklyn surprisingly drafted a kid named Caris LeVert at No. 20 overall in the draft that June, a pick acquired after trading Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers. Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker were the big offseason signings, overshadowing lesser acquisitions at the time (like current longest-tenured Net Joe Harris). In December, the Nets controversially released Yogi Ferrell for Spencer Dinwiddie, whom Net fans didn’t fully accept, especially after Ferrell showed up with the Dallas Mavericks and had a 30-ball on national TV.
Caris LeVert just shattered Wayne Ellington's ankles pic.twitter.com/P8hJv0JK9J— The Crossover (@TheCrossover) January 26, 2017
And even though it was a miserable 20-62 first campaign, you saw flashes from a team devoid of talent and saddled by injuries. Brook Lopez became a three-point shooter, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson went from a 2 to a 4, Lin was impactful in the 36 games he did play (they only won 7 of the 46 games he didn’t), and formally fringe guys like Harris and Dinwiddie appeared like they belonged, as did LeVert.
In 2017-18, they played even harder. And damn it, they had to. Lin ruptured his Achilles on opening night, never to play again for the Nets. Lopez turned into D’Angelo Russell via trade, but he had arthroscopic knee surgery one month into the season, throwing off his rhythm. They again struggled with injuries, but more games were within reach.
Dinwiddie was a Most Improved Player candidate and kept hitting game-winners all season long. Hollis-Jefferson developed into a reliable, mid-range hitting (47.7% from 10-to-16 feet), two-way 4 with point-forward skills that his assist numbers will never do justice. LeVert remained healthy and showed high-level starter flashes.
Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll came from elsewhere, and bought in immediately while leading the team in minutes. A rookie and No. 22 overall pick named Jarrett Allen was just scratching the surface of what Atkinson saw as massive potential. (He’d probably still be in Brooklyn instead of DeAndre Jordan if Atkinson was. And if you don’t believe that, look at who was starting at center before and after he was fired.)
The Nets went 28-54 in the 2017-18 campaign, an eight-win improvement, and 15 of their losses came within 5 points or less.
The season following was when they shocked much of the NBA world.
Brooklyn had built a culture legitimately. They were, without their own first-round picks, manufacturing creative ways to add players who were viable and fit their desired mold. It included second-round castoffs like Dinwiddie and Harris, role players seen as salary dumps like Carroll and Crabbe and developing late first-rounders like Allen and Hollis-Jefferson. The organization found a new-home-needing future All-Star in Russell right before his ascent, surrounding youth with leadership in Jared Dudley and Ed Davis.
They hit all the right notes in 2018-19. There was a 14-win leap to 42-40, as the Nets manufactured an All-Star in Russell, a fringe one in Dinwiddie who made another massive jump and a possible one in LeVert, who was at that level before breaking his leg early in the season. No. 6-seeded Brooklyn even won a fun Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers before losing in a mostly completive five-game series to Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Why Atkinson works with the Hornets is simple: What Michael Jordan’s team needs more than anything else from within is someone who emphasizes ball movement, playing in space and excels in player development (in particular, with guards, though he was clearly influential on Allen too). Watch what Atkinson did with Russell, Dinwiddie, and LeVert; now, picture that man, after an additional year under Lue and Steve Kerr, being responsible for LaMelo Ball’s ascent in Year 3 and beyond.
Elsewhere on the roster, it’s tough to say because, realistically, Ball seems to be the only untouchable Hornet this summer. Though, Charlotte should probably keep Terry Rozier since that combination of shooting and playmaking in the backcourt is tailor-made for Atkinson, who navigated a labyrinth of young, coachable talent in Brooklyn.
If pending free agent Miles Bridges is also retained this summer, which is the plan, then that’s even better. James Bouknight, Kai Jones (a University of Texas alum like Allen), JT Thor and Jalen McDaniels are among the young talents who need harnessing. It makes Atkinson the perfect fit to lead the Hornets back into the playoffs, where they haven’t been since 2016, even after making the Play-In Tournament in two straight seasons.
Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball combine for 60 points in the @hornets win! 🐝@T_Rozzay3: 32 PTS, 8 3PM, 2 STL@MELOD1P: 28 PTS, 13 REB, 7 AST, 3 STL pic.twitter.com/T3ldOUfAIH— NBA (@NBA) November 23, 2021
All in all, Atkinson has shown enough to prove he’s the guy to establish a legitimate culture and will develop your team — if allowed to do so — into a hard-charging pain in the ass who we’d expect to be competitive next season.
Is he the desired coach for your super-team? With the Nets, it didn’t appear so, but we also weren’t allowed to find out. (By the way, with all due respect, is Steve Nash that guy? Or was he just chosen by the stars on that team, for better or worse?)
Just cross that bridge if you get there, Charlotte.