LOS ANGELES — When Jared Dudley heard the news on Saturday that Kenny Atkinson and the Nets had parted ways, he was stunned. Dudley spent just last season of his 13-year career under Atkinson with the Nets, but that was enough to convince him about Atkinson’s coaching skills.
What bothers the Lakers forward the most about the firing is the notion many commentators have suggested Atkinson might be best suited as a developmental coach rather than having the ability to coach superstars such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who joined the Nets this season.
“I just don’t like the narrative that Kenny Atkinson can’t coach superstars,” Dudley told Newsday following the Lakers’ shootaround Tuesday morning before facing the Nets later at Staples Center. “The thing about it is that I thought he deserved the opportunity. He was there through the bad times and put the culture and the program in position to be able to get two [superstars]. Without Kenny Atkinson, you don’t get those players.”
Dudley also takes issue with reports that suggest Atkinson couldn’t adjust his style of offense, emphasizing three-point shots and layups over low-value mid-range shots, to suit Irving and Durant. “He doesn’t mind mid-range jump shots,” Dudley said. “He wanted it to be the right kind of mid-range jump shots. You don’t think that Kenny is a smart enough coach that he’s not going to let Kyrie and Kevin Durant shoot mid-range jump shots? Come on, now.”
Dudley noted that no one really knew if Steve Kerr or Tyron Lue could coach elite players until they got the opportunity and won championships with the Warriors and Cavaliers, respectively. “He didn’t get a chance to really coach Kevin Durant and Kyrie, which I wanted him to do,” Dudley said. “I don’t want to say he’s only a developmental coach. I don’t buy that. I think he could coach the Lakers. He could coach the top teams in the league. I hope he gets a chance to.”
Dudley spoke with a couple of former teammates who still are with the Nets and heard about the postgame meeting Atkinson called last Wednesday night after they suffered a 39-point home loss to the Grizzlies. He couldn’t confirm reports Durant spoke in the meeting.
“I just basically heard that Kenny was in there afterwards, brought a chair in the middle of the floor and said, ‘Hey, how do we fix this?’” Dudley said. “He was trying to get feedback from players.”
Dudley described Atkinson as a “hands-on” type of coach in terms of communication but added there are times when some players dislike his honest criticism.
“When I was there, Kenny was big on calling people out,” Dudley said. “That’s why I respected him. He called out one through fifteen. That’s the Spurs’ way, the mantra. Sometimes, it can rub certain players the wrong way. I remember Spencer [Dinwiddie] sometimes would not like that way, but then, he would go out and perform the next game or two. Some people weren’t as good with constructive criticism.”
In Dudley’s view, not even the great Spurs coach Gregg Popovich could have succeeded with this season’s Nets because Durant was ruled out for the season, Irving played only 20 games and Caris LeVert missed 25 games. When Dudley texted Atkinson, he thanked the coach for all he did to get the Nets to the playoffs last season.
Dudley said he told Atkinson: “I’ve had nine coaches, and how you conducted yourself as a coach was phenomenal.’ He’s one of the best coaches I’ve had in the NBA. I can put him up there with Doc Rivers. It was mutual respect. I would be shocked if he’s not coaching in the league, if not next year, the year after. Shocked.”