It is a feeling that every new parent knows well, that “I have no freaking clue what I’m doing” feeling that washes over you the day you bring your firstborn home.
There were plenty of days Kenny Atkinson felt this way in his first season as Nets coach. How could he not? He had been handed a roster of castoffs and never-beens. He had been handed a team that couldn’t expect an infusion of talent for years to come, given that a previous regime had traded away four first-round draft picks before he arrived. He had been handed a team that was so green, so bereft of proven talent after point guard Jeremy Lin was sidelined, they went through a 1-27 stretch.
“From the first day on the job to now, it’s been night and day,” Atkinson said Tuesday when asked about the growth as a coach over the past 2 1⁄2 seasons. “We joke that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing in the beginning, quite honestly. Now, I feel like I’m better equipped and more confident. I feel so much more comfortable. Obviously, winning a little bit more helps that.”
The Nets are doing more than winning a bit more. In Atkinson’s two years-plus with the team, the Nets have gone from 20 wins to 28 wins to a team that is on track to win more than 43 games and make the playoffs. With Tuesday night’s 122-117 win over the Bulls, the Nets (28-24) have won 20 of their last 26 games.
Much of the credit has to go to Atkinson, who has thrust himself into the Coach of the Year conversation along with Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer and Denver’s Mike Malone.
Atkinson has done it by creating a playoff team out of a seemingly disparate group of second-round draft picks, former G-Leaguers and D’Angelo Russell, a player the Lakers had deemed a failed experiment.
Russell, who entered the Bulls game averaging 19.3 points with 6.4 assists, scored 30 points Tuesday and has a very good chance Thursday of becoming the first Net to make the All-Star Game since Joe Johnson did it five seasons ago.
Atkinson was known as a developmental coach when general manager Sean Marks hired him in April 2016, and his relationship with Russell has really transformed him into an elite player.
That relationship was clearly on display after the Nets’ loss Monday night in Boston. Atkinson pulled Russell from the game in the fourth quarter after he failed to grab a rebound and committed his fifth turnover. Russell’s comments after the game showed just how much faith he has in his coach.
“Whatever Coach’s decision was, I’m buying with it. He’s got us this far, so I’m trusting his moves,” Russell said. “I missed a rebound, a 50-50 play that set him off a little bit. I’ve got to be better.”
Atkinson was 49 years old when he got his first head-coaching position, old enough to have thought long and hard about what he would do if he ever got his shot. Yet so much of his learning had to come on the job. Atkinson believes he and the team have sort of grown up together.
“I think we’re kind of on the same growth pattern,” Atkinson said. “So I think it’s kind of a cool thing, I’m growing in step with them.
“They understand I make a ton of mistakes, they make a ton of mistakes. I keep saying, we’re both humble. I have a long way to go as a coach. They know they’ve got a long way to go as players.”