Kenny Atkinson just got the starter coach treatment.
The Nets’ surprising announcement that there had been a “mutual parting of ways” had nothing to do with his performance. How could it? Atkinson had a team with no Kevin Durant, no Kyrie Irving for 42 games positioned as the No. 7 seed Saturday morning when the news conference was called to explain his departure.
No matter how the Nets want to paint it, Atkinson got a raw deal. After three-plus years of Atkinson doing some remarkable heavy lifting in Brooklyn, someone else is going to get a chance to coach his dream team. Like the newly minted tycoon who throws over a loyal childhood sweetheart for a flashy supermodel, the Nets have decided they can do better.
At his news conference Saturday, general manager Sean Marks was vague about why the two decided to part ways and why Atkinson was not given the chance to keep coaching until Durant and Irving came back. “I think we both have come to realize that it ran its course here,” he said of the decision to part ways.
Only time will tell if they were right, but it’s possible that the breakup could benefit at least one basketball club in New York.
The Knicks ought to take a hard look at Atkinson.
Yes, I can hear you now. The Knicks would never hire a Nets castoff. We are talking the Knicks here, the team that plays in the Mecca. They should be able to get any coach they want. Why would, why should we go after someone who was let go by the B-team?
Yet Atkinson has a lot of the qualities of a coach they should want.
Hard as it is to believe, the Nets team that Atkinson took over before the 2016-17 season was a bigger mess than the current Knicks team.
In 2014, the Nets made one of the worst trades in NBA history when they acquired an aging Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry in exchange for a bunch of players and unprotected first-rounders in 2014, 2016 and 2018.
Before the 2016-2017 season, Atkinson took over a team of castoffs and never-beens and turned them into a team that improved from 20 wins to 28 wins to 42 wins last season. He established a winning culture that made the team attractive enough that Irving and Durant, the two biggest fish in last summer’s free agency pool, picked the Nets over supposedly more glamorous venues.
What’s more, Atkinson has a history with the Knicks. He was an assistant under Mike D’Antoni and, more than any other coach, is the one who was responsible for Linsanity, given that he was the Knicks coach who worked daily with Jeremy Lin.
Atkinson knows how to develop young players, is an incredibly hard worker and knows how to talk to the media. With the Nets, Atkinson revitalized the careers of Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie. He turned around D’Angelo Russell’s career and made Caris LeVert into a budding star.
The Knicks, who fired coach David Fizdale earlier this season and recently named Leon Rose as team president, are thought to be considering some big names to replace interim coach Mike Miller. Among the names are Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau. It’s hard to think that all three of those candidates wouldn’t also be in play for the Nets job now.
In fact, it’s hard not to see the Nets job as a much more attractive option, especially for Van Gundy, who coached the Knicks from 1996 until he resigned 19 games into the 2001-02 season. Van Gundy knows the Garden and he knows all of the hoops that it is necessary for a coach to jump through there in order to get the things he wants to get accomplished.
The Knicks are going to be a major rebuild. It’s hard to imagine them within kissing distance of the playoffs anytime in the near future. The Nets, by contrast, figure to be a contender next season if both Durant and Irving are healthy.
When he was with the Knicks, Van Gundy was a master of handling egos. Van Gundy gained his job after coach Don Nelson was fired when he couldn’t get John Starks and, to a lesser extent, Patrick Ewing to buy into playing different roles. Van Gundy was a master of juggling a carton full of egos while getting lesser players to buy in.
Of course, Atkinson might have been able to deal with big egos, too. He never was given much of a chance, given that he got to coach exactly zero games with both Durant and Irving.
He deserved better.