SALT LAKE CITY — Never mind the cupboard of talent was utterly bare when Kenny Atkinson embraced the Nets as his first head-coaching job. When they floundered through his first two seasons and were 8-18 early in his third while suffering from injuries to key players, Atkinson was a lightning rod for criticism because of his unusual rotations and devotion to the three-point shot.
But if it was difficult to see incremental progress toward the development of a young core that includes several reclamation projects, the evidence of Atkinson’s coaching acumen is evident now. The Nets are far ahead of schedule in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings going into Saturday night’s game at Utah. D’Angelo Russell is an All-Star, Spencer Dinwiddie is a Sixth Man award candidate, Joe Harris has turned into the league’s top three-point shooter and Atkinson’s team has elicited praise for his coaching job across the NBA.
Nets forward Jared Dudley is in his 12th season, and he compares Atkinson, who grew up in Northport, to another Long Island-born coaching legend. “The comparison I gave earlier was Larry Brown — fiery, pushing you to the limit, holding everyone accountable, helping his assistants, players getting feedback, willing to try new things,” Dudley said.
“He put a zone defense in, just try it out. It didn’t work our first game. When we were doing bad in the last five minutes, we had two or three practices on late-game situations. He’s always adjusting on the fly, always showing confidence.
“When it comes to analytically and socially engaging the bench and the starters, I haven’t had a coach who has done as good a job as he has yet … I don’t know anyone who has a bad relationship with Kenny.”
Heading into the final month of the season, Atkinson is very much in the running for Coach of the Year along with Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer (who mentored Atkinson as his assistant in Atlanta), Indiana’s Nate McMillan and Denver’s Mike Malone. On a recent visit to Brooklyn, the Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle, a past Coach of the Year winner, said the Nets have “elite coaching.”
Recently, DeMarre Carroll, who developed under Atkinson in Atlanta, suggested his biggest improvement this season has come in terms of designing gameplans and strategy. Atkinson agreed, saying it simply wasn’t his role previously.
“When I first became a head coach, I had to get up to speed because I’d never done it before,” Atkinson said. “Most of it is the players and what they do. I’m not some wizard, but I do think it’s the evolution of going from zero to where I’m at.
“I still have a long way to go. I didn’t learn in the head-coaching seat. I wasn’t a high school coach or a college coach. I wasn’t in the flight simulator at all doing that stuff. You can watch, but it’s not the same. Doing it is how you really learn.”
Second-year center Jarrett Allen expressed his admiration for the job Atkinson does putting players in a place to succeed. At the same time, Atkinson doesn’t spare the rod when it comes to criticism.
“In general, during the film sessions, he’s critical sometimes,” Allen said. “If one guy messes up, he’s not afraid to call him out that he messed up during the game. It doesn’t matter if you had the best game. If you still messed up, he’ll let it out on you no matter what your status is.”
Dinwiddie credits Atkinson for his ability to collaborate and empower his players to play through mistakes with confidence. He believes Atkinson is especially hard on his point guards because he played that position successfully in college at Richmond and speaks with authority. As one of the Nets’ point guards, Dinwiddie understands what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Atkinson’s criticism.
“You understand it’s not from a bad place,” Dinwiddie said. “It’s never like, ‘Oh, he’s coming at Spencer the man.’ He’s looking at your performance, and he needs better for the team to win. At the end of the day, he’s still going to be your friend. He’s a good dude, and he’s taught me so much.”
Asked about player relationships, Atkinson said no one has been spared, including such seasoned veterans as Carroll and Ed Davis. “I can be hard on them and hold the best guys accountable,” Atkinson said. “That gets uncomfortable sometimes. A guy might not talk to me for two days. So, you’ve got to be able to live with that. But I’m OK with that conflict because I know they get over it.”
And look where the Nets are at now.