Kenny Atkinson and the revitalization of Brooklyn basketball
It's October 2016 and Kenny Atkinson makes his way into the Nets locker room. He surveys the room, taking in what is now his team. A team that finished dead last in the league the year prior.
Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin, and Bojan Bogdanović headline the roster along with rookie first-round pick Caris LeVert. As training camp progresses, one thing becomes abundantly clear: There will be no quick fix.
Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks had accepted this reality. This was a team with virtually no draft capital or young talent.
The best chance the Nets had to accelerate the rebuild would be to search for overlooked, high-upside talent and develop those players. This is what made Kenny Atkinson such an enticing candidate for the head coaching job.
When asked about what drew him to Atkinson, Marks pointed to the relationships he had seen Atkinson develop with players in San Antonio and Atlanta.
"Player development is more than just on the court shooting and so forth, it's really about caring," Marks said. "When you see how Kenny's relationship is with those players, you can see that he's getting across to those guys."
Atkinson established the team's mindset early in his tenure. His team would compete each night, play unselfishly on both ends and be family-oriented on and off the court.
Marks and Atkinson filled the staff with young, hungry basketball minds, hiring Bret Brielmaier and Jacque Vaughn, both former assistants in San Antonio. They also hired Adam Harrington, a former shooting coach and trainer of Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, as head of player development
"Developing players is a total approach to helping a player improve," Atkinson said. "That goes from on-court work to the weight room to nutrition to player performance to off-court habits. It encompasses so many things. You need a great staff, because it's not just one coach who's going to do it."
Atkinson's first season went as expected. Brooklyn won 20 games with Lin playing only 36 games. Marks shipped Bogdanović to Washington at the trade deadline for a first-round pick.
The summer of 2017 gave Atkinson some young tools to work with. Marks traded Lopez for D'Angelo Russell and used the Washington pick to draft Jarrett Allen out of Texas.
In their second season with the Nets, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, once considered G-League castoffs by the rest of the league, began contributing on a nightly basis.
LeVert turned in a solid sophomore campaign, showing flashes of offensive versatility unbeknownst to fans in his rookie season. Russell also showed the ability to facilitate and score in Atkinson's pick and roll-heavy offense.
Brooklyn improved by only eight wins in 2017. However, a core was being developed, and the mindset Atkinson had been preaching began showing up on the court. The Nets were a team that played hard each night, regardless of the opponent, something you could not say about the team in prior seasons.
The 2018-2019 season marked the turning point in Brooklyn's rebuild.
Following an intense summer of training at Brooklyn's practice facility, LeVert opened the season on a tear. Atkinson and his staff had fine-tuned the swingman's game, turning him into a scoring threat from all three levels.
This all came to a halt when LeVert suffered a severe ankle injury 13 games into the season. Following the injury, Atkinson reluctantly handed the offense over to Russell, who ran with the opportunity.
Russell was selected as an All-Star after dramatically improving his outside shot. The 22-year-old finished the season averaging 21.1 PPG and 7.0 APG while shooting 36.9% from three, all career bests.
Despite his breakout, there were times when the point guard's decision-making rubbed Atkinson the wrong way, and Atkinson held his ground in those situations despite LeVert's absence. The second-year head coach benched Russell down the stretch of several games midway through the season.
As was a theme for Brooklyn all season, Atkinson simply turned to the next man up. That man was Dinwiddie.
Once written off, Dinwiddie became one of the feel-good stories of the league in 2018. The 23-year-old developed a signature pull-up three. This, combined with an explosive first-step, put defenders in a bind each night.
The former G-Leaguer averaged 16.8 PPG on 44.2% shooting from the field and secured a $34M contract extension midway through the season.
Harris also had a breakout year, cementing himself as one of the premier outside shooters in the league. The second-year Net shot a league-best 47.4% from deep. He also excelled attacking the rim using an improved shot fake and relentless movement off the ball.
The most impressive aspect of Harris' season was his hustle on a nightly basis. After improving his conditioning, the sharpshooter transformed into one of Brooklyn's better defenders, no longer leaving Atkinson afraid of certain matchups. The third-year Net also proved to be a tenacious offensive rebounder in key moments.
Brooklyn finished two games over .500 made the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Atkinson's squad continued to back up their reputation as a gritty, unselfish team.
Players around the league began to take notice. The Nets were having fun: dancing on the bench, clowning each other in postgame press conferences and developing close friendships in the locker room.
Atkinson also employed a system that was attractive to players around the league. The style was fast-paced, three-point heavy and unselfish. All of this had Brooklyn slowly creeping into the free agency conversation.
The Nets shocked the basketball world before free agency officially opened, agreeing to terms with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan on multi-year deals.
The atmosphere surrounding the team, along with a young, talented supporting cast put Brooklyn ahead of the Knicks in Durant and Irving's eyes. A large part of this was a product of Atkinson.
Durant hinted that Atkinson was one of the major factors in his decision, saying he had frequently researched the coach.
“I really liked his approach to his craft as a coach. That drew me in pretty quickly,” Durant said during Nets Media Day. “I didn’t really do too much research on other coaches. I guess you always have to learn that. But once I started getting comfortable how he coaches his craft, it started to make me feel at ease even though I never had a conversation with him. I could just see it through YouTube and clips that he was pretty genuine about the game.”
Despite this, some league insiders questioned Atkinson's future with the team. Would he be able to handle the new dynamic with two superstars? Would he be open to changing his approach?
Atkinson struggled in some areas as the season progressed, one being the handling of center rotations. The head coach was one of Allen's biggest supporters and opted to roll with the 21-year-old as the starter over Jordan.
Brooklyn struggled against bigger teams and Atkinson was often slow to mix up the rotation. This did not sit well with Jordan, who had expected to start for Brooklyn, and likely played a role in the growing disconnect between Irving and Durant and their head coach.
Atkinson was also outspoken about an "equal opportunity offense", which may have been another area of disagreement with Durant and Irving, two of the league's most iso-heavy players.
Following a blowout loss to Memphis on March 4th, the team held a postgame meeting to air out their grievances, according to Shams Charania.
Multiple players voiced their displeasures with the coach's communication skills and inability to identify proper roles. Following the meeting, it was clear that Atkinson had lost his voice with a large portion of the locker room, something he had sensed for weeks.
On March 7th, Brooklyn announced that they had "mutually parted ways" with Atkinson. Jordan, Irving and Durant denied any involvement in the firing, but the sense around the league was that the trio played a significant role.
The decision serves as a stark reminder of life in the NBA. Relationships and feelings seldom play a role in these decisions, and Atkinson saw the writing on the wall.
Neither side saw a reason to delay the inevitable. Atkinson's work was well respected around the league and this would give him more time to assess potential head-coaching openings.
His tenure with the Nets marked a turning point for the organization. A team was built from scratch and a fanbase accustomed to failure and embarrassment was captivated.
It’s unfortunate Atkinson will not get the opportunity to finish what he started. However, the NBA is a players league and Marks understood what was coming when he signed Durant and Irving. To compete for a championship in this day in age you need multiple stars and you need to keep those stars happy.
Now the Brooklyn Nets turn to a new chapter, the most important and exciting in franchise history.
While Atkinson will not be a part of it, his contributions to changing the perception of Brooklyn basketball should be remembered as an important part of Nets history.