Kenny Atkinson: the Nets Coach Of the Past, Present, and Future

It’s a new challenge.”

Those were the words of Kenny Atkinson, when used to describe the impending 2019-2020 season for the Brooklyn Nets.

Atkinson is right. The Nets, by acquiring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, shifted rapidly from rebuilding mode into win now mode. With that comes a new challenge for Atkinson – proving that he is the coach best suited to guide the Nets to a NBA championship.

Atkinson, to date, has done an excellent job as Nets coach. He aced the Nets rebuilding phase.

There are a few things a team should desire from a coach during a rebuild.

First, instill a modern vision for how the team will play offense and defense when it is ready to contend, to lay a foundation for success. Second, achieve buy in and competitive spirit from your players, despite losing. Third, successfully develop young talent.

Atkinson was excellent during the Nets rebuild, and checked each box.

The modern vision? Atkinson successfully installed a modern system immediately, designed to generate as many layups and threes as possible, while surrendering as few of these shots as possible on defense. Even though the Nets went 48-116 over Atkinson’s first two seasons (understandable given the talent level), you saw a clear intent for how the Nets wanted to play, in the present and more importantly the future.

The Nets were top five across both seasons in percent of shots attempted from three, while their opponents were bottom nine in that category. Brook Lopez took 387 threes after taking 31 in his first 8 seasons. Their power forwards, players including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker, and Quincy Acy, did not waste away in the midrange or posting up, but were put in the Draymond Green or Durant role – the floor spacer who can run a fast break and initiate offense. They used Jarrett Allen like a modern rim runner.

As a result, even though the Nets were losing, they ran a smart, modern offense, a la teams like the Warriors and Celtics – they simply lacked the talent to attain similar results. Exposure to playing that style will help the Nets holdover young players, like Caris LeVert, Allen, and Joe Harris, as they step into the future – and run a modern offense WITH the requisite talent to win.

Keeping morale and competitiveness up? Check. Despite the losing, the Nets played hard almost every night during their rebuild. It was a common refrain from opponents to hear that the Nets played the right way and competed hard, and that as a result they were a tough out.

Atkinson attained effort because players sense his dedication. He is known for executing drills with his players so that they know he invests sweat equity with them. He defends his players publicly. Players know he has their best interests at heart. At Media Day in 2019, Durant and multiple players referenced Atkinson as a reason they signed with the Nets.

Lastly, develop players? Check. It is well chronicled that D’Angelo Russell, LeVert, Allen, Harris, and Rodions Kurucs took strides under Atkinson, and that even veterans like Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll revived their careers under him.

Part of that development came from Atkinson’s modern system. Despite many public calls for not letting bad shooters take threes and the Like, Atkinson understood that empowering players to explore skills they struggle with bolsters development. You never know what a player can do if you do not try when they are young. Not every player grew under Atkinson, but he succeeded much more than he failed.

So What About the Future?

Atkinson’s work during the Nets rebuild earned him a contract extension, to see his efforts through. However, as the Nets shift into a win now phase, Atkinson, to succeed in that phase, will need to display that he has a different set of attributes.

The bet here? That Atkinson passes the coming tests with flying colors.

With that said, the tests are coming, and constitute new territory for Atkinson as a head coach. On a simplistic level, how well Atkinson fares will determine whether he is the Nets Doug Collins or Mark Jackson (the guy who gets you to a point, but is let go to find “the guy”), or the Nets Phil Jackson or Steve Kerr (“the guy”).

The tests that Atkinson must pass to be “the guy”?

First, that he can effectively manage the egos of superstars. Second, that despite his accurate beliefs concerning analytics, that he is willing to adapt and deviate from them as necessary. Third, that deep in the playoffs, he is able to make sound adjustments on the fly. And fourth, that despite a shift in priorities to veterans, that he can continue to develop young players.

Encouraging signals as to each test are abound, but only time will tell how Atkinson fares.

Managing superstar egos will be critical to the next phase of Atkinson’s tenure. Irving will dominate the ball until Durant’s return, but Durant’s return will cut into his touches. At times, one of Durant or Irving will get less credit for the Nets’ wins than is commensurate with their superstardom. At times, Atkinson will call plays at the end of the game. Durant and Irving, as is typical for superstars, will disagree. They will want to break those plays to call their own number, or simply will call their own number.

None of this is bad. Superstars are tough to manage, no matter who or where. It is incumbent on the coach to simultaneously enforce that the coach runs the show, while simultaneously getting along with the superstar and providing some freedom.

The best coaches can do this at playoff time. Ty Lue famously yelled at LeBron at halftime of game 7 of the 2016 Finals. The relationship was strong enough that Lue empowered LeBron to be his best, but still had control. – Eric Spoelstra had a similar relationship with LeBron, evolving, per Pat Riley, from LeBron once wanting him fired, to Spoelstra successfully helping LeBron, Wade, and Bosh thrive and work together despite sacrifices in their touches. Steve Kerr is another example. Despite Durant’s reported tension with Kerr, and Durant’s distance from teammates, Kerr managed tough personalities to perfection.

I believe Atkinson is up to the challenge. The Durant Irving friendship will help. But when the honeymoon period wears off, Atkinson will be tested.

The second test? Whether Atkinson, despite his correct love for analytics, will be adaptable when the eye test requires deviation. Yes, an offense (and defense) must be built around sound analytic principles as a foundation. But when the playoffs come, good defenses know that the offense wants layups and threes, and those defenses have days to gameplan to limit shots in those areas. That marginalizes the impact of analytics, and makes adaptability from a coach more valuable.

Stated differently? Sometimes the best offense for the Nets now, despite an emphasis on analytics, will be for Durant and Kyrie to execute moves, and counters, to either get theirs in the midrange or find a teammate – analytics be damned. It will be on Atkinson to assess when those times arise. This is where Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey have failed in Houston. The Rockets, despite defenses planning for their analytics based attack, persistently seek forced layups and threes in their devotion to the numbers. Talent gets them to May. But they never see June.

Atkinson’s work with Russell last year was an excellent sign that he is adaptable, in the way the Rockets are not. Despite Atkinson’s lack of love for midrange jumpers, he empowered Russell to shoot from that zone last season because, in a planned jump year, that was best for Russell.

Atkinson was not abandoning analytics as a foundation. Rather, he was displaying his understanding that sometimes, you must adapt to your roster, and the circumstances you face, to be successful.

This brings us to the third test – Atkinson must prove that he is capable of making sound adjustments on the fly, deep in the playoffs. During the rebuild, this was not expected – installing a foundation was more important, and he lacked the talent to make many adjustments anyway. Now, however, Atkinson must show that during a playoff series, he can be counted on to make critical adjustments to advance.

In 2015, for example, Kerr turned a then 2-1 Grizzlies series by shifting his defense to stop guarding Tony Allen, and use his cover as a free safety.

Atkinson must show that he can make such adjustments at money time. His work in the past, randomly instituting zones or box and one defenses, and empowering Russell in the midrange, are strong initial signs.

And finally, Atkinson must continue his work developing players. Sure, in win now mode, there is a shift away from player development and towards maximizing wins. However, development still matters to contenders. The Spurs extended their window because they never stopped developing talent around Duncan Parker and Ginobili. The Raptors do not win the 2019 championship if they do not help Pascal Siakam, picked 27 in 2016, develop into a force.

Atkinson will look to find his Siakam. It is why the roster is stacked with young players like Musa, Pinson, Ellenson, and Claxton. Not all of them will pan out – but you hope gems are found here and there.

Kenny Atkinson aced the Nets rebuild. He earned the right to prove that he can become one of the NBA’s elite playoff coaches.

And I believe he will do just that, although time will tell.

Time to grab the popcorn and watch it all unfold.

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