In a surprise move, the Brooklyn Nets fired Kenny Atkinson on Saturday morning. Reports as to why vary, with reasons ranging from a mutual agreement between the parties, to Atkinson being pushed out by his own players, or ownership.
At the end of the day, as much as I love to discuss “how the sausage was made,” this firing will ultimately be judged on the results. Primarily for that reason, I support Sean Marks in making this decision.
The Nets fanbase appears upset with this move, and that is understandable. As fans, we fall in love with our heroes. Naturally, we fall furthest in love with those players and coaches who grow with our organization. Players like D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen grew from boys into men with the Nets. Atkinson grew right along with them, from a rookie coach psyched about coaching in New York where he grew up, into a fourth year coach who embraced Brooklyn whole hog. That growth forges a deeper connection for fans, than the connection with players like Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. They are “hired guns,” “ringers,” if you will. So, when Atkinson is fired, and the circumstances of said firing are somewhat mysterious (reports as to why conflict), that will lead to some hurt feelings in the fanbase.
With all of this said, it is a general manager’s job to make the best decisions for the organization short and/or long term — even if those decisions are difficult, and even if those decisions are not desired by the fanbase. Because, when push comes to shove, the goal is to compete for championships, and the thing fans want, more than a relationship with any player or coach, is to compete for championships.
Atkinson had a 118-190 record as Nets coach. If you eliminate his first two seasons, and focus on the two seasons he coached during which the Nets chased the playoffs, Atkinson had a 70-74 record. Atkinson showed he has the ability to install a foundation, develop young players, and keep spirits up during a rebuild. However, Atkinson never showed that he has the ability to manage the egos of superstars, make adjustments to turn momentum in a playoff series, or make strong in game adjustments.
In short, Atkinson proved he has the qualities you need during a rebuild, to take you from the floor to halfway up Mount Everest. But never proved he had the ability to take you from halfway up Mount Everest to over the mountain.
Now, it is true that with injuries and other circumstances, Atkinson did not have much of an opportunity to display those skills. But Marks watches Atkinson coach in games and practices, every day. He saw how Atkinson and Kyrie interacted, when Kyrie was healthy. If Marks believed, based on his observations, that Atkinson was not equipped to manage Kyrie’s (and KD’s) ego, to juggle the egos in a group of veterans, or to make the types of adjustments needed to win deep in the playoffs, then Marks needed to make this move in the best interests of the Nets.
Yes, the decision is controversial. But here is the thing with controversial decisions: if they work, everyone forgets they were ever unhappy. Nets fans did not want to deal Thaddeus Young for a non lotto first round pick, and use it to draft some kid out of Michigan with an injury history who was mocked in the second round on most big boards. Nets fans did not want to cut the feel good Yogi Ferrell for a point guard the Pistons cut who had an injury history. Nets fans did not want to replace Russell with Irving (at a time when it was believed KD was a pipe dream).
You do not hear as much complaining about those decisions now, as you did when they were made, for obvious reasons.
And you will not hear complaining about firing Atkinson at this time next year, if Marks hires the right coach and the Nets are a championship contender.
Therein lies the key here: if the Nets find a coach who can climb Mount Everest, they earn the last laugh. We forget that the Warriors were bashed for firing Mark Jackson. Their apparent reason — that people did not like Jackson the person — was suspect. The Warriors were not alone in that. The Raptors were torched for firing Dwane Casey after a 59 win season.
It does not take brain surgery to know why the Warriors and Raptors are no longer criticized for those two firings.
Marks’ job, ultimately, is to do what is best for the Nets, rather than listen to what the public wants him to do. If Marks stuck with Atkinson and he proved, publicly, not to be equipped to coach a contender, the criticism next year would be, “Marks should have fired Atkinson and hired a better coach. Now the Nets need a coach one year before Durant and Irving hit free agency.”
If the Nets win big next season, something tells me the public will not say, “I refuse to enjoy this, or to give the Nets credit, because they fired Atkinson.”
Marks has always been a forward thinker with the Nets, and has applied the same rules to all Nets players (and now coaches). While you are with the Nets, we do everything we can to make you comfortable, facilitate your success, and grow your game (or your coaching acumen). But, once that moment in time comes where we believe the Nets are better off replacing you, we will replace you, regardless of what you have accomplished and regardless of your connection with the fanbase.
Marks assessed that Atkinson, as of March 7, 2020, was no longer the coach best equipped to lead the Nets. He WAS the best coach for their rebuilding phase. But Marks believes that, for their title contention phase, a different voice, a different person, will be better for the Nets. As a general manager who acquired Durant and Irving, and brought the Nets from rock bottom to this point, Marks has earned the right to make that call.
And if he finds a better win now coach than Kenny Atkinson, the media and public will see that next year.