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The Nets will regret firing Kenny Atkinson

The Nets didn’t fire Kenny Atkinson for basketball reasons

Kenny Atkinson yells for the Nets.
Will the Nets really be better without Kenny Atkinson?

All things considered, the Brooklyn Nets have exceeded expectations. The team’s best available player, Kyrie Irving, only appeared in 20 games before a lingering shoulder injury led to season-ending surgery. Caris LeVert has missed 25 games and in 14 of them he came off the bench (after returning from thumb surgery). Those two plus Spencer Dinwiddie (Brooklyn’s leader in total points by nearly 400) shared the court for a grand total of 67 minutes.

Elsewhere, Brooklyn’s roster had inconvenient hindrances. At least one of Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan were always on the floor, two gravity-killing bigs in a league that increasingly requires spacing at all five positions. Wilson Chandler’s 25-game suspension compelled Taurean Prince to be Brooklyn’s only full-time power forward. There was positional overlap, mixed with too much transience.

Making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference is not the most difficult task, but such grueling circumstances — significant injuries to key contributors, under the aura of anticipated progress — typically precede a total meltdown. These Nets could easily be where the Chicago Bulls or Detroit Pistons are, caving in to an uphill battle during one of the stranger gap years in recent NBA memory.

Before the season even began, Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury placed the Nets in an uncomfortable grey area, like a trustee who can’t access their looming fortune. But Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn’s head coach of nearly four years who was let go over the weekend, did not let them beat themselves.

Atkinson has been romanticized as a cultural trend-setting figure who habitually squeezed more from Brooklyn’s sum than its individual parts seemingly could. His vigor enhanced a brand of basketball soaked in sound judgement and analytically-influenced decisions. Players who weren’t always talented enough for the roles they had to fill still saw Atkinson’s vision and executed it within a system that played the percentages on both ends.

He will be a candidate for several job openings this summer — be it in Houston, Washington, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans, Cleveland, Minnesota, Philadelphia, or somewhere else. He’s accomplished, with respect among players who made undeniable leaps under his eye. D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, Dinwiddie, and LeVert are just a few who benefited from Atkinson’s leadership. No coach will please every player, but there’s sweat equity in his style most respond to. On Saturday, the Nets robbed us from ever knowing how it would’ve worked with superstars who, before the season began, were vocally supportive of the culture and system Atkinson helped instill.

“He’s gotten us to this place right now,” Brooklyn’s general manager Sean Marks said during a press conference on Saturday afternoon. “With mutual discussions between the two of us, we both decided it’s time that we should move on.”

The Nets have suffered bad losses since the All-Star break, including a 141-118 blowout in Atlanta and a 118-79 defeat at home against Memphis. But to maintain that Atkinson wasn’t the right voice for Brooklyn’s locker room (as Marks has) does not justify letting him go when you consider who is actually in said locker room, and how many of them will still be around when the Nets are good enough to contend for a championship.

If the disgruntled figures were Durant and/or Irving, though, that’s a different story. Those two, Marks, and, most importantly, new owner Joe Tsai, are the four most influential opinions driving this franchise forward right now, and obviously none of them strongly felt like Atkinson was the right man for the job.

Coaching is complicated, but from most of what we saw about Brooklyn’s product, Atkinson was hardly the problem. On the court, Brooklyn took good shots and forced bad ones. On the day Atkinson was fired, they had the eighth-best defense in the league despite never having a single plus wing defender on the roster. (Iman Shumpert’s cup of coffee was the closest facsimile of this critical type of player.)

On Saturday, I asked Marks if Brooklyn’s playing style and on-court aesthetic had any impact on the decision to part ways with Atkinson. “No. I think the way they’re playing, we’re very supportive of the system that Kenny and his coaching staff have put out there. It’s about how they were implementing that system, you know, were the right pieces in the right places. I mean, that takes all of us there, so that didn’t factor in.”

Taken at face value, this passes the smell test. The Nets don’t post up. They don’t take mid-range jumpers. Their offense is third in location effective field goal percentage and their defense is second. This doesn’t mean their approach to basketball is the only one worth pursuing, or even the smartest way to accentuate Irving and, eventually, Durant’s skill sets, but what those numbers do say is Brooklyn was sensible and organized with Atkinson at the helm.

There were issues with the rotation, and Atkinson struggled to find balance among his best players, being that their strengths overlapped so harshly on the offensive end. On one hand, staggering Dinwiddie and LeVert kept one offensive creator on the floor at all times. On the other, there must also be some forward-thinking incentives at play, and an urgency to cultivate as much on-court familiarity as possible before Irving and Durant join them next season.

Atkinson is of the player development mold, which puts other areas of coaching under a microscope. During last year’s playoffs he didn’t entirely acquit himself as a tactical magician, but adapted to an environment where match-ups dictate results. He swerved towards iso-ball — the only playoff team that isolated at a higher frequency was Houston — and unleashed his guards on a Philadelphia 76ers defense that couldn’t contain all of them. (It was a strategy which forced JJ Redick to the bench for longer stretches than Brett Brown would’ve liked.)

Brooklyn’s crunch-time offense was generally fine under Atkinson, but there were hiccups here and there over the past couple seasons. In late December the Nets lost to the Karl-Anthony Towns-less Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime. It was just one game jumbled into the regular-season grind, but I can’t help but remember the last few minutes of regulation, when Brooklyn kept running the same stack pick-and-roll action down the stretch, even after it became clear the Timberwolves knew what was going to happen.

A few seconds after Ryan Saunders lets his defense know what’s about to happen, Atkinson jumps out of his seat and gives the exact same hand signal when his players screw up the execution:

One player later they ran the exact same thing. Again, it was off-beat. Again, they scored zero points.

This doesn’t look good, but one could argue that Atkinson was a victim of the talent (or lack thereof) Brooklyn had on the floor. That same action with Durant and Irving has a different result, whether the defense knows what’s coming or not.

Long before those two hyper-accelerated Brooklyn’s timeline, rumors about Atkinson’s job being in jeopardy started to percolate. Last December, when the Nets won two out of 14 games, including eight losses in a row, veterans in that locker room could sense a change on the horizon. They were 8-18 when they snapped their losing streak with an overtime win over the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. The Nets saved their season by winning nine of their next 10 games. It was the type of turnaround players who don’t believe in their head coach never make (including a three-point win in Philadelphia against the healthy Sixers).

Whether this year’s roster was sick of Atkinson or not, a firing of this magnitude necessitates a look back at what led the Nets to where they are. The decision to sign Durant, Irving, and DeAndre Jordan is one just about every general manager would make if in the same spot Brooklyn was last year. It’s a no-brainer, in almost every sense. But it’s worth wondering how things would’ve shaken out under less stressful, more patient circumstances.

The NBA is all about taking advantage of opportunity when it’s presented by fortuitous timing. The Nets had enough cap space to sign two stars with championship experience who were ready to win right now.

The alternative would’ve likely been to re-sign Russell, keep Dinwiddie, and ink Levert to an extension. Develop continuity with that core, hope Allen develops three-point range and becomes a legitimate franchise center, and stay as financially lean as possible without falling off their upward trajectory to attract free agents in 2021.

Again, no general manager would prefer Door B if Kevin Durant is walking through Door A, but that parallel universe is a fascinating one to consider, especially if the next couple years end in disappointment and Marks is the one looking for a new job.

What comes next is anybody’s guess. During his press conference, Marks sidestepped a couple questions about what type of coach the team will pursue this summer. Brooklyn’s opening is the most high risk, high reward opening in quite some time. And the question now becomes who can pick up where Atkinson left off and lead a team that hasn’t won two straight playoff series in 17 years to the NBA Finals?

Any serious candidate must command immediate respect from Irving and Durant and be familiar with world-class pressure. Is that Ty Lue or Jason Kidd? Mike D’Antoni or Brown (assuming Houston and Philly let them go)? Is it a Van Gundy brother or Mark Jackson? Is it Mike Krzyzewski, who recruited Irving to Duke and coached Durant on Team USA? This last option sounds impractical, but given Marks’ ties to the San Antonio Spurs and the downward trend the organization appears to be on … what about Gregg Popovich?

It’s probably too dramatic to describe Brooklyn’s situation as “a mess,” given that Durant is theoretically talented enough by himself to overcome just about any level of organizational dysfunction. But to achieve their goals the Nets can’t afford to be dysfunctional. As if there wasn’t already enough pressure, whoever they hire as their next head coach will walk in with sky-high expectations despite the absence of any runway to forge chemistry or build culture.

The decision to march ahead without Atkinson at the helm speaks to deeper, unknown issues that have little to actually do with the game of basketball and could not be resolved. We always knew the Nets would look very different next year. It’s a shame we’ll never get to see what that could’ve been with the same coach who helped get them where they are.