Something’s off with the Brooklyn Nets and Kenny Atkinson parting ways

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images /

The Brooklyn Nets are parting ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson in a “mutual decision,” but something feels very off here.

In a stunning move, the Brooklyn Nets agreed to mutually part ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Saturday morning.

According to Woj, the two sides believed that a coaching change was inevitable, and after conversations between Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks, they agreed there was no point in waiting anymore.

Jacque Vaughn will serve as the team’s interim head coach for the rest of the season, according to the team’s press release.

This decision is being reported as a mutual decision, but something feels amiss here.

For starters, Atkinson — like Marks — was a pillar of Brooklyn’s impressive turnaround. For a franchise that once had zero stars, zero young players with upside and was indebted all its first-round draft picks to the Boston Celtics, Atkinson was instrumental in helping develop young players like Caris LeVert, D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen, as well as guys who had not made their mark in the NBA yet like Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris.

It’s not like Atkinson was purely a player’s coach with no signs of tangible team growth either. The Nets made the playoffs last year in a 42-win season — their first winning season since 2013-14. They were quickly ousted by the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the first round, but they simply didn’t have the talent to realistically compete in that series.

Fast forward to the summer and they turned Russell into Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan. Though Jordan is hardly the player he once was, snagging all three of those big names during free agency was a definitive sign of the incredible work that Marks-Atkinson tandem had done over the last few years. The Nets had finally arrived.

In fact, Durant even named Atkinson as one of the reasons he wanted to join Brooklyn:

For years now, Atkinson has been one half of the duo representing the Nets’ impressive path back to relevance. With smart drafting, deft maneuvering on the trade market and a head coach able to implement a modern and intelligent offensive system, those two accounted for the new, growing stability of the franchise, which ultimately made the Nets more attractive to star free agents like Durant and Irving than their inner-city rivals.

The Nets were a functional organization with established leadership and promising young stars. That alone made them a massive step up from the smoldering dumpster fire that the New York Knicks and their head coaching carousel have been.

And now, one of those staples is abruptly leaving, with only a “mutual parting of ways” being to blame. This decision can’t be because of the team’s 28-34 record, since that lack of progression has more to do with injuries to Irving, Durant and LeVert than anything. It’s actually impressive where the team is at, given the circumstances.

This also can’t be because of some recent skid. Brooklyn is coming off a 19-point win against the playoff-hopeful San Antonio Spurs Friday night, and though it was preceded by a 39-point smackdown at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, that was the second night of a back-to-back.

In the first game of that back-to-back, LeVert dropped a career-high 51 points in a feel-good overtime win over the Boston Celtics — a last, fitting tribute to the kind of developmental work Atkinson and his staff could be proud of during their tenure.

No, something else has to be going on here.

The only other tidbit we have to go on is a report from the New York Daily News‘ Stefan Bondy claiming that owner Joe Tsai decided to let Atkinson go after consulting with the players. SNYtv’s Ian Begley also reported that some players felt he had lost the locker room recently. That would make a lot more sense than Atkinson and Marks mutually agreeing this move was inevitable in the middle of a playoff season, right before he even got the chance to coach Kyrie and KD together.

Bondy also makes an undeniable point about the nature of the business: If the stars really wanted him at the helm, there’s a very good chance this wouldn’t be happening.

Nobody should directly blame Irving, Durant or anyone else on the roster until we learn more. This is mostly speculation without any concrete evidence to go off of, but at the end of the day, letting go of Atkinson is a stark reminder that even the organizations claiming to have a superior culture are susceptible to these kinds of inexplicable, sometimes player-driven decisions.

For a team that prided itself on its culture and stability, the departure of a key part of the Nets’ rebuild speaks volumes about how hard it is to rebuild and contend for championships under the same leadership in the NBA. For every Doug Collins, there’s usually a Phil Jackson that’s needed to take it home.

Perhaps it would’ve become clear down the road that this star-driven roster needed more from the sidelines, but Kenny Atkinson never even got the chance to coach that team. He never got the chance to show whether he was the Mark Jackson or the Steve Kerr in this scenario. It’s unfair and unsettling, and unless we learn more about what was going on in Brooklyn, it doesn’t make much sense.

Here’s hoping the Nets nail their next head coaching hire, because the pressure is absolutely on after letting a quality and soon-to-be coveted head coach like Kenny Atkinson go.

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