After seeing his beloved Brooklyn Nets turn into the league’s cautionary tale under ex general manager Billy King, the ambitious Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov finally realized one simple truth – there are no shortcuts to greatness. By appointing Sean Marks as the team’s general manager and relieving Lionel Hollins of head coaching duties, the Nets were ready to start fresh. Though it was speculated that the club would have trouble attracting a big name coach, the Nets went on and secured the services of one of the most talented and sought-after assistant coaches in the NBA, Kenny Atkinson.
Nothing else really made sense. Given their current situation, Brooklyn needed a head coach who could both provide playing advice and serve as a mentor to a young roster that Marks wants to assemble. Kenny Atkinson has certainly got the credentials to be successful in his new job, and you can bet he’s excited about the opportunity.
Ever since his college basketball days, Atkinson was known as a hard worker. He would regularly spend his days off in the weight room, shooting the basket and doing squats for as long as he could take it. His diligence paid off in 1988, when he led the Richmond Spiders to the NCAA Championship’s Sweet Sixteen, defeating defending champions Indiana Hoosiers along the way. Though that was not quite enough to earn him a spot in the NBA – he went undrafted in 1990 – it did help him carve out a career overseas. During his fourteen years as a pro player, Atkinson played in France, Italy, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. Even today, he speaks five languages fluently – a true testament to his character.
Atkinson’s background helped him get the attention of another player-turned-coach with a European pedigree – Mike D’Antoni, the then-Knicks coach. After learning the tricks of the trade as the Director of Player Development for the Houston Rockets in 2007-08, he accepted the job of assistant coach for the Knicks, where he spent the next four years of his career. During this period, he was praised mostly for his player development skills. Under his tutelage and tireless drills, Jeremy Lin went from an obscure Ivy Leaguer to the NBA’s most thrilling story. It was Lin who said it best – without Atkinson, there might have been no Linsanity at all. With Atkinson as the assistant coach, the Knicks made the postseason twice, in 2011 and 2012.
In 2012, the Atlanta Hawks came calling, and it was time for another change of scenery. During the next four years, Atkinson continued to earn his stripes under Mike Budenholzer, one of the most respected head coaches in the league and a former longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant coach. The Hawks went on the make the playoffs in each of Atkinson’s four seasons with the club. The 2014-15 season saw the club register a franchise record-breaking 60 wins and clinch their first division title in more than twenty years. Atkinson has been given a lot of credit for these fantastic results, and Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Kent Bazemore were especially enamored with his teaching ability.
Following his first head coaching gig with the Dominican Republic national team at the FIBA America Championship, it didn’t take long for Atkinson to get a similar opportunity in the NBA. When Tony Brown stepped down as the interim head coach of the Nets, the media expected at least a month of rumors and leaks related to the identity of the new head coach. That might have happened with the prior regime; however, Sean Marks decided to go the other way and woo the Nets’ top target on the hush-hush. When you think about it, it made sense from the beginning; in addition to his other undeniable qualities such as leadership, communication skills and breadth of basketball knowledge, Atkinson is still mostly seen as an extraordinary development coach. For a Nets team trying to turn a new leaf and go all-in on young talents, Atkinson is an ideal fit. And, of course, New York is his city. He was born in nearby Northport, a historic maritime village located within the Town of Huntington on Long Island, New York.
Let’s look a bit deeper into Atkinson’s coaching philosophy. Given his stints with the Hawks 2015 Summer League team and the Dominican Republic, it’s obvious that Atkinson places much importance on spacing, player positioning and timing. While having some semblance of spacing is pretty much a given in today’s NBA, Atkinson is one of the few coaches who clearly knows how to utilize it in the most efficient way. Lateral ball movement has become his calling card, and it seems likely that he’ll continue with the same strategy in the Nets. Given that this Nets roster doesn’t have a clear identity just yet, you can expect Atkinson to try out a number of different play styles, but the Brook-Lin pick-and-roll, dribble-drive formations and constant motion should play a big part in the team’s offense.
With the matter of their head coach resolved in a satisfying way, the Nets should concentrate their efforts on getting him a roster he can work with. With their offers for Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe matched by the Heat and the Blazers, respectively, the Nets still have oodles of cap space that they need to spend before even meeting the new salary floor. While their point guard rotation seems to have been settled by signing Lin and Greivis Vasquez, pretty much every other position needs to be improved with – preferably – young talent. It remains to be seen how the Nets use all that money, but the current situation is not exactly ideal.
As it stands right now, Kenny Atkinson, Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin are the biggest reasons for new-found optimism among the Nets fans. For a hard worker with such a keen basketball mind, it’s a surprise Atkinson wasn’t offered a head coaching job long before the Nets would have had a chance to grab him. His former colleagues – D’Antoni, Budenholzer, Jeff Van Gundy – had nothing but praise for him. The road in front of Brooklyn is hard, but the right man at the right time can make all the difference in the world. It took them a while, but the Nets have found that man – now all that remains is a little patience so Atkinson can work his player development magic and surprise everyone when the season starts.
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