The Nets say they “mutually parted ways” with Kenny Atkinson. Reality says the players got him fired, by ineffectiveness or insurrection.
The body of work suggests Atkinson deserved better.
With Brooklyn sitting seventh in the East and 20 games left, it was a shocking move to can Atkinson on Saturday morning and name Jacque Vaughn interim coach. Atkinson and GM Sean Marks in 2016 inherited an NBA-worst mess bereft of draft picks, and were on the brink of a second straight playoff berth.
“I am extremely grateful to Kenny Atkinson for what he’s done for our franchise over the years,” Nets owner Joe Tsai tweeted. “If we did not have him, we would not be where we are with promising young guys still improving. All the best Kenny.”
But Atkinson didn’t get the players’ best. Having stars on the roster put a target on his back. And according to sources, some players put the knife in, though Marks contested otherwise.
“This didn’t involve the players. This was a matter where it was a discussion between Kenny and myself. We brought in ownership when we needed to and we arose at this decision,” said Marks, who fired Atkinson despite having Kyrie Irving for just 20 games and Kevin Durant for zero.
“I would’ve loved to see him coach those guys, there’s no question. But the situation and the circumstances we’re in is we’re trying to take this program from where we are now to another level, and we’ve both agreed along with ownership that a change is necessary to do that.”
Ultimately, Tsai signs the checks, and Marks makes the transactions. But sources said this is more player-driven than results-driven.
“This was a decision that wasn’t even about Kevin, Kyrie, Caris [LeVert], Joe [Harris], Spencer [Dinwiddie], Jarrett Allen,” Marks insisted. “This was a decision that Kenny, myself and ownership came up with.”
Durant — who had a conversation with Marks before Friday’s win — had said in September that he picked the Nets partly because he wanted to play for Atkinson. Now that won’t happen.
Stars have long been able to puppeteer coaching changes. Irving is the other star on the roster, leading to the perception that he engineered Atkinson’s ouster, or at least was one tuning out Atkinson’s voice.
“We had a lot of new guys this year, so you never really know how that goes,” LeVert said.
While Marks denied canvassing player opinion, in the NBA it would be malfeasance not to consult a star before making a coaching move.
“I absolutely [had] no ‘Fire Kenny’ conversations with Sean, so I don’t know, not a part of that,” Dinwiddie said. “It’s not like I called Joe [Tsai] on the phone and was like, ‘Hey, you making any moves?’ I like to think we’re cool, but not that cool.”
Dinwiddie did say the addition of Durant and Irving may have created unrealistic expectations. And Harris admitted coaching developmental players is different than managing stars.
“Dealing with a young, up-and-coming team is much different than coaching superstar players,” Harris said. “It’s a much different dynamic.”
Atkinson — 118-190 in three-plus years — is likely to be in demand with rebuilding teams, possibly the Knicks, where he once was an assistant. He’d become New York’s longest-tenured coach in December, but even then he ominously sounded like he understood his coaching mortality.
“It shows coaching is a tough business,” Atkinson said at the time. “I don’t know if it makes me proud or sad for the other guys. I know this is a tough business, tough to survive in, especially in New York.”
He knows it even better now.
Vaughn, Atkinson’s successor, made it a point to speak with Irving and asked his players what they’d like to see changed.
“It’s today’s game, and being able to adjust to that, getting the most out of talent that’s on your roster, but also listening and hearing the voices of the No. 1, 2, 3, 4 guys on your roster,” Vaughn said. “It’s crucial, and having that relationship is a must in today’s game.
“I don’t want to speak for those guys [regarding pushback], but what I will say is that in today’s game you have to be able to continually reinforce your philosophy and continue to communicate with guys.”
Vaughn — or whomever succeeds him next season as the permanent coach — had better communicate with the right ones, or he will share Atkinson’s fate.
“I wish I could say it’s unbelievable, but you can’t,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, Atkinson’s former boss with the Knicks. “Because it is believable, which is sad. The only thing he’s done there in the last two years, for sure, is overachieve.
“I don’t know what else he could have done. You don’t know the whole story, but our profession is just tough. He’s a really, really good coach. I really feel sorry for him and his family.”