A Brooklyn Nets season that once began with such promise has descended into the throes of anarchy.
Saturday morning saw general manager Sean Marks drop the shocking news that the Nets and head coach Kenny Atkinson “mutually agreed to part ways,” prematurely ending the 52-year-old’s three-plus-year run at the helm.
Atkinson is responsible for leading the Nets out of the NBA’s basement after the franchise was gutted of all vital assets following that fateful 2013 trade with the Boston Celtics for Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, and Kevin Garnett.
After two difficult seasons that netted a combined 48 wins, Atkinson led the Nets to 42 wins and an unlikely playoff appearance — an effort worthy of Coach-of-the-Year consideration.
But the Nets’ enormous offseason is what appears to have done Atkinson in.
They came away with two of the largest prizes of the NBA’s free-agency period, inking Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to four-year deals worth over $300 million combined.
Durant won’t play in a single game this season as he continues to recover from a ruptured Achilles suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals with the Golden State Warriors. Irving nearly followed suit as he lasted just 20 games in his first year in Brooklyn, which was headlined by a shoulder injury that resulted in season-ending surgery last week.
While their influence on the court was barely felt this year, it certainly seems as though they played a big part in Atkinson’s departure.
Nets Daily’s Anthony Puccio reported that there were “some players” who wanted Atkinson out — prompting many to start looking at Irving, who has played under six-different head coaches during his first nine seasons in the league. It is believed that Atkinson quickly fell out of favor with Irving, too.
Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports, though, reported late Saturday night that Atkinson “wasn’t keen on coaching” Durant and Irving next season and that he “pushed for the parting just as much, if not more than Brooklyn.”
While Atkinson and the Nets underperformed this season, going 28-34 before the move, there was little denying that the former head coach instilled a blue-collar, hardworking mentality dating back to last season that won the locker room — and the NBA — over.
It seems as though Atkinson didn’t think Durant and Irving would portray that brand of basketball, leading to an exit that might create plenty of drama within Brooklyn’s ranks.
Jacque Vaughn will see out the rest of the season as the Nets’ interim head coach, but Brooklyn’s search for a new bench boss could pit the organization’s stars against each other.
Just days before Atkinson’s departure, Durant’s business partner, Rich Kleiman, sang the praises of St. John’s product and former Knicks point guard Mark Jackson.
“Mark Jackson is, to me, just one of those unique individuals that knows how to lead people, that knows how to inspire people,” Kleiman told SNY. “He’s got a personality that demands a certain level of attention. And I think it’s unfair that he hasn’t gotten a shot in the league, but I’m confident that he will.
Naturally, his name was the first to pop up as a possible option to take over the Nets.
Jackson hasn’t coached in the NBA since 2013-14 after three seasons with the Warriors. Under his watch, Golden State assembled the core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green that later developed into a pseudo-dynasty under Steve Kerr.
Irving, though, might be looking elsewhere — which only suggests the Nets’ front office has little power in deciding on who the next head coach will be. A source told Goodwill that the point guard “prefers” Tyronn Lue to take over in Brooklyn.
The two worked together for parts of two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, including the second half of the 2015-16 season that resulted in the franchise’s first and only NBA title after Lue took over for David Blatt.
Lue is currently working as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers after he was fired from his job in Cleveland six games into last season.
The looming decision that will be made by Marks and Brooklyn’s upper management will be a vital one for far more than just contending for an Eastern Conference title next season.
The Nets have to keep two superstars and their egos content for the next three seasons. Picking a head coach that one of them dislikes won’t do much for the team’s chemistry.