Knicks’ next head coach might have just fallen into their laps

Kenny Atkinson
Kenny Atkinson. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

One of Leon Rose’s first acts as Knicks president is to send a gift basket or a thank you card across town to Brooklyn.

GM Sean Marks and Nets management made the puzzling decision on Saturday to part ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson — an action that is mired in uncertainty and murkiness.

Reports have flown around in recent days speculating why Atkinson is out of a job. Some said it was because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant didn’t want him. Others claimed that Atkinson didn’t want any part in coaching the two superstars.

Confusing, to say the least, but it suddenly presents the Knicks with a clear path at bringing in a head coach that could help turn around the culture at Madison Square Garden.

The Huntington, NY native is familiar with the organization having served as an assistant from 2008-12 before parlaying an assistant role with the Atlanta Hawks into the head-coaching job with the Nets.

Particularly over those last eight years with the Hawks and Nets, he has built a reputation that would check off every box that the Knicks currently need.

Atkinson certainly has the experience of taking bad teams and turning them around.

He took over for a Nets team in 2016 that was going nowhere and had nothing to suggest that the immediate future would get better.

Brooklyn was reeling from that fateful trade with the Boston Celtics for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry that saw them give up five players and, more importantly, first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

The move failed to put the Nets on the map and without the resources to draft viable replacements after the three former Celtics were gone within two years.

Under Lionel Hollins, the Nets won 21 games in 2015-16 and with no assets to help right the ship, Atkinson won just 20 the following season in his first year in charge.

Within two years, Atkinson had the Nets in the playoffs thanks to some keen moves by Marks and the head coach’s ability to develop the once-deemed mediocre talent at his disposal.

Atkinson took D’Angelo Russell — the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 draft who was written off by the Los Angeles Lakers after just two seasons and traded to Brooklyn for Brook Lopez — and made him an All-Star.

Russell averaged 21.1 points and seven assists per game last season, both career-highs at the time. He was later shipped to the Golden State Warriors as a part of the signing of Kevin Durant over the summer.

Atkinson took Spencer Dinwiddie, who was considered nothing more than a role-playing guard off the bench and helped him become a borderline star.

After averaging just 6.0 points per game in his first three NBA seasons, Dinwiddie is posting 16.3 points per game over his past two-plus years. That includes a career-best 20.3 points per game this season during the absences of Irving.

Joe Harris went from a nobody in Cleveland to a three-point-firing threat in Brooklyn.

Under Atkinson, the guard shot 43.6% from three-point range, featuring a league-leading rate of 47.4% last season.

This is the kind of coach that the Knicks are starving for.

While they continuously rely (and whiff) on the idea of bringing in star players via free agency, the Knicks have a roster filled to the brim with young players, especially in the backcourt.

Dennis Smith Jr. has yet to live up to expectations and fallen out of favor with David Fizdale and interim head coach Mike Miller after a promising rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks and a half-season in New York last year.

Frank Ntilikina’s offensive game has yet to see noticeable improvements to go along with his solid defensive capabilities.

RJ Barrett is slated to be the franchise star of the future and is posting just over 14 points per game in his rookie season, but his skillset needs to be properly utilized as does his load management.

Add in other key youngsters like Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson and the Knicks have a core to build around. They just need the right man to lead them.

Atkinson’s track record has proven he can be just that.