NEW YORK -- The Brooklyn Nets beat the San Antonio Spurs 139-120 at Barclays Center on Friday. The next morning, the Nets parted ways with coach Kenny Atkinson. Assistant coach Jacque Vaughn will take over on an interim basis.
The win against San Antonio improved their record to 28-34, which is good enough for seventh in the shallow Eastern Conference. This typically wouldn't constitute a season worth celebrating, but, considering the circumstances, it did not seem like it would be cause for a coaching change, either. Kevin Durant has played zero games for Brooklyn, and Kyrie Irving has played 20; the two superstars signed last summer account for approximately $69 million in salary, 58 percent of the team's total.
If the New York Knicks' firing of David Fizdale in December was a 1 on the surprising-exit scale, then this was around a 9. Atkinson signed a contract extension before the playoffs last April, and he was instrumental in getting the Nets to a place where they could recruit Durant and Irving, using their stability as a selling point. Now he is out, and it is general manager Sean Marks' job to explain why.
During his 22-minute press conference on Saturday, though, Marks spent much of his time talking about what didn't contribute to the decision, which he repeatedly said was made collaboratively by Atkinson, himself and ownership. According to Marks:
- It wasn't because the players wanted Atkinson out.
- It wasn't because of Durant and Irving.
- It wasn't because of any clashes in the locker room.
- It wasn't because of Atkinson's on-court schemes
- It wasn't because of a specific game or event.
- It wasn't because of any animosity between Atkinson and Marks.
To hear Marks tell it, parting ways with Atkinson was something of an inevitability. "This was purely amicable and mutually agreed upon," he said. And while it seemed like it came out of nowhere, Marks was not surprised. He and Atkinson had a series of frank, candid conversations that culminated in the "brutally honest" coach saying, "My voice is not what it once was here."
According to Marks, all parties were at peace with the decision, Atkinson included. It is difficult to reconcile this with Atkinson's public statements throughout the season, in which he has been generally optimistic and excited about the direction of the team. What changed?
"It's kind of unfair for me to try and think about what was going through Kenny's mind and so forth," Marks said, "but I can attest to the conversations that we had and the swings in the season, the roller coaster, the ups and downs and so forth, they take its toll on anybody."
If this was as simple as Atkinson deciding it was time to go, then management will need to find a coach who can build on the foundation he established. The Nets rank eighth in the league on defense, and have steadily improved on that end each season since his 2016 hiring. They have done this without elite defensive personnel, but with a commitment to his scheme, which has consistently kept teams out of the paint and limited 3-point attempts.
If the higher-ups weren't happy with the team's performance in this injury-plagued season, it is possible that the root of the frustration is Brooklyn's offense, which ranks 23rd in the league. Maybe there was consternation over its 8-12 record in the games Irving played, and maybe there was a sense that it would be easier to start anew than to integrate Durant into the system.
The system did wonders, though, for Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, the three players the Nets selected to speak to reporters on Saturday. They separately expressed their disappointment that the coach who helped them develop will no longer be part of the organization. They found out when they got a text from Marks in the morning.
"You're definitely shocked, surprised," Harris said. "I think for the guys that have been here for the last few years with him, you're upset. You learned a lot. But there's also, it's one of those things where you're just grateful for the time, the opportunity we had with him. We all loved playing for Kenny, grew a lot as players and as people."
Harris said that much of his success as a player can be attributed to Atkinson helping him find his niche. "Kenny's my guy," said Dinwiddie, who has already texted Atkinson to thank him for giving him the opportunity he wanted and the freedom to play through mistakes.
"Anybody that knows me knows me and Kenny were extremely close," LeVert said. "He was huge for my development on and off the court. From Day 1, we were together. Obviously it hurts, but it's part of the business. It's part of the business that sucks, but it is what it is."
In the 305 minutes Irving and Dinwiddie played together, Brooklyn scored 117 points per 100 possessions and had a plus-7 net rating. Perhaps Atkinson is not the right coach for a Durant-and-Irving-led team. Perhaps, as great as he was for Phase 1 of the Nets' rebuilding plan, they needed a different voice to take the next step. But he never got a chance to prove otherwise.