The Brooklyn Nets fired coach Kenny Atkinson on Saturday morning. You're hearing the normal euphemisms, that they "parted ways" and even that the decision was "mutual" between Atkinson and the organization, particularly general manager Sean Marks. Frame it how you want. They fired him. And Kyrie Irving almost certainly had something to do with it.
To be clear, this is not a suggestion that Irving waltzed into someone's office and demanded that Atkinson be removed, or even that he was alone in his preference for a new coach. Anyone who thinks an NBA team, these days, would up and fire a coach in the absence of superstar sign-off is mistaken, and Irving is not Brooklyn's only superstar.
At the very least, Kevin Durant wasn't interested in fighting for Atkinson, either. Remember, Atkinson was at the heart of such a significant organizational revamp that it attracted Durant and Irving in the first place. In fact, shortly after Durant signed with the Nets, per SNY's Ian Begley, he said the following: "I was doing a lot of YouTube research on Kenny Atkinson. I really liked his approach to his craft as a coach. That's what drew me in pretty quickly." Suffice it to say, if Durant still felt that way, Atkinson would still be the coach.
That said, at least so far, Irving's connection to Atkinson's dismissal has been stronger. Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports reported Clippers, to be Brooklyn's next coach.and that he prefers Tyronn Lue, who coached Irving in Cleveland and is currently an assistant with the
Irving has played 20 games this season. The Nets are 8-12 in those games. This narrative that Irving's superstar reputation has progressed beyond his actual production, and ultimate value, is not new. This is just another incident that continues to beg the questios: Is he worth the drama?
Irving reportedly forced his way out of Cleveland because he didn't want to play in LeBron James' shadow anymore. He wanted to be the man. The Celtics gave him that opportunity, and his tenure just so happened to align with the deterioration of a locker room and the stalling of a franchise once on the fast track to contention. Nobody wants to specifically point the finger at Irving, but just look at this season's Celtics, how together they are, the positive vibes around the team, the looseness. Compare it to last year and do the math.
Likewise, Brooklyn was on the rise last season, renowned for the team's culture. Atkinson was everyone's favorite next-great coach. Now he's gone. The Nets, though decimated by injuries, are under .500 and projected by SportsLine to finish with 36 wins; this after winning 42 games a year ago.
Of course Irving has been injured most of the season (again, they weren't exactly winning when he was playing), but in the end, here we are, with Irving just so happening to have signed with a team that has taken a sudden turn into at least the early stages of instability.
Goodwill also reported, citing multiple sources, that Atkinson was as anxious to get away from coaching Irving and Durant as they were to get away from playing for him. Think about that. This is a guy who built this Nets team from nothing, who turned Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert and Joe Harris into multi-million-dollar assets. And now, after landing two stars everyone was chasing this summer, just as the fruits of his labor are about to pay off with a championship-level team next season, he suddenly wants no part of coaching that team? What coach hits the free agent lottery and doesn't want to cash the ticket?
Seriously, how tough is Kyrie to deal with?
Irving's tradeoff has always been his talent, which will forever tantalize teams. Yes, he won a championship. Yes, he hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history. LeBron was with him for both. There is, to date, no evidence that Irving represents anything close to superstar value on a team without the cover of an actual superstar.
Brooklyn is banking on Durant being that cover, and indeed there is plenty of evidence that Irving can be a killer No. 2. The Nets better hope that continues to be the case, because relying on the past when you're playing for the future is dicey. This isn't 2016, and frankly, Durant isn't LeBron. He has his own things to prove as the clear-cut lead guy. Both of them have big injury concerns. Now they've decided they want a new coach before they played a single game together for the old one.
It could all be fine. Certain coaches are better for certain teams on certain timelines. Mark Jackson was the right guy to get the Warriors near the hump, but not to get over it. That was Steve Kerr's job. The Nets are now looking for their Steve Kerr as they try to move into title contention next season. Whomever it ends up being, Irving will surely have to sign off. He gets what he wants. He's a superstar, after all. At least that's what everyone keeps saying.