The Nets opted for style over substance in the beginning of their Brooklyn tenure, but the Kenny Atkinson hire represents a shift away from mortgaging the future and towards building for it.
The first few years of the Mikhail Prokhorov era of the Brooklyn Nets were filled with moves designed to make a statement. The trades for Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce made a strong statement about the desire to win now and make a splash, as did the whole Jason Kidd saga and its dramatic conclusion. In hiring Lionel Hollins to replace him, the Nets went with a proven head coach with previous experience, but also a coach who had a winning team in Memphis and less of one in Brooklyn. Hollins was never a fan of either analytics or three-point shooting, two hallmarks of what many would consider to be the modern NBA. After the season ended, the Nets did not retain interim head coach Tony Brown, and went with a relative coaching unknown in Kenny Atkinson to lead their franchise into a new era of Nets basketball.
Kenny Atkinson certainly has experience with coaching, but his resume as a head man is surprisingly thin. After a 14-year playing career throughout Europe, with stints in Knicks training camps and the Continental Basketball Association, Atkinson signed on with Paris Basket Racing as an assistant in 2004. He stayed in Paris for three years, and was hired as an assistant for the Mike D’Antoni Knicks when D’Antoni began his tenure in the 2008-2009 season. He remained with the team until D’Antoni’s departure in the 2011-2012 season, and went to the Atlanta Hawks under Mike Budenholzer, where he served as an assistant until the Nets hire. He also coached the Dominican Republic in the 2015 FIBA tournament, which to this point in his career has been his only experience as the head coach.
Atkinson’s reputation as a player development coach is likely the main reason that the Nets had such interest in hiring him. Kyle Korver was certainly a fan of Atkinson’s development prowess, and proclaimed that “I think our player development has been second to none the last four years…and Kenny leads that.” Although Atkinson doesn’t have much experience to speak of as the lead man, he has learned under two notable coaches in D’Antoni and Budenholzer. His player development record will be key for a Nets team that will be forced to develop from within given their rather bare cupboard of future draft picks.
The switch from Hollins, in addition to Atkinson studying under tutelage of two noted offensive wizards in D’Antoni and Budenholzer, mean that the Nets are a good bet to come into next season with a revamped offense. Both the ball movement of the Budenholzer Hawks and the “Seven Seconds or Less” D’Antoni offense represent a marked departure from a Hollins-led offense that was 27th in Offensive Rating and 19th in pace. While Atkinson is somewhat limited in that department by the plodding Brook Lopez at the pivot, the Nets will more than likely speed up their offense and focus more on ball movement than a team this year that was awfully stagnant on that end.
The main concern for Atkinson, however, will be trying to fix a disastrous Nets defense that finished 29th in the league in Defensive Rating, only barely ahead of the defensively abysmal Los Angeles Lakers. Atkinson will certainly have his work cut out for him given that he has been handed a roster full of players with sub-par defensive players. Brook Lopez is known for being a lumbering behemoth, but ironically the Nets actually improved their Defensive Rating with him on the floor--although the 109 Defensive Rating that they held with Lopez would still have ranked near the bottom of the league, that still was better than their 110.9 Defensive Rating overall. Atkinson and the Nets will certainly benefit from a (hopefully) healthier year from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and the Nets will have a little more than $30 million in cap space this coming offseason for Sean Marks to work with. Atkinson will have his work cut out for him trying to craft a decent defense with a frontcourt of Lopez and the undersized Thaddeus Young, but if he can craft a workable offense then the Nets might be able to get away with some defensive weak points.
Above all, the hiring of Kenny Atkinson shows that the Nets have truly committed to building a long-term vision rather than swinging for the fences to the degree that they had earlier in the Prokhorov era. The Russian oligarch has recently seemed more willing to look towards the future over the past year, and hiring two first-time leaders in Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson certainly shows a willingness to make moves that might not be as flashy but may work out quite well going forward. Given that the Nets have surrendered so many of their first-round picks, Prokhorov is in a way treating the GM and coach roles as if they were draft picks—instead of going for the big names, he is instead looking at key people that might develop into something special long-term. Only time will tell if Atkinson and Marks will work out for the Nets, but for the first time in their Brooklyn tenure it appears as if they are willing to wait.