Much was made about Kenny Atkinson’s ability — or inability — to coach stars like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Then last March 7 the Nets shockingly parted ways with the coach who oversaw their rise from cellar-dweller to playoff team.
On Tuesday, Atkinson — a Huntington native — makes his first Barclays Center return since being let go by his hometown team. And he’ll do it as an assistant with the NBA-leading Clippers, entrusted with player development of everybody from the last man on the roster to the star tandem of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
“He’s done a great job everywhere he’s been,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said earlier via Zoom. “Player development was always a strong suit in how he developed these young guys and other players; we’ve seen how good they’ve gotten.”
When Atkinson returns Tuesday, he’ll find most of them gone.
After inheriting the NBA’s worst team in 2016, he fostered improvement in Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and D’Angelo Russell, all since traded away as the Nets have gone all-in on stars.
Atkinson had guided Brooklyn into the playoff by his third season and was on pace to do so again in his fourth before shockingly being let go. Well, not shocking to all.
Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni — Atkinson’s boss for four years with the Knicks — was the coach in Houston when his protégé was let go. He praised Atkinson, but has been around enough to know the league’s cutthroat nature.
“I wish I could say it’s unbelievable, but you can’t, because it is believable, which is sad,” D’Antoni said at the time. “The only thing he’s done there the last two years for sure is overachieve. I don’t know what else he could have done. He’s a really, really good coach.”
Amidst the perception Durant and Irving either got Atkinson fired or didn’t support him and let it happen, Irving denied as much on the ETCs with Kevin Durant.
“I want to give a shout-out to Kenny Atkinson because some people came out and was like ‘Yo, Ky and KD got Kenny fired.’ Look, that was completely false. Kenny was great for the group that he served and I was very appreciative of what he was giving us throughout the season when we were playing,” Irving said.
“I want somebody, I need somebody that’s going to understand that I am a human being first. … It’s no disrespect to Kenny or any other coaches I played with; it’s just Steve [Nash] coming in at this moment and then following up with putting together a great coaching core was going to make us more successful.”
Even with Atkinson gone, his influence is still being felt. After four years as Atkinson’s assistant, Bret Brielmaier is now the head coach of G-League Long Island, and he puts the lessons he learned to use.
“The biggest thing I’ve taken away from coach Atkinson — [and they’re] countless: He’s an incredible coach — is a focus on how important the process and our habits are almost on a daily basis,” Brielmaier said Monday. “And we’ve kept that as a foundation for having great habits. Our process is going to be right. We’re gonna be very strategic in how we handle each and every day.”
That attention to detail saw Atkinson land 3,000 miles away with a Clippers team that harbors not only title hopes but its own stars. With a league-best 16-5 mark, their approach with Leonard and George seems to be working just fine.
“What’s been really, really great to see, spearheaded by Ty and Kenny Atkinson, is it’s an extremely collaborative process and it really is an organizational, developmental tool, where every single player has their personal development plan in all different phases,” Clippers president Lawrence Frank told the Orange County Register.
“And it’s not just where you are, it’s where do you want to take that player? Where does that player want to go? What does he want to look like a year from now, two years from now? And what’s the plan to get him there?”
James Harden was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.