Believe it or not, the Brooklyn Nets, who went 20-62 in 2016-17, are in very good hands.
Last season, Kenny Atkinson helped the franchise earn back some of their lost street credit and effectively ended the Nets’ never-ending carousel at head coach. Praise flowed in across the board as players, coaches and executives quickly realized that the longtime assistant had some serious first-year chops. Through a summer overhaul, the Nets changed their plodding, iso-style offense to a more modernized version, effectively jacking up the team’s pace and three-point shooting almost overnight.
The biggest evolution came with Brook Lopez, the franchise’s star player since New Jersey drafted him back in 2008. Before Atkinson arrived, Lopez had made exactly three regular season three-pointers in his entire career, but with the encouragement of a new head coach, the center flourished. Lopez made a whopping 134 three-pointers in 2016-17 at a 34.6 percent clip – an outstanding result for a towering big man that had barely even considered that range prior to Atkinson’s hiring.
With key free agent Jeremy Lin shelved for much of the season after injuring his hamstring, the Nets were thrown into crisis by Thanksgiving. Quickly, Atkinson had to rely on Isaiah Whitehead, Spencer Dinwiddie and Sean Kilpatrick to handle the ball, even crafting the latter into an emergency point guard. Despite the turmoil, Atkinson never wavered, constantly tweaking the Nets’ rotation and turning their numerous D-League call-ups into legitimate rotation pieces.
Even as the losses piled up and the Nets plunged into the Eastern Conference basement, the roster ran through wall after wall for their coach. And, once Lin returned for good in late February, the Nets finished the season on a high note with a respectable 11-15 record onver their final 26 games. Although Lopez has since been moved to Los Angeles, the Nets strengthened the rest of their roster by adding D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe and, hopefully, Timofey Mozgov.
For the second-straight year, Atkinson found himself in charge of the Nets’ summer league team, much to his delight. As he battled in the trenches with his young core, Atkinson told Basketball Insiders that being in Las Vegas was important for everybody involved, himself included.
“Quite honestly, I need to get better,” Atkinson said. “I need to improve my game, I’ve had some situations out there where I was like: ‘Man, I could’ve done that better.’ I just feel like you’re in a flight simulator, the more reps you can get, the better you get.”
Atkinson, of course, spent four years each as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks from 2008-16. With the Knicks, Atkinson is credited as one of the major nurturing forces behind Linsanity, the electric two-week span that would help Lin earn his paychecks for years to come. Under the savvy Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, Atkinson developed strong relationships and earned a reputation as an impressive player development coach. So, no, Atkinson isn’t new to the coaching game by any means, but his long road has prepared him to lead the Nets.
Utilizing both Lin and his skills learned with the Hawks, Atkinson has been a nice fit for the rebuilding, pick-deficient Nets. His work with both Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has already seen both of their raw abilities expand in just one season at the helm. Additionally, it should come as no surprise that Quincy Acy, Joe Harris and Trevor Booker all had career years after working with Atkinson as well – undoubtedly, this guy knows how to coach, lead and develop a young roster.
Needless to say, the Nets are committed to Atkinson and the roster clearly respects him as well. If Atkinson can continue taking baby steps with this Nets franchise, they’ll be in a great spot moving forward, particularly so once they own their draft picks once again. With a better all-around roster and, hopefully, a healthy year out of the essential Lin, the Nets will grow once again under the evolving Atkinson, one of the league’s strongest new coaches.
– Benny Nadeau