BROOKLYN -- We are in the era of player empowerment, where the decisions of the talent, more than those of the executives, are what mold the NBA landscape.
The stars determine where they want to go and whom they want to play with. Last summer, two All-NBA players with championship rings -- Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving -- left contenders to join a franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since 2014. One free agent -- Jimmy Butler -- chose to join a team (Miami) that, at the time, didn't have the cap space to sign him. Still another player -- Paul George -- forced a trade one year after signing a four-year contract.
Since the Nets hired Sean Marks in February of 2016, the general manager has done nearly everything right in getting them the point where they would appeal to veteran stars like Durant and Irving. One of the decisions he nailed was his choice for the Nets coach three years ago.
Kenny Atkinson was clearly the right guy for the first three years of the Nets' rebirth. Marks grabbed Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris out of the NBA recycle bin in 2016. From there, Atkinson and his staff turned Dinwiddie into a top-four finisher for the Kia Most Improved and Kia Sixth Man of the Year awards. Harris, meanwhile, was last season's top 3-point shooter.
They turned D'Angelo Russell, whom the Lakers gave up on, into an All-Star. Caris LeVert, the 20th pick in the 2016 Draft, was the Nets' best player in the 2019 playoffs and might have been an All-Star himself had he not gotten injured in November. Jarrett Allen, the 22nd pick in the 2017 Draft, has become one of the league's best rim protectors.
While he was developing all those guys, Atkinson moved his team up the Eastern Conference standings. In each of his three seasons in Brooklyn, the Nets have been, statistically, better than they were the year before. They're one of just two teams that have seen an improvement in point differential per 100 possessions in each of the last three seasons, going from minus-7.4 in 2015-16 to minus-0.1 last season.
(Note: Under Michael Malone, the Denver Nuggets have seen a statistical improvement in each of the last four seasons.)
Better talent, bigger challenges
Atkinson was one reason why two All-NBA stars wanted to sign with Brooklyn. On media day, Durant said that he watched postgame clips of the coach when he was thinking about signing with the Nets.
"Once I started getting comfortable with how he approaches his craft," Durant said, "it started making me feel at ease, even though I never even had a conversation with him. I could just see it through YouTube and through the clips that he was pretty genuine about the game."
Irving had a similar experience, as he told the YES Network.
"I'm maniacal about the response of coaches or players when things get a little tough," the point guard said. "He's keeping it real with the players, with upper management. I said, 'I could connect with this man.' "
Watching from afar and being face to face every day, however, are two very different things. So too is developing young players who want to stick in the NBA vs. leading superstars who have already won championships. The right coach for the former isn't necessarily the right coach for the latter.
After you become the team that stars want to come to, you could be the next team that stars want to leave. Acquiring talent also means keeping it happy.
There will be no walking on eggshells in Brooklyn, however. Off the floor, the Nets do everything they can to make a player and his family comfortable. But Atkinson has learned from his mentors about not putting on kid gloves when coaching superstars.
I want that input. I want that collaboration. But I also want to make sure that we make the right decision when we tweak something or change something."
Before coming to Brooklyn, Atkinson was an assistant coach on the Atlanta Hawks under Mike Budenholzer ... who spent 17 years as an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. And Popovich was known for treating Tim Duncan the same as the last guy on the Spurs' bench.
"It's just part of my personality, a little bit not afraid to be confrontational," Atkinson said. "What I learned from [Budenholzer] is to really challenge the best players, be direct with them, coach them harder than you coach anybody else on the team. I do think it's part of my personality. I don't mind conflict and telling guys what I see."
The NBA has seen confrontational coaches flame out pretty quickly. But by all accounts, Atkinson is not an old-school hard ass. When he challenges his players, they know it's not forced.
"It's hard not to be motivated with Kenny, because everything he does is so genuine," says Harris, one of three Brooklyn players now in their fourth season under Atkinson. "Some coaches will give you the rah-rah stuff and it's just for show. But it doesn't matter what Kenny's doing, he's trying to kick people's ass.
"He's a competitor, and you can feel that. You can feel that when he's talking, when he's going through film, when he's talking about the Nets' identity and those things. You know that it's not BS. That's what gets guys going and why he's able to do what he does."
Atkinson doesn't come across as a my-way-or-the-highway authority figure to his players but also says he "could be a little more diplomatic" at times. After digging through film and analytics to formulate a game plan, he's not going to alter it to please his players. But he seeks their input more than their deference.
"You have to collaborate with your best players and guys that have been in the league a while," Atkinson says. "I want that input. I want that collaboration. But I also want to make sure that we make the right decision when we tweak something or change something."
"We buy in to him, because he buys in to us," adds Dinwiddie, also in his fourth season under Atkinson. "You don't feel like when you make a mistake, he's like 'Well, the coaches got it right. Y'all just trippin.' You really feel like we're all in this thing together. That's the most special part about being coached by Kenny and why I don't think that there's a ceiling on his ability as a coach."
'You have to be yourself'
Marks shares the same sentiment from his position in the front office, having seen the buy-in for three years now.
"I think what we've seen is a group of guys get behind Kenny," Marks said. "I expect nothing [different] this year because he's a believable entity out there, which is great for our guys."
Atkinson understands that things are different now. New players, new personalities, new expectations. The focus has shifted from player development to wins and losses. When Durant returns (likely next season), the pressure will be at a level he's never felt before.
"It's a new challenge," Atkinson says. "We have our core values, our foundation of what we've built. I don't see us varying from that nor me varying from my personality as a coach. I do think it's figuring this new team out, and that's an evolution. That's going to take time.
"It's an exciting challenge, but I don't plan on changing just because the chess pieces have changed. It's a similar philosophy, figure out the players you have, and then put them in the best position to win ball games."
At its core, the approach to coaching a team with championship aspirations is the same as the approach to coaching one just trying to take baby steps toward relevance.
"I think you have to be yourself," Atkinson said. "You have to be authentic. If you're not authentic, they'll see through that. Then you're in trouble."
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