Kenny Atkinson Has Playoff Bound Brooklyn Nets Ahead of Schedule
A fast-riser as an assistant coach, Atkinson guides Brooklyn to playoffs in year three
For the second time in his NBA life, Kenny Atkinson is way ahead of schedule.
It was just three years ago that Atkinson took over a 21-win Brooklyn Nets team, then won 20 games in his first year as a head coach. Year three of the Atkinson era in Brooklyn is going to conclude with a return to the NBA playoffs, the franchise's first trip to the postseason since 2015. The Nets clinched their playoff berth with Sunday's win in Indiana, their 41st of the season, matching the total from those two seasons combined.
With the huge leap from that inaugural season, the 13-win improvement from a year ago with one more game still remaining, and the steady progress and individual development of his roster, Atkinson has entered the conversation for the NBA's Coach of the Year Award. Last week he and his former boss Mike Budenholzer traded endorsements for the honor when Budenholzer brought his league-leading Bucks to Brooklyn.
"He has done arguably as good of a job as any coach in the league when you look at his improvement each year," said the Nets' Joe Harris. "Obviously I'm again biased just because I'm around him day in and day out and I see his approach and his competitiveness, his toughness, what he's preached to us has trickled down to each one of the guys. He embodies what we are as an organization. We're obviously not getting to this point without a leader like that. I think credit needs to be given to him with the success that we've had this season."
Brooklyn's success this season is the latest marker on Atkinson's late-starting, fast-rising NBA career. After starring at Long Island's St. Anthony's HS and the University of Richmond, Atkinson had his eyes on making it to the league as a player, with an invitation to the Portsmouth Invitational and some individual team tryouts after his senior year. The dream was not to be, and after playing a bit in the USBL and CBA, he headed to Europe and played for more than a decade.
That's where then-Houston assistant GM Dennis Lindsey found him, coaching at an international prospects camp in Italy after Atkinson had begun his coaching career in Paris. In 2007, about to depart Houston for San Antonio's front office, Lindsey left Atkinson's name as a recommendation to Rockets GM Daryl Morey, and Atkinson arrived in the NBA that fall as Houston's player development coach, an NBA rookie at the age of 40.
From there, it took less than 10 seasons on an NBA bench before Atkinson landed a head coaching job when Marks entrusted him with guiding the franchise's rebuild in 2016.
"I think (former Houston assistant GM and Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie) made an interesting point that maybe Sam and I believed that Kenny could matriculate to the lead spot maybe before Kenny actually believed it," said Lindsey. "I think as Kenny matriculated to a development coach to a bench coach to a head coaching candidate, the ascent was pretty quick. It wasn't like he was over in Europe as a head coach.
"I just think people saw the quality of the person, how competitive he is, how committed he is, and that allowed him to quickly matriculate. I think even if you were to ask Kenny, he'd probably be surprised at how quick all of this happened. But I think it gets back to the quality of person and quality of work."
Atkinson caught Lindsay's eye and made his first impression in the NBA for his hands-on work with players, and one crucial characteristic of the Atkinson program in Brooklyn is the way individual players have developed. It's been evident in the way players have taken huge leaps in their second seasons in Brooklyn after a full year with the team and a full offseason program behind them.
In 2017-18 it was most notable with Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert, all of whom continued to elevate their games this season as well, even with LeVert's season interrupted by injury after an outstanding start.
In 2018-19, there has been the progression of 20-year-old, second-year center Jarrett Allen, but the breakout has belonged to point guard D'Angelo Russell. After his first season in Brooklyn was interrupted by knee surgery, Russell has emerged as an All-Star in his fourth NBA season, putting together one of the best seasons in franchise history and elevating his game down the stretch through Brooklyn's battle to clinch a playoff berth.
"I’m a young player in this league," said Russell. "I only know what I’ve had and I’ve had an old school coach, a younger coach and I just feel like Kenny’s in between. He’s got a little old school to him and then he’s riding the wave with the youth as well. It’s pretty cool."
Harris arrived in Brooklyn along with Atkinson in that summer of 2016. He's one of four players remaining on the roster from Atkinson's first year.
"He's still crazy," said Harris. "Exactly the same as when he first got here. He's got that chip on his shoulder. He's tough, he's competitive, he treats everybody the same, and he's demanding from the moment that I've been here with him he's been exactly the same. His approach hasn't really changed a lot. He's just been real consistent about the guys being deliberate in practice and developing these good and consistent habits."
Atkinson credits Budenholzer for installing an open environment during their time together in Atlanta, inviting — demanding, really — input from all corners of the staff. He's brought that philosophy to Brooklyn and credits the depth of the staff for the team's success.
"The collaborative process is everything to me. I joke all the time, I’m an information coach," said Atkinson. "I just kind of grab information from all our departments – analytics, performance, assistant coaches, video room. I get all that information and obviously you have to make decisions, but it’s really – I’m not sure 10 years ago coaches had the support staff like I do. It’s a big staff and I need every one of them quite honestly. It’s kind of propped me up to be a better coach than I really am. You might say that’s humility, that’s humble – that’s the truth.”
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