Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson knew this day would come as soon as the Nets signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this past summer, and it came Saturday morning at 9 o’clock.
The Nets fired him. Yes, for the average fan and uneducated media member, this was a surprise, but for anyone that watches the Nets closely, this was not a surprise. The Nets did not sign their stars just to be mediocre. The idea was to be a title contender, and it was hard to believe Atkinson would coach Durant and Irving to a championship moving forward.
The Nets made the move now to get a head start on hiring a head coach for next season. Smart money says Tom Thibodeau is the favorite. Why? Here’s a clue: Thibodeau and Kevin Durant chatted during a Michigan State/Kentucky game at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 5. Those two have connections, too.
No one knows if Atkinson watched that college basketball game that night, but if he did, he had to know that planted the seed to his dismissal right there. No matter how well he did without Irving and Durant, he was toast.
No doubt Durant and to a lesser extent, Irving put their fingerprints in this firing. If they liked Atkinson so much, they would have told the Nets to keep him. This couldn’t be Nets general manager Sean Marks’ decision since he and Atkinson shared the same vision and philosophy. It was those two going up to Nets owner Joe Tsai and demanding a change had to happen. It’s a perception, but perception can be a reality in the NBA, which features players wielding more clout than the coaches. Always has been. Always will be.
Sure, those two will deny it. But fans are not stupid. They know the score.
Don’t feel sorry for Atkinson, though. He gets paid well to sit at home, and some rebuilding team will hire him after what he did with the Nets by building a team from the ground up. He knew what he got himself into when he got into the coaching profession.
Truth be told, the Nets did the right thing. They knew Atkinson enough to know he couldn’t take them from Point B to Point C. Irving played enough to get a feel of him, and Durant had someone in mind to coach him. The Nets did not sign both of them for them not to have a say.
Coaches that are builders are never around when a team grows up to be a championship contender. Teams hire a coach that will take them to the next level. That’s the reality of sports.
Atkinson struggled to coach in tight games, which is essential to coach a championship team. He couldn’t come up with winning plays. He couldn’t have his guys be consistent enough. Sure, it could have been easy for him if Durant played this year, but there is more to just Durant. He needs to have a proper hunch on guys on the spot.
Also, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris and Garrett Temple regressed this season, which made it easy for Atkinson to be fired.
Part of the regression comes from them knowing Atkinson would have been gone the minute the Nets made couple of free agent splashes, so they had no intention to play hard anymore.
Make no mistake. Firing Atkinson means Irving and Durant have no excuse to fail next season. It’s on them to get it done, and they relish the responsibility. They know time is of the essence for them to win a championship in their prime, so they did it with a purpose.
Expectations will be high next season. It will be championship or bust, and it should be. That’s why the Nets made the move now to get a jump start on hiring either Thibodeau or Mark Jackson. They can’t waste time. They did it right by being proactive now rather than dilly-dally.
It’s a dangerous territory to give players clout, but we are not just talking about ordinary players. We are talking about one of the top stars in the league in Durant. We are talking about one of the most dynamic players in the league in Irving. A fresh start was needed for this underachieving franchise, Irving and Durant to move forward.
Truth be told, Atkinson could use a fresh start, too. His coaching has gotten stale just from being there for so long.
If anything else, the Nets become more interesting to watch now that they fired him.
In a league that knows drama, the Nets entered the big leagues with this decision.