Brooklyn Nets Enter New Era With Abrupt Dismissal of Kenny Atkinson

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Maybe, as Sean Marks told reporters at a hastily arranged press conference on Saturday, the decision to part ways with Kenny Atkinson was a mutual decision.

Maybe, as Marks, the Brooklyn Nets GM, said, “this matter didn’t involve the players.”

Maybe, as Marks insisted, this wasn’t a mandate from ownership.

Maybe, as Marks let slip, Atkinson did say to him in the last 24 hours, “It’s time.”

But does any of that make sense?

Does any of this makes sense?

Just 11 months earlier, the Nets believed in Kenny Atkinson. How do we know? Because the Nets extended Kenny Atkinson. Less than a year ago, they thought enough of the head coach that they were willing to make a contractual commitment to him.

On Saturday, Brooklyn showed him the door.

Marks didn’t offer much in the way of specifics on Saturday. He said, repeatedly, that the team needed a new voice. He said there were never any blowups in the locker room, just “healthy debates.” He said this wasn’t about one game or one week, but “a combination of events” over the course of the season.

“What happens in the locker room, I’d like to think stays in there,” Marks said. “I’d like to get specific and granular on all different types of things, but at the end of the day this is a compromise that Kenny and I and ownership came up with. It was time. Kenny grinded and did everything he could , but it was time for another voice in the locker room.”

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Change can be good. The Raptors are the defending NBA champions. Nick Nurse, who took over for Dwane Casey a season after Casey was named Coach of the Year, played a big role in it. But change should be made for the right reasons. At this point, we don’t know what the Nets’ reasons were.

Did he lose the locker room? On Tuesday, the Nets rallied from 21 points down to win in Boston. They pulverized the Spurs at home on Friday. Those aren’t signs of a team that’s quit. Brooklyn is 28-34 in an injury-ravaged season, and some league officials will tell you Atkinson deserves consideration for Coach of the Year.

Is he an elite game caller? Probably not. His rotations have been questioned and no scout will list him among the NBA’s best in out-of-timeout situations. But Atkinson excels at player development. D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen can attest to that. And when you coach a team from a 20-win dumpster fire into a 42-win playoff team in three seasons, you have earned a little room to grow.

Is he suited to coach a young, rebuilding team? Clearly.

Is he ill-equipped to take over a veteran group with title expectations next season?

How can anyone possibly know the answer to that?

Without coaching a team led by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, it was determined that Atkinson wasn’t the man to do it?

There will be a temptation to pin the blame on Irving, and without evidence that’s unfair. Irving is an easy target after clashing with Brad Stevens in Boston last season, driving the Celtics coaching staff bonkers with a know-it-all attitude. But star players have power, and it’s hard to believe Atkinson would be gone if Irving, who played 20 games for the Nets this season, pushed for him to be there.

Marks cited ownership’s involvement, and Joe Tsai, who shelled out billions to take control of the Nets from Mikhail Prokhorov last fall, is emerging as an interesting figure. It’s been a rocky first season for Tsai. His first CEO, David Levy, was let go after just two months on the job. Now, Atkinson is gone. Tsai has had frequent communication with Nets players since taking over, multiple league and team sources told SI.com. That, in and of itself, isn’t a problem. If Tsai thinks his billions bought him the skills needed to operate an NBA franchise, that is.

Marks is the basketball boss in Brooklyn, and the decision on the next coach needs to be his. Mark Jackson’s name has been publicly floated, and Marks is smart enough to know Jackson isn’t the answer. Jackson had a solid three-year run in Golden State, but his locker room lawyering and radioactive relationship with the Warriors front office poisoned his reputation among top NBA executives. In six years, Jackson has not come close to landing another job. Marks cited the Nets’ ability to take a long look at Jacque Vaughn, a respected former player with head coaching experience, and there is strong league-wide belief that Marks hope Vaughn succeeds enough to win the job.

And Atkinson?

Paging, the New York Knicks.

Seriously—is there a more obvious fit? The Knicks have a college-aged roster, with another high lottery pick on the way. Atkinson is the best developmental coach on the market. He’s a Long Island native who served as an assistant in New York under Mike D’Antoni, part of the staff that unlocked Jeremy Lin in 2012. He’s represented by CAA, the agency that new Knicks president Leon Rose once worked for.

After being fired—sorry, parted ways with Brooklyn—Atkinson can lead a revival in New York.

It’s a no-brainer.

The pressure is on now in Brooklyn, though. The Nets are no longer a feel-good story, no longer the team that shocked the basketball world by landing the two biggest stars on the free agent market last summer. There are expectations now, big ones. Marks could have significant personnel decisions to make this summer, as he weighs what pieces fit best around Irving and Durant. And he will have to find a coach, one who makes the decision to replace Atkinson the right one.

It’s been a fun, fairly smooth four-year ride in Brooklyn.

It just got a whole lot bumpier.