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Should the Knicks hire Kenny Atkinson?

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One team’s trash could be another team’s next head coach

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Brooklyn Nets have kicked Kenny Atkinson to the curb, and it will be a dereliction of duty if the Leon Rose regime doesn’t at least consider bringing him across the East River to coach the Knicks.

The Saturday morning announcement came as a surprise to much of the basketball watching world, as Atkinson has been at the helm for an impressive Nets turnaround over the past four years that resulted in a playoff berth last season and the summer signings of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Did KD and/or Kyrie play a role in Atkinson and the Nets “mutually” agreeing to part ways? Probably, but that’s not our concern.

What matters for the Knicks is that another coaching candidate has hit the market. One who just oversaw a rebuild that also served as a rebrand, which are two things the Knicks have interest in right now. But although many on social media have suggested the Knicks should scoop up Atkinson before he can step foot outside the New York City Tri-state area, it’s not actually that simple.

Why isn’t it so simple, you simpleton?

The new team president has been here in an official capacity for less than a week, and Rose has preached patience as he figures out how running a basketball team is different than being a player agent. For now, Scott Perry still holds the title of general manager, and as far as we know, Rose hasn’t made any decisions on what his front office will ultimately look like.

It would be irresponsible to make a move as major as firing Mike Miller and hiring Atkinson before the next regime has been rounded out. Based on what we’ve heard from Rose, he feels that way too.

Meanwhile, even if you don’t like it, there are other contenders for the team’s next coach. Reports have tied Tom Thibodeau to the Knicks like a double-knotted shoelace, while names like Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy keep getting tossed around like bean bags during a friendly game of cornhole.

Similes aside, what if someone really cool that we don’t even know about yet comes into play? Perhaps the Utah Jazz flame out and Quin Snyder is suddenly up for grabs. Or maybe the Milwaukee Bucks lose early in the playoffs and the organization decides to move on from Mike Budenholzer in order to try and keep Giannis Antetokounmpo from leaving next summer.

You could argue that Atkinson would be a better fit than those two for where the Knicks are in their rebuilding process, but it would be silly for the team to choose a new coach before knowing who is going to be available at the end of the season.

Got it, due diligence and whatnot. But what’s the deal with Atkinson? Is he a good coach?

Atkinson would bring a pretty strong resume to the table. First off, he previously worked for the Knicks as an assistant on Mike D’Antoni’s staff for four years. Secondly, although he leaves the Nets with an overall record that is under .500 (118-190), the team improved markedly with him on the sidelines, and he coached relatively unknown players like Spencer Dinwiddie (38th pick of the 2014 draft), Caris LeVert (20th pick in 2016) and Joe Harris (33rd pick in 2014) into relevance.

The season prior to Atkinson taking over, the Nets were 19th in the NBA in pace, and in his first season running the show they were first. They were never worse than 11th in pace under Atkinson, and although that statistic alone doesn’t make a bad team good, the modern NBA is the perfect place for some pace. For reference, the Knicks are 23rd in pace this year, while the Nets are 10th.

The Nets also improved in categories like offensive and defensive rating under Atkinson. In the season before he was named head coach, the team was 27th and 29th, respectively, in those areas. By Atkinson’s second season, the Nets were 22nd in offensive rating and 21st in defensive rating. This year, the team is 23rd in offensive rating and 8th in defensive rating (remember, they’ve been without KD all year and Kyrie only played 20 games before having season-ending surgery on his shoulder).

To put things in perspective, the Knicks are 28th in offensive rating and 24th in defensive rating this year. Not great.

After going a combined 41-123 over the course of his first two seasons in Brooklyn, Atkinson’s Nets improved to 42-40 in year three, good for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. That team earned a shot to play the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, losing in five.

This year, the Nets are 28-34, and currently sit in 7th place in the East. The team recently responded to a four game losing streak with an overtime victory over the Boston Celtics, a blowout loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on the second night of a back to back, and a 19-point shellacking of the San Antonio Spurs.

There have been questions about Atkinson’s in-game adjustments, but he’s been praised over and over again for his work developing the team’s youngsters, including by the owner of the Nets on the day the firing took place. The Knicks certainly have a bunch of youngsters who could use some development.

Maybe the Knicks could hire Atkinson and then convince Joe Harris, an unrestricted free agent this summer, to join him at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks could use his shooting, and Harris seems to be a big Atkinson guy, if you believe quotes like this (featured in this piece on NBA.com from October 2019):

“It’s hard not to be motivated with Kenny, because everything he does is so genuine,” says Joe 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.

Some may worry that if the Knicks wait too long to nab Atkinson, they won’t get him, since he’s reportedly going to be in high demand. But rebuilding is a process, and processes require intelligent, calculated moves. Not quick trigger pulls because you’re scared of missing out.

The Knicks should strongly consider Atkinson, and if Rose is smart he’ll bring him in for an interview when the season has concluded. Maybe he can be the guy who helps the Knicks finally get out of the rut they’ve been stuck in since making it to the Finals in 1999.