This is part one of a two-part collaboration between Alexander “Bootum” Cohen and Kaelin Phoebe, both of whom really believe in Kenny Atkinson.
The Brooklyn Nets left the Knicks the blueprint to relevancy last summer. After one of the worst trades in NBA history, Brooklyn pulled themselves into playoff contention and positioned themselves to land two superstars in free agency. Much of their craftiness and success was rooted in the hiring of Kenny Atkinson, who took over as head coach in 2016. The Knicks, after chasing star-power and quick-fixes since Patrick Ewing left twenty years ago, are in the market for a leader who can make the franchise relevant again.
Rock bottom isn’t an unfamiliar place to Kenny Atkinson — it’s right where Brooklyn was when he accepted the job. Similarly, the Knicks have been spinning their wheels at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a roster full of young players but no young core. Veteran free-agent signings eat up minutes for those young players. The franchise preaches prioritizing player development, but the product on the floor doesn’t match that vision. At this point, it’s questionable whether the Knicks have a vision or a direction at all. Historically, New York has always looked to stars outside their franchise to save them — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant. Hiring Kenny Atkinson might be the first step towards abandoning the savior approach and stabilizing the organization at the ground level.
Despite their missteps, the Knicks managed to keep a few building blocks in place. For once, New York held onto their own draft picks. Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett look like they will have solid roles in the future. In 2016, Brooklyn ended their season at 21-61 with Brook Lopez, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and none of their first-round picks. Three years later, the Nets had such an encouraging culture and vision they landed two of the best free agents on the market. While it’s still unclear what Brooklyn’s future looks like with Durant and Kyrie Irving at the helm, it’s still an impressive and quick turnaround for the franchise.
Atkinson’s rebuild in Brooklyn lasted about four years. Patience of that kind is foreign to the Knicks, who spent two decades trying to bypass the process of a proper rebuild. New York is overdue for a fresh approach, and Atkinson possesses exactly what they lack — patience, player development, defense, and an understanding of the importance of the three-point shot.
Examine his previous near-decade in the league before taking the Nets’ job, and you’ll see his run in Brooklyn was likely not an aberration, but merely a continuation of his success developing players, which landed him the job in the first place.
Houston was Atkinson’s first stop in the NBA, where he found success working under head coach Rick Adelman as director of player development. Although his stint with the Rockets was short, Atkinson left an impression with the players and staff he worked alongside. In 2012, Adelman said that “there is nobody better than Kenny at developing players.”
His skill for helping players grow and evolve would go on to be the foundation of his coaching success over the next decade.
The following year, Atkinson landed in New York as an assistant coach for Mike D’Antoni. While a lot of his work with the Knicks happened behind the scenes, his penchant for guard development contributed to one of the most memorable basketball moments in New York over the last twenty years. Peel back the phenomenon of Linsanity, and you’ll find that Atkinson was at the core of the Harvard point guard’s breakout season.
Linsanity likely never occurs without Kenny Atkinson. In truth, Lin might not have had a place in the NBA at all without him. “I was literally the 15th guy,” Lin said,
“Everyone knew I was going to get cut. I knew I was going to get cut. And [Atkinson] was still pouring everything into me like I was his star player.”
After six starts in which he averaged 24.3 points and 9.5 assists per game, Lin said, “I can’t say enough about that guy ... I mean this guy wakes up at 6 a.m. every morning, I’ll text after a game at midnight, 1 o’clock when I go home and I’ll say, ‘Hey can I look at those turnovers. Can I look at the upcoming team? How they run pick and rolls?’ And he’ll have the film ready when I walk into the facility the next morning.’”
Both at the beginning and tail-end of his NBA career, Lin played by far his most efficient and effective basketball under Atkinson, averaging 14.6 points per game, 5.1 assists per game, and 3.6 rebounds per game in just 24.5 mpg on 44% shooting from the field, 37% from three, and 83% on free throws, with a true shooting percentage of 57 in his time with Brooklyn.
Atkinson found more success in Atlanta as an assistant coach for Mike Budenholzer. With player development at the core of Budenholzer’s vision for the Hawks, he praised Atkinson for his skill set in this area, stating, “Player development is a huge part of what we do. When you become a head coach, that feel, that understanding and ability to take concepts and incorporate it into team concepts and individual. He is gifted that way.”
The results showed up on the court, with Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, and Paul Millsap all appearing in their first All-Star game under Atkinson. Al Horford also went to the All-Star game that year for the first time since 2011, while DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore went from bench-warmers to starters on playoff teams. The Hawks, as a group, improved their shooting tremendously that same year.
It can be difficult to take a measuring stick to player development since it’s largely an individual experience that hinges on a number of different factors. Atkinson’s former players are vocal about the ways he impacted their game and the culture, however, and the numbers reflect this sentiment. In his first four years in the league, Carroll made just 27 of 95 threes (28%). Under Atkinson, he shot 217 of 572 (38%) in two seasons. Horford took just 18 threes in his first six seasons, making six. He made 103 of 303 (34%) in three seasons with Atkinson on the Hawks.
Millsap attempted only 113 threes and made 31 in his first seven seasons, but under Atkinson, he made 227 of 660 (34%) in three seasons with the Hawks. Atkinson had a knack for getting players to step out of their comfort zone, accentuating their strengths, and helped them understand and fit into Atlanta’s larger vision of D’Antoni’s modern spread offense.
When he landed his first head coaching job in Brooklyn, his former players in Atlanta voiced their support. Jeff Teague explained how he helped change the culture of basketball in Atlanta beyond just player development, “Before he got to Atlanta, when I was there, it was, get the ball to Joe [Johnson]. Post-up. Get the ball to Al [Horford] and Josh [Smith],” Teague said. “And when he got there he just showed me a whole new light on basketball, really. He let me be myself. He opened up to me and he showed me a whole new way of looking at basketball.”
Kyle Korver has said Atkinson was one of the reasons he re-signed with the Hawks, and also signed off on his former coach’s skill for development, stating, “I think our player development has been second to none the last four years. I think it has been amazing watching guys develop and grow and Kenny leads that.” Korver and Teague were both confident in Atkinson’s ability to take on the challenge of returning the Nets to relevancy. Korver assured, “[The Nets] are in a tough spot”, but “Kenny is the right person for that job.”
Teague said, “He is going to bring a different culture to Brooklyn.”
Three years later, culture is exactly what would lure Kevin Durant and Kyrie Iriving to the Nets.
Tomorrow we’ll run Part 2, about Atkinson’s tenure with the Nets.