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A History of Kenny Atkinson: The only choice for the Knicks, part 2

An in-depth look at Kenny’s time in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In part 1 of the Kenny Atkinson series, Bootum and Kaelin Phoebe looked into his time as an NBA assistant coach. Today we focus on his time at the head of the bench with the Nets.

If any situation was going to push Atkinson to his limits as a developmental coach, Brooklyn in 2016 was the one. Over two seasons under Atkinson’s leadership, the Nets managed to double their win total and made an unexpected playoff appearance. The personnel he had to work with was underwhelming – Brooklyn’s roster was a mix of leftovers from their previous ‘competitive’ teams and unexciting young talent. Without any lottery picks of their own, the Nets needed to take chances on as many projects as they could. The Nets became a revolving door of young and old rejects from throughout the league, with their best young pieces being Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert.

Atkinson was able to access untapped talent in a few of these project players. Spencer Dinwiddie, a promising guard prospect before injuries hit, was on his way out of the league after being waived by the Chicago Bulls. Like so many other guards under Atkinson, Dinwiddie was given the freedom to play, and he flourished. The 2019-20 season was his most complete in the league, averaging 20.6 points per game along with 6.8 assists.

On Atkinson’s leadership, Dinwiddie commented, “For me, for D-Lo [D’Angelo Russell], for Caris [LeVert], .etc, he really helped all of us grow. He was a primary ball-handler back when he played, he’s shared some of those same mentalities on how we play the game and he’s open, he’s willing to be collaborative as a coach, as a leader, and it really helps all of us out.”

Similarly, Joe Harris struggled after two seasons with Cleveland in which he averaged just 2.5 points per game on 40% from the field, 36% from three, and just 60% from the free-throw line.

After being traded to the Orlando Magic, it was apparent that the 23-year-old sharpshooter was on his way out of the NBA. Atkinson saw his potential and empowered him to take on a Kyle Korver-type role. Harris improved to averaging 11.9 PPG on 47.8% in his time with Brooklyn and led the league in 3-point field goal shooting percentage (47.4) in the 2018-19 season.

Harris recalls, “Kenny Atkinson had come from Atlanta, one of the plug-in guys that he thought would be good with the good teams in Atlanta, and my comparison was [Kyle] Korver. He kind of saw a little bit of me in Kyle and played that card. That was my break.”

It wasn’t just the young talent that flourished under Atkinson’s vision. As a true developmental coach, he got the most out of his veteran players, and their improvement enabled the front office to flip them for assets over the next three seasons. An expiring Bojan Bogdanovic was traded for a first-round pick that later became Jarrett Allen.

Atkinson helped the stringy rim protector become one of the biggest steals of the draft, and despite being drafted 22nd, Allen has the fourth-highest VORP of his class.

Veteran big men Trevor Booker and Tyler Zeller had newfound success as role players, and bother were flipped for second-round picks in trades that also brought back Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and Rashad Vaughn.

Many other veterans would not go on to net much in a trade but have career and bounce-back years as key contributors in Brooklyn such as Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, Treveon Graham, Shabazz Napier, and DeMarre Carroll. After his great success in Atlanta under Atkinson, Carroll had failed to live up to his massive 60 million dollar contract for the Toronto Raptors. After averaging 11.8 points per game on 59 ts% two seasons with the Hawks, he averaged 9.4 points on 52 TS% with the Raptors. With Atkinson, Carroll recovered his old form as a solid role player, averaging 12.3 points per game on 55 TS%.

Atkinson’s most impressive turnaround came from former All-Star, Brook Lopez. Lopez had the tools to be a great three-point shooter with his impressive midrange shot but hadn’t yet received the encouragement to invest in his outside game, making just three out of 31 threes his first eight seasons in the league. Lopez launched 387 threes in his first season under Atkinson, making 134 shots on 35% shooting. This sent the center into a new era of his career, enabling him to take on a role as a shooting specialist for the Milwaukee Bucks. More importantly, it helped the Nets include him in a trade to land D’Angelo Russell.

D’Angelo Russell was another guard that blossomed underneath Atkinson. The former lottery pick went from being the sweetener in Timofey Mozgov’s salary dump when traded to the Nets, to the recipient of a max contract when he left. In Los Angeles, Russell’s Lakers won just 43 games in his two seasons. The point guard averaged 14.3 points per game and 4 assists per game with 2.6 turnovers per game on just 41% shooting from the field and an inefficient 51% true shooting percentage while playing lackluster defense. There were concerns regarding nearly every aspect of his game during his time.

Underneath Atkinson, Russell made his first All-Star game and led the Nets to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. In the 2018-19 season, Russell averaged 22 points and 7.3 assists on 53 TS%, while averaging 24 points per game in January and 26 in February. It was the first and only season has team has not been outscored with him on the floor.

While Atkinson’s choice to bench Russell was controversial at times, it demonstrated that he was able to balance freedom and accountability, even with his best player. Although they had a rocky relationship, during Russell’s time in Brooklyn he credited Atkinson for much of his success, stating, “Honestly, I give him a lot of credit for the teaching moments, I feel like my knowledge and IQ has really risen to another level just from learning from my mistakes and him breaking it down.”

Atkinson made a near-immediate impact on the defensive side of the court as well. Before he took over, the Nets were a bottom two defense in the league. In his first year, they sat 23rd, then 15th, and finally ranked 8th upon his dismissal in March of this year. Even throughout the 21-win season in his first year as head coach, Atkinson’s Nets achieved exactly what they set out to do — make progress.

When discussing the evolution of his young players, Atkinson said, “... all of the sudden we go from 30th defensive team to, after the All-Star game we were eighth in defensive efficiency. So I was proud of that. It’s not like the coaches did anything, but Caris and Rondae being a part of that defensive improvement I think is very important.”

Caris LeVert, another late pick (20th overall) developed to become one of Brooklyn’s best players under Atkinson, culminating in him averaging 21 points on 61 ts% in the playoffs against the Sixers. Despite having little defensive talent on the roster, Atkinson found a way to get players to perform above their capabilities. In the 2018-19 season, very few Nets were considered a positive defender.

In Defensive Real Plus/Minus key Nets ranked out of 514 players:

Dinwiddie: 506th.

Prince: 483rd.

Harris: 461st.

Chandler: 378th.

LeVert: 307th.

Kurucs: 294th.

Irving: 186th.

Temple: 141th.

Allen: 100th.

Jordan: 16th.

Still, the Nets had the eighth-best defensive rating in the league. As a defensive-minded coach, Atkinson has shown the ability to get his players to understand and buy into his scheme quickly, regardless of their talent on defense.

With almost $70 million of their roster on the bench with injuries, Atkinson still managed to keep Brooklyn in playoff contention during what would be his final season with the franchise. While Kyrie Irving played only 20 games this season and had qualms with Atkinson’s system, Irving was still on track to have his best offensive year ever, averaging 27.4 PPG (career-high) and 6.4 APG (2nd best of career) on 60 TS% (a career-high) with a 7.4 Box Plus/Minus (a career-high).

At times, the criticisms of Atkinson’s coaching style were valid. He came under fire for his rotations, the short leash he had with minutes management, and making poor decisions in the clutch. Still, with LeVert, Irving, and Durant out for much of the year, Atkinson was left to rely on Dinwiddie as the primary scoring option and closer. Jarrett Allen continued to show promise with his development, and the Nets were still well-positioned to make a splash in the playoffs despite having a thin roster riddled with injury. While the criticisms of his system were fair, after closely examining the roster, it’s clear Atkinson was overachieving with the healthy players he had.

Atkinson’s coaching record isn’t particularly inspiring on its own. At 118-190, it might be easy to look him off in favor of candidates with higher winning percentages. There’s been an outpouring of support in favor of Tom Thibodeau, who emerged as a leading candidate. Though much of the support for Thibodeau hinges on the notion that he learned and evolved from his mistakes, but if that’s the case, it hasn’t reflected in his recent on-court product.

Widely touted as a defensive tactician, his time in Minnesota shows that his schemes just might be too outdated for the three-point centered systems of the modern NBA. While the Timberwolves broke their 14 year playoff streak under Thibodeau, a large part of that success was from simply building to win-now around superstar Jimmy Butler. Without Butler on the court,the Timberwolves struggled and had the worst defense in the league. In truth, the Timberwolves never had glimpses of modernity or playing above their capabilities on either end of the floor.

The Wolves ranked 30th, 30th, and 23rd under Thibodeau in threes attempted with the Timberwolves, continuing a career trend, while Atkinson has never even been a member of an NBA team that ranked lower than 7th. On top of that, Thibodeau’s minutes management has been problematic throughout his career. Thibodeau has never had a full season without having a player at least top four in minutes per game, with an inescapable number of his former stars coming down with injuries related to being overplayed, or breaking down due to nagging injuries. While Atkinson overachieved with a modern offense and a focus on player development in the likes of Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, Thibodeau ultimately underachieved with Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins. Both coaches parted ways with their former franchises, but Atkinson was the only one to leave his team better than he found it — with a lasting foundation.

For the Knicks, Atkinson’s strengths align almost directly with their weaknesses. Culture, development — specifically guard development — along with accountability, freedom, a modern offensive system, and elite defense have been lacking from the franchise for two long decades.

Hiring Atkinson would mean a complete abandonment of the approach that has long afflicted the Knicks. The outside savior is no longer coming. The playoffs are no longer a free agent or a trade away. For the first time, the Knicks should choose to enact change at the ground level, so what they build is sustainable.