BROOKLYN — The clock on Kenny Atkinson’s time with the Brooklyn Nets started ticking the moment Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving arrived on his doorstep, when the franchise turned from afterthought to relevant.
The atmosphere Atkinson helped build — one that was apparently so attractive to Durant and Irving — seems like it played a part in his undoing. Whether he was fired or “mutually parting ways” as the Nets news release states, is immaterial.
In a year that was nothing more than groundwork for the future, the meshing of Atkinson’s style with Durant and Irving was on trial. Even though Irving only played 20 games and is out for the season following shoulder surgery and Durant is still recovering from his Achilles injury, everyone had to deal with each other and honestly evaluate if this would be a marriage that would stand into next season.
“Kenny pushed for the parting just as much, if not more than Brooklyn,” a league source tells Yahoo Sports.
In a player’s league and on a team where star player’s voices undoubtedly matter for a franchise that yearns to matter, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Durant and Irving wanted to keep Atkinson around, but general manager Sean Marks was hellbent on firing a friend, someone who helped build the Nets into a respectable product.
Marks didn’t say it was the Nets’ 28-34 record, off the pace from their 32-30 mark at this point last year. It would’ve been an excuse that didn’t fly far, but he didn’t even make note of it during his media session Saturday afternoon.
Is this player empowerment rearing its head? Or the burden of incoming expectations causing a franchise to take an honest look at itself, not wanting to tether itself to its overachieving past but to the hard reality that awaits when two superstars are healthy, vocal, influential and ready to win now?
Kenny Atkinson was in his fourth season as the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets before Saturday’s parting of ways. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
MoreSources: Kyrie Irving prefers Tyronn Lue for Nets
Now the Nets become an intriguing place for whomever will step in next season, assuming Jacque Vaughn only keeps the title for the next 20 games. It’s a challenge to corral all of this together, especially when Irving and Durant are so admittedly mercurial and tough to please.
According to league sources, Irving soured on Atkinson early and currently prefers Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue. Lue was the head coach in Cleveland when Irving hit the winning shot in the 2016 NBA Finals, and was in talks to take the Lakers job before discussions broke down.
“It’s a service business. I’m serving these guys. I’m just a vessel,” Vaughn said. “It’s today’s game and being able to adjust, getting the most out of talent on your roster. But also listening and hearing the voices of the No. 1, 2, 3, 4 guys on your roster is crucial. And having that relationship is a must in today’s game.”
Marks wanted to take the pressure off the players, saying it was something he and owner Joe Tsai were collaborating on more recently. But as someone who should take the pulse of his most important players before making such a change, he’s too smart to do that without knowing the room.
There seemed to be friction from the start, dating back to when the team’s rigid methods seemed to clash with the individual equity stars like Irving built up through years of on-court success.
There’s always pushback from even the most mild-mannered players to agreeable types, let alone strong personalities that don’t keep their thoughts to themselves.
“This is the NBA. Disagreements happen, it’s an alpha male dominated environment, a highly competitive situation,” Spencer Dinwiddie said, being more tight-lipped than usual.
Atkinson preferred not to be around for KD, Kyrie
Multiple sources told Yahoo Sports that Atkinson wasn’t fond of coaching Durant and Irving based on what he saw this season, and would rather something happen now than at the end of the season.
That jibes with Marks saying he and Atkinson had been in discussions about this for weeks, even months now. It’s tough to embrace Atkinson putting so much into turning the franchise around, but ready to wash his hands of it months into this season.
Whether Atkinson didn’t bend enough to accommodate his accomplished veterans for fear of alienating those who knew him as something different, or the situation was too awkward to work, seems fair to speculate.
And it’s easy to like a “culture” from the outside before you have to put the hard work in that comes with maintaining it. It’s also easy to admire something from afar when you’re yearning to leave the Bay Area and Boston for something, anything else.
“Oh it was definitely mutual,” a league source tells Yahoo Sports.
For the Nets, their “culture” came at a cost and for anyone who thought otherwise, a culture only goes as far as the players allow it to, and even then there will be natural erosion over a period of time — hence why Marks alluded to Atkinson apparently telling him recently that “my voice is not what it once was here. It’s time.”
For any culture to endure, there must be buy-in from the biggest voices, and for this Nets renaissance, Atkinson’s voice was the loudest. Who else had the standing in the league to challenge him before this year, as if they wanted to?
Atkinson was helping develop players, a master at maximizing what he had to work with. Turning Spencer Dinwiddie from a confident journeyman to near All-Star, Joe Harris from underwhelming prospect to near Olympian and Caris LeVert from a maybe to a certainty will be the biggest victories on his dossier to take to his next job.
But it takes a little something different to coach Irving, to coach Durant as individuals, let alone a duo with skins on the wall, championship moments and Hall of Fame résumés.
It doesn’t feel like an accident that the man tabbed to replace Atkinson, Jacque Vaughn, is said to have a strong relationship with Irving.
“We have the immediate connection of being point guards,” Vaughn said. “We’ve formed a relationship, which I’ve tried to with each guy, but I guess we’re able to talk in point guard language.”
The question is, how long before the language changes? And who’s multilingual?
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