Kenny Atkinson visited the Lakers practice facility last summer to see Joe Harris, the Brooklyn Nets’ sharp-shooting wing, work out with Team USA.
He had the respect of the NBA, having coached the Nets through their improbable rise from an asset-barren team to a playoff participant. The journey was highlighted by Atkinson’s ability to get the most out of a group of players on their second and third chances, such as D’Angelo Russell, who was shipped out by the Lakers, and Spencer Dinwiddie, who couldn’t find a consistent job in the NBA.
After everything had settled following the chaotic summer of 2019, Atkinson now had the talent. The team emerged with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, NBA championship-level talent. As Atkinson walked out of the Lakers’ facility that afternoon, he laughed and smiled and joked about the challenge that was ahead.
The culture they had created in Brooklyn, the way they went about their business would be gone. You trade all of that when you add superstars. It’s the cost of chasing a title.
Atkinson seemed to know then it eventually could lead to the dissolution of his relationship with the Nets. The job that he was hired to do, the one he did so well, could be in jeopardy.
The Nets announced Saturday morning that they and Atkinson “mutually agree to part ways,” a decision that surprised a lot of NBA folks considering the respect and equity Atkinson earned over the last four years.
Jacque Vaughn will take over for the remainder of the season, with the Nets in Los Angeles next week.
“It was time for a new voice in the locker room,” general manager Sean Marks told reporters, adding that Atkinson agreed with the assessment.
While Durant was expected to miss the entire season as he rehabbed from an Achilles tendon injury, the Nets got only 20 games out of Irving before a shoulder injury required season-ending surgery. The Nets, despite a disappointing 28-34 record, still are almost a lock to make the playoffs.
Rumors of player unhappiness, though, bounced around the NBA on Saturday, with speculation that the decision was driven from within the locker room.
“This didn’t involve the players,” Marks said.
No one fully believes that. As one NBA insider put it — if Durant and Irving wanted Atkinson to still be the coach, the organization would’ve figured out how to make it work.
Atkinson will be one of the top names for open jobs this summer — it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a team like Cleveland, full of young talent that needs developing, being interested.
As far as the Nets job, Vaughn will get the first look with the onus on Marks to find the coach to take them to the next level. Mark Jackson and Tyronn Lue could be two names to monitor.
Ultimately, whomever the Nets hire won’t be tasked with creating a culture or even with keeping alive the work Atkinson did. Whoever is next will have to be the right person to work with Brooklyn’s stars because that’s what matters most.
Davis’ MVP case
LeBron James’ terrific season probably has assured that Anthony Davis won’t receive many first-place MVP votes, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve consideration.
Playing the most meaningful basketball of his career, Davis has been a monster since the All-Star break, averaging 26.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.3 blocked shots and 1.1 steals while making nearly 41% of his three-point shots.
Davis also has been durable, missing consecutive games only once.
“It started in the summertime, his strength in the weight room,” Lakers teammate Jared Dudley said. “I think there are some games he might’ve taken off last year, but I think [ James’] presence, being with him, he’s gutted through performances. And he’s gotten stronger.”
Credit Luke Walton, as the Sacramento Kings have managed to hang around the race for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. … The Lakers’ signing of Dion Waiters raised eyebrows around the NBA, but one rival coach said he liked the move. “All he’ll have to do is stand there, and he’ll be wide open when LeBron throws him the ball.” … Giannis Antetokounmpo landed awkwardly late in the Milwaukee Bucks’ loss to the Lakers on Friday, but he thought there wasn’t any damage to his left knee. He’ll have an MRI exam this weekend. … Orlando coach Steve Clifford has been cleared to return to the bench after leaving Friday’s game because of dizziness. Clifford went to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with dehydration and released.