Nobody saw this coming.
Kenny Atkinson is out as the coach of the Brooklyn Nets. Everyone with the Nets says this was a mutual parting of the ways, that Atkinson’s voice was no longer resonating with this team and he had soured on coaching Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Everyone not on the Nets payroll will point out that with the volume of turnover on the Brooklyn roster, it’s not that Atkinson’s message got old, it’s that some players didn’t like the blue-collar, everyone-is-held-accountable style. Fingers are pointed at Irving and Durant as pushing Atkinson out, the Nets have tried to deny that.
Bottom line: If Irving and Durant wanted Atkinson as their coach, he’d still be the coach.
This means whoever will be the next Brooklyn coach will get at least a behind-the-scenes nod of approval from the two superstars.
Who will be that coach? Here are seven names to watch:
1) Mark Jackson.
It’s easy to play connect the dots here: Durant’s friend and business partner Rich Kleiman is a big Mark Jackson fan. When Kleiman’s name came up as a possible Knicks president, it was reported he would quickly hire Jackson. Plus, Jackson is a Brooklyn native.
Currently, Jackson works as an ESPN/ABC game analyst, before that he was the head coach of the Golden State Warriors (before Steve Kerr). A lot of people within the Warriors credit Jackson for laying the foundation of the team’s championship defense, but those same people will note Jackson was not easy to work with and feuded with everyone from the front office to his assistant coaches. If Durant and Irving did not like the direct, technical style of Atkinson as coach, the more motivational, rah-rah style of Jackson may be the call.
2) Tyronn Lue.
This, along with Jackson, was one of the first names I heard pop up from league sources speculating about who would be next in Brooklyn. Lue has won a title as a coach and done it with Kyrie Irving as his point guard. Vincent Goodwill at Yahoo Sports reports Irving wants Lue to get the job.
A former player respected by current players and currently sitting on the bench in Los Angeles as a Doc Rivers assistant, Lue evolved into a better Xs and Os coach than his critics give him credit for. More importantly, Lue has proven he can coach superstars at the highest level of the game — that may count for a lot in Brooklyn.
3) Jason Kidd.
The greatest former Nets player coming home would be the marketing department’s dream, plus Kidd is incredibly respected by players. Like with Lue and Jackson, if the Nets are looking to make a break from the technical and direct coaching style of Atkinson, Kidd could be the answer. The challenge here is, Kidd already coached the Nets back in 2014, then tried to leverage his position into more power in the organization, when that failed he bolted for Milwaukee. Do the Nets want to go back down that road?
4) Jeff Van Gundy.
The current CBA stipulates Van Gundy’s name has to come up in every coaching search. At least it feels that way. The former Knicks coach has dipped his toes back in the active coaching ranks by taking over the USA Basketball squads that qualified Team USA for the World Cup last summer. Van Gundy would bring the clout and gravitas to coach Durant and Irving, the question is would they want him?
5) David Fizdale.
If the Nets want to stick it to their cross-town rivals, this might be the call. The Knicks hired Fizdale in part because he was respected by top players — specifically LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from their Heat days — and had relationships with elite players. New York mistakenly thought Fizdale cold help recruit those stars. Instead, Irving and Durant went to the Nets (which was not so much about Fizdale as ownership). The warning sign here is Fizdale has gone 28-95 his last three seasons as a coach (between the Grizzlies and Knicks).
6) Mike D’Antoni.
He currently has a job as head coach of the Houston Rockets, but he is in the final year of his contract and good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks he will be back next season. D’Antoni is a proven winner who has coached superstars, adapted his system to fit with the talent he has, and can handle the New York media. This is a coach who belongs in the Hall of Fame, but that’s different than saying Durant, Irving, and the Brooklyn organization want him.
7) Jacque Vaughn.
Never count out the guy who has the job now, it is possible that Vaughn earns the gig by getting this roster to excel. He does have experience as the head coach in Orlando and a lot of coaches do better on their second job, having learned the hard lessons the first time around. That said, he will not get to coach Durant or Irving, so it would take a lot of convincing to see him get the gig full time.
Tom Thibodeau’s name comes up any time there is a coaching vacancy, but this seems a poor fit. Thibs is the kind of old-school coach the Nets just fired, plus Thibs is reportedly lobbying for the Knicks job just over the bridge
Another name that comes up a lot, Spurs assistant Becky Hamon. This would be a surprise — not because she’s not ready or couldn’t handle it, but rather that the Nets would make this her first top job. Coaching Durant and Irving on a title contender (or a team that believes it is a title contender) is not an entry-level position. She will get her chance someday (probably), but this is not the landing spot.