Kenny Atkinson Knicks
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Nets preparing for playoffs after historically late coaching change

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Kyrie Irving‘s recent season-ending shoulder surgery mostly elicited shrugs. If anything, the most common response was questioning why Irving tried to tough it out in the first place. From the moment they got Kevin Durant, the Nets were building toward 2020-21, anyway.

Brooklyn’s major moves are all about next season and beyond.

Especially firing Kenny Atkinson.

Everyone seems to agree: Atkinson wasn’t the right coach to guide the Nets into their next era. The Nets obviously thought so, ousting Atkinson on Saturday. Atkinson also said his voice no longer resonated in Brooklyn and that it was time for change, according to Nets general manager Sean Marks.

The conclusion might have been reasonable. Setting a culture requires a somewhat different skill set than helping stars advance further. Just because Atkinson got Brooklyn on track doesn’t mean he was the right coach for Irving and Durant. The Nets could be better off with a new coach next season.

But Brooklyn still has the rest of this season, and that will almost certainly include a playoff berth.

What an unusual time to fire a coach, just 20 games remaining before the postseason.

The Nets weren’t good under Atkinson (28-34). But that was plenty to get into playoff position in the Eastern Conference. He appeared more than qualified to optimize this final stretch.

With Durant sidelined all season and Irving out the rest of the year, Brooklyn looked more similar to the team Atkinson surprisingly coached into the playoffs and that put up a decent fight against the 76ers in the first round last year. These Nets were weaker after losing D'Angelo Russell and several key role players to make room for the stars. But Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert kept enough of the team’s style intact.

Instead, interim coach Jacque Vaughn has already changed Brooklyn’s identity, starting DeAndre Jordan over Allen. Given Jordan’s bond with Durant and Irving and Allen’s incumbent status, that switch made waves.

And the playoffs are just around the corner. The seventh-place Nets have a six-game cushion for postseason position. They’re still a safe bet to make it.

Here are the playoff teams that changed coaches with the fewest games remaining:

Nets

The last time a playoff-bound team fired a coach with fewer than 30 games remaining? The Pistons dropping Alvin Gentry in 2000, when George Irvine took over with just 24 games left.

In the other two more-recent cases that leaderboard, Mike D’Antoni (2012 Knicks) and Don Nelson (2005 Mavericks) resigned.

This Nets franchise is no stranger to this type of chaos. In 1983, New Jersey went from Larry Brown to Bill Blair with just six games left. Brown agreed to become coach at Kansas and initially planned to take over after the NBA season. The Nets told him it’d be best to leave immediately.

But Brown thrust the Nets into a difficult situation. This time, they invited the shakeup.

Brooklyn was headed toward a first-round loss, regardless. But the door is always open for an upset. Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s injury shows how the Bucks could be susceptible. The Raptors, Celtics and Heat aren’t invincible. Even merely being more competitive in a first-round defeat has value.

Whatever the Nets hope to accomplish this postseason, they’ll enter it without Atkinson. The long-term calculus of firing him is easier to grasp. The timing – so close to a playoffs that won’t include Durant and Irving, anyway – is still difficult to digest.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.