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:
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 on 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.