Schmeelk: Knicks Should Begin Pursuit Of Kenny Atkinson Today

Ex-Nets Coach Could Be In High Demand This Summer

John Schmeelk
March 09, 2020 - 10:39 am

In a shocking development over the weekend, the Nets and head coach Kenny Atkinson decided to part ways. Despite not having any significant draft capital or making a big splash in free agency, Atkinson moved the Nets from 20 to 28 and then to 42 wins in his first three seasons. The Nets, despite trading D’Angelo Russell, not having Kevin Durant all season and having Kyrie Irving for only 20 games, hold the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and are 29-34 this season.

Atkinson and the Nets did it through player development. He made Brooklyn into a playoff team by turning a group consisting of Spencer Dinwiddie (Pistons 2014 second-round pick), Joe Harris (Cavaliers 2014 second-round pick), Caris LeVert (2016 20th overall pick), Jarrett Allen (2017 22nd overall pick) and a bunch of journeymen into an effective basketball team.

Both Harris and Dinwiddie spent time in the G League and were reclamation projects who were non-prospects when they arrived in Brooklyn. Atkinson took on Russell, who had struggled badly in the first couple years of his career with the Lakers, and helped him make his first All-Star team.

Atkinson gets the most out of his players. He is exactly what the Knicks need in their new head coach, and they shouldn’t waste time trying to hire him. Despite Leon Rose’s arrival as the team’s new president, the Knicks are still in a long-term rebuild. They have seven players on their roster who are 22 years old or younger and are under contract beyond this season.

The Nets' Kenny Atkinson coaches against the Pelicans on Dec. 17, 2019, at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Images

The Knicks will have a top-10 draft pick this year, and a second first-round pick that will land close to 30th overall. The Knicks also control seven first-round picks in the next four years, and they have at least one second-round pick in every season moving forward. The “double draft,” when high school players are made draft eligible again, is also likely to come at some point in the next two to four seasons.

Even if the Knicks do sign free agents or trade for a star, they are going to need the current young players under contract -- RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson among them -- to develop and become good supporting pieces. What would it mean for the Knicks’ future if Atkinson could do with Dennis Smith Jr. what he did with Russell?

Atkinson is a proven commodity in New York who has shown he can improve teams built like the Knicks. It is the type of development that has eluded the franchise the past few seasons. Atkinson also plays a specific type of basketball that fits the way the NBA game is evolving.

The Nets are fifth in the NBA averaging 37.8 3-point attempts per game.

The Nets are seventh in the NBA averaging 24.2 free-throw attempts per game.

The Nets play at the 10th fastest pace in the NBA.

The Nets are ranked eighth in the NBA in defensive rating, at 108.4 points per 100 possessions.

Atkinson is a good basketball coach, and the Knicks would be lucky to have him. He will be in high demand this summer, and the Knicks would be smart to try to beat the crowd and consider hiring him today.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on his “Lowe Post” podcast with Kevin Arnovitz over the weekend that there could realistically be 10 or more head-coaching vacancies this summer. The competition would be fierce for Atkinson, and the Knicks might not end up being his top choice.

We saw something similar happen two summers ago with Mike Budenholzer, when he seemed to prefer the Bucks to the Knicks because of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Knicks might have chosen David Fizdale anyway, but there is no way to know. The Knicks also lost out on Steve Kerr when then-president Phil Jackson was looking for his first coach in 2014. If the Knicks can avoid that with Atkinson, they should.

Atkinson is not a perfect coach, but he is undoubtedly a good one. Might his tenacity and hard-charging attention to detail be a turnoff to some players around the league, which might have accelerated his exit with the Nets? Maybe. But no coach is perfect, and the other candidates who have been mentioned for the Knicks have just as many, if not more, questions about their coaching histories.

Interim coach Mike Miller has done a good job with the Knicks since he took over, leading them to a pace of 31 wins over a full season. But if the Knicks signed him long term, everyone would be thrilled if he coached the Knicks as well as Atkinson did the Nets over the past 3½ seasons. So why not go get the far more known commodity in Atkinson?

Tom Thibodeau has similar issues as Atkinson with his reputation for driving players too hard, but he also hasn’t embraced the modern play style of the NBA like Atkinson has. Mark Jackson has his own problems. Jeff Van Gundy has done good work with the U.S. national team and he understands the game, but he hasn’t coached in the NBA since 2007.

College coaches such as John Calipari and Jay Wright are great names to mention, but they are little more than pipedreams. The Knicks might be able to find the next great head coach from the assistant ranks, but there is truly no way to know how good of a head coach they will be until they have the job and have to do it. There’s a lot of risk there.

There isn’t if they go hire Atkinson. He might say no and prefer to have a wider swath of teams to choose from this summer. Or maybe he would be delighted that he wouldn’t have to move and could keep his kids in school in New York City. The Knicks should at least find out.

Whomever Rose hires as his first head coach will be one of his most important decisions. Atkinson is as much of a known quantity with very little risk as anyone who will be available this summer. The Knicks would be foolish not to pursue him, starting today.

You can find John on Twitter at @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports. You can find the most recent episode of "The Bank Shot," his Knicks podcast, featuring Sports Illustrated NBA draft analyst Jeremy Woo here. You can also listen or subscribe to "The Bank Shot" at RADIO.COM, Apple Podcasts and other popular podcast platforms.