Casting a wide net: Coach’s tough balancing act

Casting a wide net: Coach’s tough balancing act

attractive free-agent destination for Irving and Durant last summer.’ data-reactid=”23″>Atkinson’s player-development chops — combined with shrewd moves from GM Sean Marks — enabled Brooklyn to become an attractive free-agent destination for Irving and Durant last summer.

Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson never stops trying to develop his players. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

But injuries have continually prevented the Nets (26-30) from making significant progress heading into their title-or-bust window, while perpetually putting Atkinson’s preferred lineups and rotations in flux. Irving played just 20 games before undergoing season-ending arthroscopic shoulder surgery.

“That’s my comfort zone. I love jumping in drills. It’s just my personality,” Atkinson said. “When I got this job, someone told me, ‘Don’t change.’ Don’t all of a sudden be in the office all the time. But I can’t do that. It’s not who I am. And I’ve embraced that.”

It makes Atkinson something of a rare breed in today’s NBA, where assistants are typically in charge of running individual contact drills.

“It’s great seeing him out there,” Allen said. “It makes me feel special because he’s working with me. You hear a lot of stories that head coaches don’t do that. He puts everything into it and makes it simple for you.”

In a 2019-20 campaign that hasn’t exactly gone as anticipated following a massive free-agent windfall over the summer, Atkinson continues to give it his all.

“I would describe him as intense,” Allen said. “He wants the best from everybody. He’s obviously a great coach in my eyes.”

Whatever it takes

In 1988, Richmond became the Cinderella Story of the NCAA tournament — reaching the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 13 seed — with Atkinson serving as the team’s starting point guard.

The Spiders’ storybook run featured back-to-back upsets of Indiana and Georgia Tech. In the second round, Richmond held Yellow Jackets freshman sensation Dennis Scott to 3-of-13 shooting from 3-point range en route to a 59-55 victory.

It’s going to be different when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving play for the Nets next season. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

A championship future?

Irving (shoulder) and Durant (Achilles) will both be coming off significant injuries, but next season is going to come with championship expectations regardless.

“I think I’ll just prepare like I’ve always prepared,” said Atkinson, who signed a multi-year contract extension with Brooklyn in April 2019. “I think that changes things, but I have enough confidence in myself and my staff that we’ll prepare the guys correctly, and we don’t talk about wins and losses.

“The results will come if we follow this process we’ve followed all along. So keep doing that. Why change?”

Atkinson certainly got a taste of what’s to come while essentially being the team spokesman as Irving missed 26 straight games due to a right shoulder impingement. The organization was criticized at the time for a lack of transparency.

“That’s a new challenge for me because I think I’m more sensitive to saying the wrong thing,” Atkinson said. “In the beginning, [the media] didn’t really care that much if I slipped up. And that puts you a little more on edge but also makes you a little more prepared. But in general basketball is basketball.”

Atkinson also found himself frequently defending Irving from critics. Durant and Irving’s talent is off the charts, but the former is known as “sensitive” and the latter is known as “mercurial.” The coach, known for his out-of-timeout sets, will also have to incorporate his team’s analytics-heavy “drive or get a corner 3-pointer” offense with Durant and Irving’s mid-range/isolation exploits.

“He doesn’t get caught up in any of that ‘Real Housewives’ drama,” Atkinson’s oldest brother, Michael, said.

“I just want to coach. That’s the comfort zone,” Atkinson said. “What you do have to deal with with those guys a little bit more is they have opinions — and really good opinions most of the time. At practice, Ky or KD might say, ‘Why don’t we do it this way?’ Some coaches can be sensitive to that. I’m OK with it. This is the next step in my development, coaching a team with more veterans.”

That doesn’t mean Atkinson is perfect. Fans wish he’d call timeouts quicker during opposing runs, and often complain that he can be too married to his rotations. But as Nets longtime radio color commentator Tim Capstraw points out, Atkinson isn’t afraid to admit when he’s wrong, an endearing quality.

“He comes across as confident, competent and humble,” Capstraw said. “The modern coaching trifecta.”

Added former Nets front-office executive Irina Pavlova, who went with Marks and Atkinson to a Duran Duran concert at Barclays Center and gave Atkinson a tour of the team’s new practice facility days before he was hired in April 2016:

“He’s incredibly hard-working. He’s his own harshest critic — 1,000 times worse on himself than anyone else can be. He’s a perfectionist. He lives and breathes the job. He loves his players. He’s a nice, fun guy, but he knows his s–t.”

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