This last weekend, Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson was signed to a four-year deal to be the next head coach of the Charlotte Hornets, beating out Mike D’Antoni for the position.
Following months of having his name tossed around as an ideal candidate to become the next head coach of the Kings, Atkinson was shockingly missing from GM Monte McNair’s preliminary list of seven finalists to be interviewed.
“From what I know, the Kings had a list initially. Kenny Atkinson was on that list,” beat writer James Ham said on ESPN 1320, going on to highlight the former Nets head coach’s absence from the shortened catalog of names.
Without having to go into much more detail, the primary thing that popped into mind was the idea that Atkinson just didn’t want anything to do with an organization’s ownership that has contributed the last 9 seasons of the 16-year playoff drought, overseen multiple head coaching changes, and is widely regarded as a chaotic mess.
Having hired Mike Brown as head coach of a revamped roster set on getting better, the Kings are signaling a determined intention to change their reputation, but the matter with Atkinson is yet another look in the mirror for Vivek Ranadive’s organization and just how much more work has to be put into actually changing anything.
If anyone knows rough, incongruous situations, it’s Atkinson.
Amid his fourth year as the coach of the Nets, Atkinson was fired in early March 2020. It was the first year overseeing a team with star talent in the locker room following the acquisitions of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, though that stardom rarely saw the floor for Brooklyn as an injury riddled season had Irving playing in just 20 games while Durant was out the whole year rehabbing.
In his three full seasons prior to that, Atkinson had taken a young, inexperienced team—with, notably, no draft capital in the aftermath of the Garnett-Pierce trade with the Celtics—and had them playing basketball the right way with “equal opportunity offense” and defensive focus in an environment that felt, to many, like a laid back college atmosphere.
He brought his rich player development background with him to the helm, helping to bring the best out of guys and being largely responsible for the growth and emergence of Jarrett Allen, D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, and Spencer Dinwiddie in their respective NBA careers.
In fact, Atkinson got the young Nets team to the playoffs in that third year. But things changed as Irving and Durant were suddenly inserted into the center of something that had been organically cultivated.
“Dealing with a young, up-and-coming team is much different than coaching superstar players,” said Joe Harris around the time of Atkinson’s departure. “It’s a much different dynamic.”
Not only was the upward trajectory that Atkinson had the Nets on disrupted, but it was clear the talented newcomers thought differently of how the team should be managed in the end.
Included in the additions of the new look Nets that year was DeAndre Jordan, but with Jarrett Allen playing at a high level and essentially being his coach’s guy from day one, the big name vet was coming off of the bench.
This lead to the dismay of the veteran and the other prominent talent, and it was the starting point of a declining locker room chemistry and what would end up being Atkinson’s journey out of Brooklyn.
Atkinson spent the next two seasons as an assistant coach—first, on Tyronn Lue’s staff with the Clippers, and then for Steve Kerr in Golden State this season—and is open about how he values these years as an impactful part of his journey back towards the head coach’s chair. In contrast to the things he experienced in Brooklyn—both what he undertook and, moreover, what landed in his lap—the coach called these last two stops as “good situations.”
“It’s a great experience being considered [for head coaching jobs], but, man, I’m in such a great place — not only from basketball, but from a living in California, the Bay Area, the whole thing. Kids love the school, wife loves it,” Atkinson said last week, days before the announcement of his hiring.
“So it almost takes the pressure off when you’re really in a good situation,” he added. “I mean, I’m still competitive, and I try to do my best in interviewing and everything, but also in the back of my mind I’m saying, like, man, if I don’t get another shot, I’m in a great, great situation.”
Simply put, Atkinson did not feel an insatiable urge to jump back into a head coaching job. Rather, he wanted the right job that would present another “good situation.”
There’s no doubt Charlotte is potentially bound to be a good situation after coming off of a 43-39 season, making the play-in and just falling short of the playoffs. They also have the ascending career arc of LaMelo Ball, who just made the all-star team, as well as the growing talent of Miles Bridges, who averaged over 20 points this year. Additionally, they had the ninth best offense in the league with a rating of 114.1, offering a nice foundation on one end that will allow Atkinson to apply a sharper focus to the defensive end. And of course, they have two first-round picks, including a lottery pick at 13th overall.
Minus the play-in appearance, much is the same for the Kings. There isn’t a young star-to-be going into his third year, but with the addition of two-time all-star Domantas Sabonis alongside De’Aaron Fox—as well as the other deadline adds that, as a whole, had Sacramento scoring “with the best of them,” as Justin Holiday observed in mid-March—the modified roster is poised to take a leap forward, especially if coach Brown can tune up the defense. Plus, they hold the 4th overall pick, which offers a seemingly endless bounty of opportunities to improve.
Despite the similarities between what the outlook for next season looks like for these two teams, Atkinson interviewed for and got the job with one while not getting involved with the other.
Unlike the situations in Charlotte and Sacramento, the Lakers are a team notable for its big name players, and yet they also had Atkinson involved in the final stage of their hiring process. For however bad his situation was as his time came to an end in Brooklyn, Atkinson clearly did not perceive any overt similarity between that poor environment and the current state of the Lakers.
Could the same thing be said of the Kings?
It may very well change, but the general viewpoint is that the this franchise is a bad situation until proven otherwise. TNT’s Charles Barkley recently referred to the current iteration of the Sacramento Kings as “embarrassing” and “screwed.”
Did Kenny Atkinson think the same?
Again, McNair got his guy in Mike Brown, but the matter of Kenny Atkinson is a clear reminder that the Sacramento Kings will do more than simply end a dreadful drought if they make the playoffs this upcoming season. They will begin to finally change their perception for the better, which will be the first step towards a future where hearing ‘Sacramento’ isn’t a deal-breaker for a considerable amount of coaches and players.