Last week, it was reported that the Charlotte Hornets will be naming Kenny Atkinson as their next head coach. He beat out a couple of former NBA coaches in Mike D’Antoni and Terry Stotts and a number of up and coming assistants. A look through his reputation and resume gives us an idea of what the Hornets were so drawn to.
To start, Atkinson boasts about as good a run of assistant coaching gigs as one could have. He got his start as an NBA assistant under the aforementioned Mike D’Antoni. After D’Antoni’s departure from New York, Atkinson latched on with Mike Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta. He worked there for four years before getting his first head coaching job with the Brooklyn Nets in 2016.
He stepped into one of the worst roster situations in recent NBA history. In 2013, the Nets made a series of trades that would result in them not having their own first round pick between 2014 and 2017. In exchange for all of those picks, they received 31 year old Joe Johnson, 37 year old Kevin Garnett, 36 year old Paul Pierce, and 36 year old Jason Terry. That swing for the fences ended up being one of the biggest whiffs in NBA history. That group peaked with a second round playoff loss in five games to the Miami Heat in 2014. That aging core quickly and predictably fell apart, leaving the Nets with a depleted roster and no clear path for immediate improvement.
Atkinson took over in 2016 after a combination of Lionel Hollins and Tony Brown guided the Nets to a 21-61 record in the season prior. He got to watch as the Celtics used one of the picks they acquired from the Nets to select Jaylen Brown third overall. Meanwhile, the Nets came out of draft night 2016 with Isaiah Whitehead and eventually Caris LeVert.
Their pick in the 2017 draft, also owned by the Celtics, ended up being number one overall. The Nets swung a trade to land D’Angelo Russell, who was outcast after the Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball. It was part of a process where the Nets stockpiled misfits and castoffs to try to find some semblance of competitiveness on their roster. Atkinson turned that group into a playoff team by in his third season at the helm. That team was led by Russell, who escaped the bust label to become an All Star. The next three leading scorers on that team were Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and Caris LeVert, none of whom were given much a chance to be key contributors on playoff teams. That team had a reputation for being scrappy and punching weight above its weight class.
Atkinson resigned near the end of the following season. Russell had been shipped off for Kevin Durant, who wouldn’t play all season due to an achilles injury. The team’s other star acquisition, Kyrie Irving, only appeared in 20 games. What truly led to his resignation has never been made super clear, but it’s never felt like it was a matter of him not being a good coach. There were other factors and egos at play.
Atkinson landed on his feet, picking up where he left off as an assistant for a top tier head coach. He spent one season with the Clippers under Ty Lue before moving over to be an assistant under Steve Kerr in Golden State.
So to summarize the resume, Atkinson has served an assistant under three different coaches that have won a total of five coach of the year awards. Three of the coaches he has coached under have won NBA titles, and the fourth is Mike D’Antoni. Every NBA coach he has worked under is either a coach of the year or NBA champion, if not both. In his lone head coaching opportunity, he helped build a hodgepodge of players into a scrappy playoff team.
That’s a unique blend of experiences. He had a front row seat to watch some of the best at their craft lead a variety of teams. On top of that, he has his own head coaching experience where he was forced to develop some coal into diamonds. The Hornets need that developmental approach as this young squad and its young point guard to continue to grow, but they also need someone that knows how to take a team to the next step. They need a coach that knows how to coach a winning team.
Atkinson is heavily analytical, but his delivery isn’t so robotic that it will fall upon deaf ears. A significant reason he is on Steve Kerr’s staff this season is to serve as a liaison between a heavily analytical front office and not-a-numbers-guy Steve Kerr. There are a couple of snippets in this mic’d up clip during his time with the Nets where you can hear Atkinson refer to the PPP (points per possession) of shots in the short corner and call for his team to force 2-point shots outside of the paint, two foundational components of an analytics-based approach to basketball.
That video shows other elements of Atkinson’s coaching style that he’s become known for. He’s intense but personable. He mixes it up and takes the floor to compete with his players. He holds them accountable but also listens to their feedback.
He has a track record of developing point guards. He was on the staff for Linsanity one year after Raymond Felton almost looked like an all star in New York. Jeff Teague had his best seasons in Atlanta with Atkinson on the staff which included his only all star appearance. Russell revitalized his career and turned into an all star under Atkinson’s watch in Brooklyn while Spencer Dinwiddie went from fringe NBA journeyman to a player that can be a key piece on a playoff team.
The Hornets have their own point guard to mold, except theirs has already played in an all star game at age 20 and has started his NBA career like few others have. LaMelo Ball is a superstar in the making. He’s one of the most naturally gifted players in the league, but his game needs refining before the Hornets can take the next step. Atkinson has a track record that suggests he can be the guy to make that happen.
The Hornets were trending in the right direction under James Borrego, but the front office felt the team needed a new voice to make it to the next level. Atkinson brings a new voice with a lot of weight behind it. He’s proven he can develop talent as a head coach and he has served as an understudy for some of the best coaches in the NBA that have taken teams to the highest level, and depending on how the next couple of days go, he could be coming fresh off an NBA Championship. He brings guard development pedigree to a team that has possibly the future best point guard in the NBA. He fits what the Hornets should have been looking for in a new head coach to a T.