Even when trying to exude calm, Kenny Atkinson displays a distinct level of intensity. It’s who he is; it’s what the Nets like enough to extend him and his coaching staff.
It’s what prompted Jared Dudley to talk about his new head coach back at Media Day in September ... before even playing a game with the Nets.
“Obviously you can tell (Atkinson’s) a New York guy: Fiery and energetic,” said Dudley. “He’s always around. I don’t know him like that but I bet you when he goes home he’s watching film at night. It’s kind of hard to leave basketball from him.
“Certain people like Doc Rivers after practice could go right to golf. I don’t see Kenny as a golfer right after practice. I see someone who’s over here making a ham sandwich watching some film.”
And it’s not just post-game. Atkinson is known to be an early bird, arriving at HSS Training Center as early as 4:30 a.m. most days, working off the morning stress on an exercise bike.
So, even if Atkinson often looks intense — borderline stressed — it’s for good reason. He knows what he’s up against and what it takes.
Now, after surviving through two seasons and only 48 victories, Atkinson leads a team with .500 record — 39-39 — in the midst of a playoff chase where they control their own destiny.
When asked recently what word he’d use for his current situation. Atkinson opted for “exciting.” (He’s also used the terms, “anxiety,” “stress” and “no enjoyment.”)
“I think that’s the word,” he said of “exciting” before Brooklyn thumped the Celtics 110-96 on their home floor Saturday night.
“There’s no fear. There’s no trepidation … I do think, quite honestly – I said this before the road trip – we’re probably not favored in any of games but it’s almost like we’ve got to pull off some NCAA upsets,” added Atkinson, in the spirit of March Madness.
The Nets have created their own madness throughout the season, as Atkinson later alluded to, defeating a bevy of opponents they probably shouldn’t have. In fact, the Nets really shouldn’t be contending for a playoff spot, according to many, because of two major season-altering events.
November 12: Caris LeVert dislocated his leg, unable to return until February 8.
December 5: After losing eight straight, the Nets fall to 8-18 – 2-12 in games LeVert was unable to finish – including a home losses to the four-win Cleveland Cavaliers and the two-win New York Knicks.
Back then, on podcasts and in the media room, several of us would routinely discuss and dissect whether Brooklyn should punt on the season, since they finally are in possession of their own first-rounder. Many of you hypothesized over whether or not the Nets should continue to employ Atkinson at all, some bizarrely suggesting that Atkinson return to his previous role as a development coach.
Those are all, for the want of a better term, neutralized narratives. In light of what’s happened since, it all looks so absurd in hindsight. Fans are often not gifted with patience.
Now, of course, he faces the playoff challenge and it’s a tough one. But once again, he channeling all that stress and excitement of hopes of taking his players to another level.
“We’ve got to beat some teams we’re not supposed to beat and that’s just plain and simple,” Atkinson said Saturday. “I think these guys know that but they’ve done it all year. We’ve come out and beaten some teams that were favored. We’ve got to do it again these final games.”
“Every game is going to be worth it. We need it. (We’re) scratching and clawing for every one of them,” added D’Angelo Russell after leading the Nets with 29 points and 10 assists against Boston.
While Atkinson did use “exciting,” it will also be nerve-racking; while fans have progressed from exasperated to entitled to playoff basketball, Atkinson also labels the success as gratifying.
Since Sean Marks’ hiring on February 18, 2016, and Atkinson’s arrival two months later, the Nets have never had the incentive to punt. The Nets had the most morbid future of any NBA franchise three years ago, so much so that the Markinson duo had to settle for becoming lowly paid. probably the lowest paid general manager-head coach tandem in the NBA at the time. Now, that will change.
They could’ve selected third, first and eighth overall in the most recent three NBA Drafts if it weren’t for Billy King’s 2013 trade with Boston. Instead, they found Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Dzanan Musa in the 20’s, while also identifying Rodions Kurucs in the second round this past June. And developed them all ... along with rescuing D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris from various fates.
The Nets have gone from trash to treasure. To fans suggesting that the season would be deemed a failure if the Nets don’t make the playoffs. To people forgetting just how hopeless things appeared in 2016 and even this past December. To Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and other big names being discussed as legitimate possibilities come along this July, here’s the message: the guy can coach and that’s not just x’s and o’s. It’s development, building cohesion, chemistry and character.
“We never went into a game with a tank mentality in all my time here,” said Atkinson. “I think there’s always been ‘a compete at a high level, compete for longer periods’ within the team and that message has stayed consistent throughout these three seasons. I think it helps. I think it really helps.”
It all helps. There are four games left, games that stand between Brooklyn and its first playoff series in four seasons.
For the organization, it’s a quality position to earn. For Atkinson and his staff, it’s more a justification of hard work, now about to be rewarded by ownership who decided not to wait till the Nets playoff fate is learned. They know what they got. Couldn’t happen to a nicer, if intense, guy.