When Rick Pitino talks, it’s a good idea to listen.
The native New Yorker recently got his second (or is it his third?) chance, signing on to lead Iona College’s basketball program. It has been nearly three years since Pitino was dismissed from Louisville and banished to the Euroleague following a recruiting scandal that shook the NCAA.
Now back in the states, Pitino caught up with Steve Serby of the New York Post to discuss an array of basketball-related topics, and due to his familiarity with the city’s basketball scene, he was asked about the Brooklyn Nets — the winners of the NBA’s 2019 Free Agency .
The Basketball Hall of Famer was first asked about his thoughts on the Nets firing of Kenny Atkinson and like many in the coaching fraternity, Pitino was surprised and took up a defense of Atkinson
“Shocked.” Pitino said. “If you look at his roster right now, there’s no way they’re a playoff team, and he (had) them in the playoffs. He took guys with no reputation, and developed them into really good basketball players. Actually would have been one of my choices for Coach of the Year.”
Pitino, a former Knicks coach, was then asked about his reaction when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving chose Brooklyn. He was surprised the star duo didn’t even give the Knicks an interview, but admitted the allure of playing 41 games at The Garden isn’t the same for players today as it was for those of the past.
“Without giving the Knicks an interview, that was shocking.” Pitino said. “The Knicks today, it’s not like the old days, where everybody dreamed of playing at Madison Square Garden. When I was playing ball, you’d give everything to get to Madison Square Garden. So it’s a little bit different today, and the Knick organization is going through difficult times, but hopefully they got the right leadership now and they’ll turn it around.”
In addition, Pitino expressed optimism about Durant’s ability to rebound from the Achilles injury, citing KD’s reliance on skill more than athleticism for his success.
“I’ve always thought that way, because (KD’s) 6’11”, shoots it, great passer, great length, knows the game, basketball junkie, he always wants to be in the gym, always wants to get better. Now obviously he’s coming off a very difficult injury [torn Achilles tendon], but Kevin really never relied on athleticism to be great. So that’s gonna help him coming back from this injury. Although he is athletic, he never relied on that, he relied on his skills more than anything else.”
Pitino spoke glowingly of Kyrie— who he has long had an affinity for. The former Celtic oach even tried to dispel some of that Boston criticism that seems to never go away.
“Kyrie’s a great player. And I spoke to the Celtic equipment manager who I’m very close with, and he said Kyrie really didn’t deserve the criticism he got because he’s a good guy, very intelligent. Sometimes you gotta spend time with people before you pass judgment.”
With the Nets title window opening next season, do they have what it takes as currently constructed to win it all? Pitino admitted a lot is still up in the air.
“It all depends on how good they’re gonna be defensively.” Pitino said. “Are you gonna be Houston? Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the type you want to be, then that’s the type of team you will be. You’ve gotta develop an identity of what you want to be from a style standpoint, and once they develop that identity through their new coach, then we’ll see how good they’re going to be.”
As Pitino alluded to, from the coaching decision, personnel moves, and draft selections, Sean Marks will have his hands full. Not to mention the four players who’ve tested positive for coronavirus. Properly molding the Nets roster for a title run won’t be easy, but with a core of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the foundation for greatness is still there.