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Who might replace Kenny Atkinson? A look into potential candidates

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Billy Reinhardt takes a deep dive into the many names that have been rumored to be the next Nets head coach ... and some that haven’t

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets shocked the NBA world on Saturday morning with an announcement that Head Coach Kenny Atkinson and the team were mutually parting ways after nearly four seasons together.

Behind Atkinson, Brooklyn saw a return to relevance in just three years, rising from the depths of basketball purgatory. Under Atkinson, the Nets went from being a 21-win dumpster fire on the heels of the infamous Boston trade into a playoff team that was able to attract Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

At this point, there’s not much out there about the type of candidate the Nets are looking for. Many, including ESPN’s Zach Lowe, have speculated that the Nets should pursue a veteran coach — one preferably with championship pedigree given the state of the roster and the goals ahead of them.

However, it’s important to note, in similar circumstances around the league, first time head coaches like Steve Kerr and Nick Nurse found success and even went on to win championships in their first years after replacing veterans Mark Jackson in Golden State and Dwane Casey in Toronto, respectively. While a veteran coach would likely be preferable for the Nets in dealing with the expectations, media, the enigmatic Irving, and sometimes thorny Durant, don’t expect the Nets to close themselves off to any potentially attractive candidate. If history shows us anything, they’ll be thorough throughout the pre-interview and interview process in trying to find the best candidate available — regardless of experience.

One criteria likely to influence a Nets decision is the candidate’s openness and familiarity with analytics. The Nets have one of the largest basketball operations staffs in the entire association — much of it made of up analytics personnel. They value numbers and will likely want another coach that embraces information and caters his or her system and philosophies on both ends around analytics.

That being said, let’s get into the candidates.

Long-Shots

Jason Kidd

The current Lakers assistant and NBA Hall of Famer is arguably the best player in franchise history, but he had a rocky ending following his ‘power-play’ to force his way up the Nets hierarchy after his one-year stint as Brooklyn’s head coach. While nearly all basketball and non-basketball related Nets staffers are gone from Kidd’s first stint, you have to wonder if there’s still a bit of unresolved beef between Kidd and the organization. While the potential of New Jersey Nets fan Kyrie Irving playing for the greatest point guard in the team’s history is a fascinating scenario, Kidd’s tumultuous exit as well as his rocky stint as Milwaukee’s head coach probably make it unlikely he returns to Brooklyn next season.

Tom Thibodeau

The former Bulls coach was highly successful in the early 2010s. Leading a roster filled with grizzled veterans in Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and a young Derrick Rose, ‘Thibs’ gained a reputation around the league as a defensive guru and one of the NBA’s best coaches. However, times have changed. Thibs’ old school approach has worn on players and his style on both ends is a bit antiquated for where the game is right now. Thibodeau is known to run his players into the ground, playing them heavy minutes ... and risking injury. That doesn’t seem to jibe with the Nets overly conservative organizational philosophy. It’s fair to rule Thibs out.

David Fizdale

The former Knicks coach was hired in New York partly for the fact that he gained a reputation as a players coach from his time in Miami. He was respected for his ability to get along with stars, citing relationships with LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. A ‘King James’ referral will get you a long way in the NBA, but part of the problem for Fizdale in New York was that perhaps his best trait as a coach — his ability to relate with stars — couldn’t be put to use with a barren Knicks roster. Might he be a fit with the Nets? It’s hard to imagine the Nets going in that direction. The optics of choosing Fizdale over Atkinson a year after Durant and Irving chose the Nets over the Knicks wouldn’t make sense. Also, wouldn’t it be odd to see an analytically saturated organization like the Nets choosing a coach that once famously mocked data in a post-game presser?

Mark Jackson

Since the announcement of Atkinson’s departure, many have jumped to the conclusion that the Brooklyn-born Jackson could be a fit for the Nets. SNY’s Ian Begley accurately recounted that KD’s business manager and agent, Rich Kleiman, is one of the biggest Jackson backers around. Kleiman — a Knicks fan — has gone to bat on numerous occasions for Jackson, believing like many that the former Knicks guard got a raw deal being ousted from Golden State on the doorstep of a dynasty. While Jackson is revered for his ability to empower groups and be a leader of men, reports after his Golden State firing suggested that his act — almost that of a preacher — grew tiresome. With the Warriors, Jackson was also known for his rather bland, isolation-heavy offense as it wasn’t until Kerr took over the next season that the team reached historic offensive heights. Jackson has now been out of the NBA for six seasons and the former Nets announcer on YES Network has become somewhat of an out-of-touch laughing stock for ESPN’s NBA broadcasts. Just the other day, on the Bucks-Lakers broadcast, Jackson called Brook Lopez the worst defender in the Bucks starting five. That may have been true of Lopez a few years back, but this season he’s among the contenders for the NBA’s All-Defensive Team, anchoring Milwaukee with the fourth highest defensive rating in the league at 98.8. Out of touch with the league, not a believer in analytics, there’s a reason Jackson hasn’t gotten another shot since Golden State.

The Van Gundy’s

Jeff Van Gundy

In the year 2020 (and the 10 plus years that have preceded it), what’s a potential coaching candidates list without JVG? The former Knicks and Rockets coach has been rumored for years to want to return to coaching, but is he really ready to leave his cushy job as the lead analyst at ESPN? The 58-year old Van Gundy has been continually linked to the Knicks over the years and he has even admitted to having unfinished business there following his messy exit from The Garden in the early 2000s, but would he consider coming back coaching for the crosstown, more ready to win Nets? Van Gundy has stayed active as a coach through U.S. national team obligations and he’s a respected basketball mind that understands analytics much more than his ESPN partner, Jackson, but I’m not sure he’d be willing to take a back seat to Marks and the Nets’ very structured organization. JVG might want to run the show and speak his mind freely, so unless Marks is willing to make concessions to how he wants to run things, it’s probably unlikely JVG comes aboard.

Stan Van Gundy

Jeff’s brother has returned to the forefront of the NBA recently, serving as a lead analyst for the NBA’s TNT Tuesday broadcasts — often alongside Ian Eagle. In the early going, SVG has proven to be quite an astute announcer, demonstrating his basketball intelligence, and making broadcasts more educational. However, SVG’s blowup with Dwight Howard in Orlando so many years ago as well as his failure of a stint in Detroit as the Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations still stick in the minds of many. He’s another very strong personality that I simply don’t see as a fit under Marks and within the Nets culture.

Now we’ll get into some candidates that should be taken seriously...

Potential End-of-Season Breakups

Gregg Popovich

A dream scenario. ‘Pop’ is five-time NBA Champion, three-time Coach of the Year, and the current Head Coach of Team USA. As one of the greatest coaches of all-time, Popovich would provide the prestige needed to justify moving on from Atkinson — a clear upgrade. While some might think a Popovich to Brooklyn possibility is far fetched, look again. Popovich told the New York Times last year that he wasn’t sure if he’d coach the Spurs beyond this season. San Antonio’s North American sports record of 22 straight playoff appearance will likely end this season and with DeMar DeRozen and LaMarcus Aldridge aging and entering free agency soon, it seems the Spurs are plummeting rather than rising. Popovich could easily fade away from the NBA and the Spurs, strictly focusing on his Team USA obligations moving forward, but if he chooses to continue coaching, making his way up to Brooklyn makes a lot more sense than staying with a rebuilding Spurs team. The Nets sport an organization filled with former Spurs. In addition to Marks — who was a player, coach, and assistant GM with the Spurs during Popovich’s reign — Nets’ assistant GM Andy Birdsong, assistant Coach Tiago Splitter, and interim head coach Jacque Vaughn all came from the Spurs and have some connection with Pop. Add on Popovich’s familiarity with Durant and Irving from Team USA and All-Star Games as well as the mutual respect all parties involve share for each other, the dream scenario is more realistic than some would initially believe. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but don’t rule it out.

Mike D’Antoni

The Rockets and D’Antoni have been poised for a breakup for a few seasons now — it seems inevitable to happen this summer barring a Rockets title. That being said, D’Antoni checks off a few boxes for the Nets. He’s experienced, an offensive guru that could potentially make a KD and Kyrie led Nets offense otherworldly. He has embraced analytics perhaps more than any coach in basketball. As ‘boring’ as some might think Houston’s offense is, D’Antoni has built one of the league’s most efficient offenses around James Harden over the course of recent years. He also has a connection to the Nets GM, serving as Marks’ head coach in Phoenix for the two seasons. Due to Atkinson being a D’Antoni disciple, the two share many coaching philosophies, D’Antoni is just a bit more extreme than Atkinson — a West Virginia gunslinger rather than a gritty New Yorker. Speaking of New York, D’Antoni also failed a few years back as Knicks coach. Might the Nets be hesitant to give D’Antoni another shot in the big city? One wrinkle to this potential option is that D’Antoni is a good friend of Atkinson’s. Would D’Antoni even accept a Nets offer after they just axed his friend? D’Antoni was shocked and not happy upon hearing of Atkinson’s firing.

Brett Brown

The current Sixers coach has also been rumored to be on the hot seat the past few seasons. Despite, making it through the ‘Trust The Process’ tanking era for the Sixers, Brown has struggled to integrate all of Philadelphia’s awkward fitting pieces to maximize the team’s success. It’s hard to know how Brown would ideally want to play since he doesn’t have many options to play differently than he does now with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Philadelphia’s lack of spacing — the Nets personnel is completely the contrary. However, Brown is a former Spurs assistant that has won and if he’s fired from Philadelphia, I’d expect Marks to rekindle things with this old connection.

Terry Stotts

The Trail-Blazers coach may have run his course in Portland. It feels like the Lillard-McCollum-Stotts Blazers have reached their peak and it’s hard to see Portland running it back next season with that trio. It’s a stars league, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the coach go first, especially if Portland misses the playoffs — as expected— this season. Stotts is known for his free flowing offensive system and the Nets have shown an interest in quite a few Blazers players over the years.

Jay Wright

Villanova’s head man is currently regarded as one of the best coaches in college basketball. The former national champion has turned Nova into a basketball breeding ground, being one of the pioneers of running a pro-style pace and space system in the college ranks. Wright is the perfect age (58), smooth with the media, relates to players, analytically adept, and forward thinking. He would be a perfect hire, but there’s no indication he wants to leave Villanova. Marks told the media after Atkinson’s ousting that the mutual decision was made after two to three months of discussions between him and the coach. Just a few weeks ago, Marks and his assistant GM Birdsong were at Villanova with Jay Wright. I’m not going to go as far to say it was anything more than a scouting visit, but the Nets operate by scouring the basketball world for information and a connection with Wright doesn’t hurt. It’s worth a call.

Well-Regarded Assistants

Tyronn Lue

Lue, a former NBA Champion as the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers with Kyrie Irving, possesses the winning pedigree that could be attractive to Irving and Durant as a lead man. Lue has the hurdle of proving to the Nets that his coaching ability isn’t contingent on having LeBron James on his roster, but he’s a well-respected coach around the league and currently serving as an assistant on Doc Rivers’ staff for the Clippers. On Saturday evening, Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill reported that Irving’s preference for Nets head coach is in fact Lue.

Scoop B later refuted that report, saying he’s told the rumor that Irving wants Lue is “absolute nonsense” — something to keep an eye on.

It’s important to note, it would be surprising if Irving wanted Lue, given the reports of their awkward relationship that came out after Irving was traded to Boston.

Becky Hammon

Hammon, a Spurs assistant, is one of the league’s rising stars in the coaching ranks. The consensus is that she will be a head coach one day, but is a rookie the right person for the job in Brooklyn? The personalities of Irving and Durant are not easy to deal with. Neither will the pressure of contending immediately, nor having to be the NBA’s first female head coach in the league’s biggest market. I hope Hammon is successful as a head coach and forges a path for more women in the league, but I’m not sure, Brooklyn in its current state is the best place for her to get her start.

Tim Duncan

I feel obliged to include Duncan given his relationship with Marks, but in reality, I can’t really see Duncan being hired as a head coach after just one season, nor could I see him uprooting his life in San Antonio to join the pressure cooker known as New York City. On the other hand, his decision to take the job under Pop indicates he wants to be an NBA head coach in the NBA, most likely in San Antonio

The Incumbents

Jacque Vaughn

While currently the interim head coach, it feels like Vaughn could face an uphill battle to secure that position for the long-term. While Vaughn is Popovich disciple, well-spoken, and well-liked within Nets circles, would Sean Marks part ways with Atkinson simply to ride with his lead assistant? That reeks of scapegoating Atkinson — something I’m not sure the Nets would do. Also, while Vaughn’s relationship with Durant and Irving seems fine, but we thought the same about Atkinson. It also could be risky for the Nets to trust Vaughn to lead them to a title when his only NBA head coaching experience was an unsuccessful stint in Orlando. However, he is admittedly older and wiser now. He’ll get a shot to prove himself to close this season.

Adam Harrington

Harrington has been rising steadily up the Nets staff since arriving in Brooklyn at the beginning of the Atkinson era. Harrington’s edge is that he is adored by Durant. The two have a personal as well as professional relationship going back to Durant’s OKC days when Harrington served as KD’s personal trainer. Is Harrington ready to be a head coach for Brooklyn giving how high the stakes will be? He’s one of the most positive people you’ll meet, his energy is infectious.

Bret Brielmaier

Put Brielmaier in the unlikely category, but many in NBA circles believe Brielmaier will eventually get his chance as a lead man. He’s a former NBA champion on Tyronn Lue’s staff in Cleveland and would allow the Nets to keep some stability from Atkinson’s staff. Similarly, does going from Atkinson to Brielmaier makes sense?

The Sleeper

Phil Handy

Handy is the wild card, under-the-radar choice in this search. Currently serving as an assistant coach with the Lakers, he’s a two-time NBA champion — with Irving and the Cavaliers in 2016 and the Raptors last season. He’s well respected around the league as a skills trainer and for what he brings as a coach — KD and Kyrie both follow him on Instagram. While in Cleveland, Handy was assigned to be Irving’s personal coach, going through workouts with him before each game. Many reports suggest that Handy was the coach Irving was closest with while in Cleveland — not Lue. If Irving and Durant truly have their way as decision makers in the Nets organization, it would make a whole lot of sense to see Handy in Brooklyn next season — if not as a head coach then as an assistant.

———

So there you have it. Expect the recruiting process to begin soon after the Nets play their last game. Also, expect it to be less than transparent. Already, Marks has avoided all talk about a replacement for Atkinson.