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Kenny Atkinson’s hire with the Hornets brings back memories of his departure from Nets

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Houston Rockets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

On the Saturday before before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the NBA — and a lot of America — to shut down, the Nets and Kenny Atkinson announced a “mutual” parting of ways, at once shocking if not surprising.

The Nets were 28-34 and out of the playoffs, a disappointing season filled with injuries, most prominently Kyrie Irving’s shoulder impingement, and inconsistency. There was a seven-game losing streak in early January followed by two others lasting five games later that month and four games in February. Also, Sean Marks said Atkinson told him, “My voice is not what it once was here. It’s time.” That of course led to a belief that Atkinson was the

Now, after serving as an assistant with the Clippers and now the Warriors, Atkinson is back in the head coaching ranks, agreeing to a four-year deal with the Hornets on Friday. The news has many, pundits and fans alike, reviewing the process that led to Atkinson’s departure in Brooklyn, the end of a tenure that took the Nets from a 20-win season to a spot in the playoffs that surprised even ownership at the time ... and led to the Clean Sweep in 2019. For some, the emotions are still raw...

At the time, Atkinson’s demise was seen as the culmination of a series of events, but most blamed the Nets “Big Two” at the time, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. As Brian Lewis, echoing most of the reportage of the time,

Atkinson didn’t get the players’ best, some underperforming for him and others undercutting him. Having stars such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the team put a target on Atkinson’s back, and sources say it was Irving who put the knife in it.

Stefan Bondy may have put it more succinctly at the time...

Neither player commented on any role in the “mutual” decision (with with COVID cresting at the time, there were higher priorities than pressing the matter.) For his part, Marks denied there was any insurrection. But after Atkinson was replaced by interim head coach Jacque Vaughn, there were changes, including DeAndre Jordan replacing Jarrett Allen in the starting five, which many believed was less about skill and more about personal relationships.

“This didn’t involve the players,” Marks insisted. “This was a matter where it was a discussion between Kenny and myself. We brought in ownership when we needed to and we arose at this decision.

“This was a decision that wasn’t even about Kevin, Kyrie, Caris [LeVert], Joe [Harris], Spencer [Dinwiddie], Jarrett Allen. This was a decision that Kenny, myself and ownership came up with.”

And indeed, Marks noted the recurring losing streaks played a part and there were subsequent reports that while KD and Kyrie weren’t all that happy with how the team had languished, they didn’t call for Atkinson’s head.

At the time, a number of the Nets younger players, who had benefited from Atkinson’s development skills, pointed out that they hadn’t been polled on the move and seemed to have been shocked by it all.

“I absolutely [had] no ‘Fire Kenny’ conversations with Sean, so I don’t know, not a part of that,” Spencer Dinwiddie said. “It’s not like I called Joe [Tsai] on the phone and was like, ‘Hey you making any moves?’ I like to think we’re cool, but not that cool.”

Still, Joe Harris who both then (and now) was the Nets longest tenured player, may have put it best.

“Dealing with a young, up-and-coming team is much different than coaching superstar players,” said Harris. “It’s a much different dynamic.”

Steve Nash, who Marks had long tried to recruit to the Nets and who KD knew well from their Golden State days, got the job. His record of excellence on the court and his ability to instill respect, were his big attraction despite having no head coaching experience. He retains Durant’s confidence despite a lot of criticism and carping.

As for Atkinson, he inherits a team in much better shape than the one he took over in Brooklyn back in 2016. The Hornets have a bonafide rising star in LaMelo Ball and Atkinson has a well-earned reputation of developing point guards although the rest of the roster needs work.

So, we wait till August when the NBA releases its schedule to see when Charlotte will visit Brooklyn and Atkinson brings his team into Barclays Center. He’ll like get a well-earned round of applause for what he did for the organization but the NBA being what it is, the love will end there.