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Which Head Coach Can Handle the Nets’ New Expectations (and Kyrie Irving)?

Brooklyn fired Kenny Atkinson less than a year after he led the team out of the dark ages and back into the playoffs. Here are a few candidates who may be able to reach Irving and Kevin Durant and take the Nets to the next level.

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Kenny Atkinson was as much a second pillar of the Nets’ revamped organization as a head coach. Brooklyn tabbed Sean Marks in 2016 to grow a functioning team from the scorched earth of the Kevin Garnett–Paul Pierce trade, and Marks enlisted Atkinson to be his partner-in-Process, the Brett Brown to his Sam Hinkie. But the franchise’s trajectory drastically shifted last summer, when the signings of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving upgraded the Nets from a team on the rise to a title-contender-in-waiting, and Atkinson’s status apparently changed along with it. Atkinson was removed as head coach of the Nets on Saturday in what is being described as a mutual parting of ways. Reports in the aftermath of the news suggested that Atkinson had lost control of his locker room.

Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat
Kenny Atkinson
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

“I think we all have ideas that this is going to last forever, and we’ll keep building this together,” Marks said at a press conference later on Saturday. Ultimately, Marks said, he and Atkinson agreed the team needed something different. “These are the circumstances,” he said. “The position we find ourselves in now is, ‘What helps us get it to the next level?’ And I think what we debated and what we deliberated on was this was a time where the team needs another voice, and that’s where we are at.”

Who will that voice be? And what kind of voice is the right fit for a team stuck between what it was and what it will be next season, when both Irving and Durant are expected to return from injury? Here are a few names worth keeping in mind, for better or worse:

Mark Jackson, ESPN Analyst

Jackson is inevitably brought up anytime a head-coaching position opens up. Part of that is because, as one of two color analysts for ESPN’s no. 1 broadcasting both, he’s so present in the league’s day-to-day machinations, and part of it is because he has ties to some of today’s most prominent players. He’s reportedly a client of Klutch Sports, Andre Iguodala went out on a limb last summer to back him, and he has a relationship with both Durant and Durant’s business partner Rich Kleiman:

SNY’s Ian Begley described Kleiman as a “fan” of Jackson’s, but that might be an understatement. Here’s Kleiman just this week, in a story the New York Post published soon after Atkinson’s firing:

He’s one of those magnetic personalities. When you get people who are that special and people follow, it’s not always the most conventional way of doing things. That disruptiveness is sometimes what you need to become great. He’s a very spiritual guy. The idea is his time will come but if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be.

Wait, there’s more:

He clearly deserves to be coaching in the NBA. Whatever team gives him a shot, you learn from your experiences and hone your craft. Mark is one of those people who can make people follow. He’s got an incredible way to motivate. He brings charisma to the situation and he knows basketball. He played 17 years in the league at a time when point guards weren’t relied upon to score. He didn’t look to shoot but he made people around him better. People who played with him swear by him.

The problem is Jackson’s former coaching staff in Golden State doesn’t. Brian Scalabrine was demoted after Jackson held a tribal council about Scal’s behavior, and Darren Erman was fired for recording conversations between him and Jackson. There are other horror stories that have circulated around the league in the six years since Jackson was replaced by Steve Kerr.

There’s also the matter of system fit. As good as Jackson’s Warriors teams were on defense, he missed the offensive revolution hiding beneath the surface. And while Durant is a fan of Jackson personally, he also left Oklahoma City in large part to reach basketball nirvana in Kerr’s free-flowing approach. Durant was also such a fan of Atkinson’s modern, 3-pointer-happy system that he watched a couple YouTube videos before signing there.

Even with Atkinson gone, it’s likely that the next Nets coach will have similar offensive leanings. Marks’s organization takes a top-down approach, wherein, much like the Spurs, the front office and coaching staff work in symbiosis. (Marks himself started in basketball ops for the Spurs’ G League team, became an assistant to Gregg Popovich, then flipped back to the front office for the big league club.) So whatever Marks believes, on both sides of the ball, it’s likely that the next coach will, too.

Tyronn Lue, Clippers Assistant

Whenever you mention Jackson, you’re bound to mention Lue. As one of only seven active coaches who has led a championship team, Lue is currently the player’s coach of record. He also won that title with Irving as his point guard. But that shared past may be more of a deterrent for Lue’s candidacy. A radio roundtable of Cavs beat writers in July 2018 revealed that LeBron James wasn’t the only frayed relationship that led to Irving’s exit from Cleveland: “Ty said something to the effect that, ‘Don’t try to waste your time figuring out Kyrie Irving. You’ll drive yourself nuts,’” ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said. In a January 2018 feature, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullen recounted a scene at a Cavs practice wherein Irving shot down Lue’s instruction to play faster. Irving did tell MacMullen that “maybe I’d like a do-over on that” situation, but he hasn’t exactly gotten any easier to coach since. It’s hard to imagine Lue would seek to reintroduce that dynamic back into his life.

Jerry Stackhouse, Vanderbilt Head Coach

If building rapport with star players is the top priority, how about a guy who played against both of them? Stackhouse, who had a cup of coffee with the Nets at the end of his playing career, has long been pegged as a coach on the rise, and though he’s not even a year into a six-year contract with the Commodores, coaching an easy-bake title contender is about as good as it gets for your first NBA head-coaching job. Lack of experience is a concern, but losing the locker room will never be a problem again if your head coach can whup everyone’s ass.

Joe Rogan, Podcast Host and MMA Commentator

He’s got plenty of fresh new ideas. Feels like the Kyrie pick.

Jason Kidd, Lakers Assistant

His last stint as Nets head coach ended in a failed coup, but everything else went pretty well. Seriously! Kidd made an immediate transition from playing and led an aging, injury-riddled, and overpriced roster to 44 wins, proving to be ahead of the curve on the whole small ball thing along the way. The regime he tried to overthrow has long since been cleaned out. Here’s to second chances?

The Next Person Up on the Spurs’ Depth Chart

The Spurs have become the cosa nostra of the NBA’s coaching ranks. Six current NBA head coaches were once Pop assistants (James Borrego, Jim Boylen, Mike Budeholzer, Brett Brown, Alvin Gentry, Monty Williams), two more played for Pop (Kerr and Doc Rivers; Williams did, too), and two more hail from the extended family (Taylor Jenkins comes from Budenholzer’s camp; Lloyd Pierce put in five years under Brown). And the Nets just added another in Jacque Vaughn, who will take over for Atkinson in the interim. Add in Pop himself and that’s 12 of the 30 available positions. So it goes without saying that Marks, a made man himself, will likely take a long, hard look at the Spurs tree.

Becky Hammon (sixth season) is the most experienced hand on an unusually green Spurs bench this season (Will Hardy, the next most experienced coach, is just 31 years old). Ime Udoka, a former Spurs player and longtime assistant who’s now on Brown’s bench in Philly, could get a look. Ettore Messina, an assistant from 2014 to 2019, could be called back from overseas, and Mike Brown, 2000-03, could leave the Golden State no. 2 position to rejoin KD.

Popovich often credits his success to Tim Duncan being coachable. (Duncan, it’s worth noting, is now a Spurs assistant.) Durant and Irving are a bit more … complicated in that regard. We’ll see if Marks’s Spursy ideology or a willingness to cater to his new stars wins out in what will likely be the Nets’ biggest decision before the KD-and-Kyrie era begins in earnest.