“This was an extremely difficult decision, however the organization believes it is one that is necessary at this time," Marks said. “Kenny was instrumental in developing our players and building the identity and culture we have become known for over these past four seasons. The foundation he helped put into place here is one that we will continue to build on in the coming seasons. We are forever grateful for all of Kenny’s hard work and dedication to the Nets and the Brooklyn community.”
Assistant coach Jacque Vaughn, who compiled a 58-158 record as coach of the Orlando Magic from 2012 to 2015, will step in as the Nets’ interim coach for the rest of the season.
Atkinson, who went 118-190 in Brooklyn, inherited a listless franchise that was still digging out of a disastrous 2013 blockbuster trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. It took three seasons, but he gradually built the Nets into a 42-win playoff team in 2018-19 and oversaw numerous individual success stories. D’Angelo Russell, acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers as a low-risk, high-reward prospect, earned an all-star selection. Spencer Dinwiddie, a backup guard who had little success with the Detroit Pistons, blossomed into a valuable contributor. Joe Harris, a bit player with the Cleveland Cavaliers, emerged as one of the league’s deadliest shooters.
By NBA standards, these were impressive but modest wins. When Durant and Irving became available last summer, Brooklyn leaped at the chance to abandon its youth movement to gamble on a pair of A-listers with major questions. Durant, fresh off three Finals trips with the Golden State Warriors, has missed the entire season as he recovers from an Achilles’ injury. Irving, whose time with the Boston Celtics came to an end amid questions about his leadership and reliability, played sparingly this season and ultimately underwent season-ending shoulder surgery this month.
”I have a ton of things in my mind how we can use Kevin to his best abilities,” Atkinson said in an interview with WFAN in July, per NetsDaily.com, after Durant announced his decision to join the Nets. "He can play all five positions. ... It’s going to be exciting to try and fit him in into these different spots and use him as well as we can.”
But Atkinson never got the chance to coach Durant, the 2014 MVP, for a single game. Irving made just 20 appearances this season.
Turns out, Atkinson emerged as the first major casualty of the Nets’ sharp course correction. The absences of Durant and Irving left him to manage a roster stuck in purgatory. Irving made headlines by alluding to possible roster changes in January, and there was a natural tension between Atkinson’s hands-on, team-oriented philosophies and the coaching style that veteran superstars expected. Atkinson had never been a head coach before his arrival in Brooklyn, and the Nets won just one playoff game during his four-year tenure.
Brooklyn enters Sunday with a 28-34 record, tracking toward the Eastern Conference’s No. 7 seed. There was little risk in parting with Atkinson now, given that the franchise is probably headed for a quick first-round exit in the playoffs. Marks’s next move will be to tap a full-time replacement who is amenable to Durant and Irving, and who is comfortable operating with championship expectations.
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