Nets general manager Sean Marks said on Saturday that the decision to let Kenny Atkinson go was made mutually between he, Atkinson and owner Joe Tsai. Marks added that the decision did not include input from players.
"It was after deliberation with Kenny over the course of the last two or three months," Marks said. "They were ongoing. I can't really put a time on it. We decided that if there was an opportunity for a change and put the Nets in a better place, whether that was personnel on the court or any one of us, we would have that honest conversation. That's where we left it last night. This morning we discussed it, Kenny, myself and ownership, and that's the decision we came to."
Marks didn't divulge many details about the factors behind the decision, perhaps to avoid saying anything negative about Atkinson. But he did say that Atkinson, a former Knicks assistant, felt that he'd lost his presence in the Nets locker room to some degree.
"There wasn't one game, an event of games (that led to the firing)," Marks said. "This was a culmination of events over the course of the year. Kenny is brutally honest, and the humility he showed to say he'll admit, 'My voice is not what it once was here. It's time' (was remarkable)," Marks said.
This was seen as a gap year of sorts for Brooklyn as the franchise waits for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to return from injury. So the decision to part ways with Atkinson now was surprising.
It's unclear what, specifically, led to Saturday's decision.
Per SNY sources, some Nets players felt that Atkinson had lost a portion of the locker room recently. That aligns with what Marks said on Saturday. It's also worth noting that some members of the Nets coaching staff were frustrated by Irving being in and out of the lineup earlier in the season before he underwent shoulder surgery. It's unclear if that frustration over Irving's availability played any role in Saturday's events.
Atkinson will likely be highly coveted as a free agent head coach.
He and Marks led Brooklyn out of the NBA's abyss four years ago. Marks and Atkinson took over a team without much draft capital and talent, winning 20 games in their first season together. They added and developed players like Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, and draft picks Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, establishing a culture that other franchise's praised and envied. The Nets made a surprise run to the playoffs last season with Atkinson on the sideline, winning 42 games.
"You're definitely shocked, surprised," Harris said. "For the guys that have been here for the last few years with him, you're upset. But also, you're just grateful for the time and opportunity you had with him. We all loved playing for Kenny. We grew a lot as players and people. It's a valuable experiemce, but in the NBA, at the end of the day, it's a business. Stuff like this happens with teammates, coaches. It's tough to see, but it is the nature of the NBA itself."
Dinwiddie mentioned that, while there may have been occasional pushback between players and staff, it's nothing that would be considered atypical of any NBA locker room, and he certainly had the respect of his players.
"This is the NBA," Dinwiddie said. "Disagreements happen in alpha-male dominated environments with a lot of testosterone in a highly-competitive situation. I think Kenny's always been admired for his work ethic and his commitment to player development, I don't think that's changed at all."
In the summer, they landed two superstars in Irving and Durant. Both cited the culture created in Brooklyn as reason for signing with the club.
Durant actually referenced Atkinson when he talked about his decision on the Nets' first media availability of the season.
"I was doing a lot of YouTube research on Kenny Atkinson, and watching interviews and seeing how he talked about the game," Durant said at the time. "And I really liked his approach to his craft as a coach, and that's what drew me in pretty quickly."
There will of course be speculation that that Durant and Irving played a role in Atkinson's dismissal. Marks said repeatedly that players weren't involved in the decision.
"This didn't involve the players," Marks said. "In this matter, it was really a discussion between Kenny and myself. We brought in ownership when we needed to and we arose at this decision. This was purely amicable and mutually agreed upon between those parties."
But it would be surprising if the Nets didn't talk to Durant and Irving before making a decision like this. That's common in the NBA. Still, being consulted on a decision and being the cause of a decision are two very different things. So there's no evidence to suggest that either player got Atkinson fired. But you can be sure that if Irving and Durant wanted Atkinson to coach the team going forward, he'd be the head coach.
Even though the Nets announced that they'd reached a mutual decision with Atkinson, this was a firing. Reading between the lines on Marks' comments Saturday, it seems that Atkinson may have believed he'd be fired at some point and felt that it would be better to be let go now than in the offseason or the middle of next season.
Atkinson will certainly be sought after on the open market. The Knicks have a head-coaching vacancy. Atkinson is a Long Island native who was an assistant coach with the Knicks under Mike D'Antoni.
As far as the Nets' next move, Jacque Vaughn will take over as interim head coach. Marks, as you'd expect, declined to comment when asked about possible long-term head coaches for the organization.
Vaughn said that he was unaware that there were ongoing discussions between Marks and Atkinson about the latter's future with the team.
"I got a call from Kenny and Sean at separate times this morning," Vaughn said. "So, it's been a little bit of a whirlwind of preparing for a game tomorrow, talking to the players, talking to staff. But it's a part of who we are right now and we'll move forward.
One thing perhaps worth noting: Durant's manager and business partner, Rich Kleinman, told SNY last month just how much he loves Mark Jackson.
"Jackson is, to me, just one of those unique individuals that knows how to lead people, that knows how to inspire people. He's got a personality that demands a certain level of attention. And I think it's unfair that he hasn't gotten a shot in the league, but I'm confident that he will."
It's impossible to say whether that will factor into anything the Nets do moving forward. Marks certainly wasn't going to address any speculation about the future on Saturday. He talked about the difficulty of the decision and reiterated several times that it was a mutual agreement.
"This was a matter where it was really a discussion between Kenny and myself," Marks said. "And we brought in ownership when we needed to and we arose at this decision."