Nets fire Kenny Atkinson: Top coaching candidates to replace him in Brooklyn

In a stunning move Saturday morning, the Brooklyn Nets announced that they were firing coach Kenny Atkinson after four seasons with the team. The timing is odd considering the Nets are currently set to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year, and next season they’ll be considered title contenders with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving returning to full health. Still, though, this season has been somewhat of a disappointment for Brooklyn, and starting next season there will be huge expectations on them going forward so figuring out any issues beforehand is best practice.

It’s nearly impossible to predict who the Nets will hire or interview for their coaching vacancy, and who will be involved in the decision-making process. Will Durant and Irving have a voice in the room over who their next coach is? Will they hire someone who hasn’t been a head coach before or someone with a long resume with playoff experience to back it up? There’s a number of directions this franchise could go, and it’s important that their two stars are happy with the decision, whoever they do pick, otherwise this happy marriage could get ugly very quickly.

This list isn’t a ranking of who is likeliest to get the job, and there are probably names not listed here who might be in consideration. Instead, it’s a list of options of coaches who have ties to the franchise or who are at the top of the coaching list on the market right now. So, in no particular order, here’s a group of coaches the Nets could pick from as their next head coach.

David Fizdale

From one dysfunctional New York franchise, to one that has far more promise in the immediate future. When the Knicks made it publicly known that they were going star chasing last summer — specifically for Durant and Irving — that is who Fizdale thought he would be coaching. Instead, Fizdale ended up coaching RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and a hundred different power forwards and was expected to be successful. He was fired in December, and while that marks the second time he’s been fired in the past two years — first from Memphis — he’s known for being a player’s coach, and someone who has built a strong reputation on being able to connect with players.

He has ringing endorsements from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from his time as an assistant coach on the Miami Heat staff during the “Heatles” era, and Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said he’s a “great basketball mind.” In his first full season as a head coach in Memphis, he led the Grizzlies to a 43-39 record and a trip to the playoffs. As likable as Fizdale is, though, his coaching record is 71-134 over four seasons split between the Knicks and Grizzlies. Not to mention, his time with Memphis ended because of his poor relationship with star center Marc Gasol. The two sides never got along, and while that could have just been a personality situation, you never want your coach and star player disagreeing at every turn.

Mark Jackson

He’s extremely personable, he’s from Brooklyn and in his only coaching experience he turned the Warriors from a basement-dwelling team to a franchise that won 51 games all in a matter of three seasons. He was fired because he was viewed as the person who was holding Golden State back from achieving greatness, which is hard to argue since the year after his firing the Warriors went on to win a championship marking the beginning of a historic dynasty. It’s even worse considering the fact that in his final season as head coach, the Warriors ranked 12th in the league in offensive rating (106.3). That’s not bad, but compared to them ranking second in the same category (110.4) the following season with largely the same team, that says a lot about how the coach is managing the offense.

Still, though, his time with Golden State wasn’t all bad. He coached a defensive-minded team that ranked in the top half of the league in two of the three seasons he was there. That would be enticing for Brooklyn who has the blueprint to be a great defensive team. He also has connections with Kevin Durant and his agent Rich Kleiman, who is an avid supporter of Jackson. When the Knicks were on their hunt for a head coach before deciding on Fizdale, Kleiman was reportedly “making a push” for Jackson to be the next head coach there. Perhaps he does the same in Brooklyn.

Tom Thibodeau

On this list, Thibodeau has been around the league the longest, starting back in 1989 as an assistant for the Timberwolves. He’s been linked to the Knicks coaching vacancy, where he’s been an assistant before, but if I’m Thibodeau the idea of coaching K.D. and Irving on a team that is ready to compete for a championship right now is a lot more appealing than trying to be the thousandth coach to attempt to fix the Knicks. He’s won Coach of the Year before, he has the experience of coaching winning teams to deep postseason runs and he can get the most out of his players. 

He has a reputation for running players into the ground, and he brings an old-school style of coaching with him, but his resume speaks for itself. Thibs is a well-respected coach around the league, and his teams often rank near the top on the defensive end. He has a coaching record of 352-246, but it can’t be ignored that his last stint as head coach with the Timberwolves was marred by drama surrounding the Jimmy Butler forced-trade fiasco. Butler even openly said that Thibodeau’s style of coaching doesn’t work at the NBA level. Thibodeau would have to concede a lot of power to K.D. and Irving to let them do what they do if this were to work in Brooklyn.

Mike D’Antoni

Technically, D’Antoni isn’t on the market yet. However, he’s in the final year of his deal as head coach for the Rockets, and after not coming to an agreement on an extension before this season started, there have been rumors floating around that this might be his final year in Houston. That could all change depending on how well the Rockets do in the postseason, or the two sides could come to an agreement this summer taking him off the market, but for right now he’s a viable option for Brooklyn.

D’Antoni is an innovative coach with direct ties to Brooklyn GM Sean Marks. When he was the coach in Phoenix, Marks played for him for two years from 2006-08, so he could be a potential target for the Nets this summer. Prior to coaching in Houston, D’Antoni coached the Lakers, Knicks and perhaps most successfully the Phoenix Suns. His seven seconds or less offense in Phoenix revolutionized offense in the NBA as his team in 2006 played at a blistering pace for its time and made it all the way to the Western Conference finals from the second-straight season. He’s an offensive-minded coach who would no doubt have the Nets putting up ridiculous numbers on a nightly basis, but it would come with some defensive sacrifices. Still, though, D’Antoni is a winning coach who could make this Nets team an offensive juggernaut centered around K.D. and Irving.

Becky Hammon 

It’s only a matter of time before Hammon becomes the first woman head coach of an NBA team, so why not now? It was long considered that she might be the heir apparent to the Spurs coaching title whenever Gregg Popovich retired, but after Tim Duncan was chosen to coach a recent game due to Popovich’s absence it appears that maybe she’s not the one who will take over that franchise. She’s said before that she’d be open to a head coaching gig if it came with a long term deal, and she took an interview for the Bucks job before Mike Budenholzer was chosen to take over there. 

Hammon’s been the Spurs summer league coach multiple times before, and even coached the team to a championship in 2015. She’s been elevated to the top assistant coaching job in San Antonio, and has studied under the greatest coach in the league. She has the tools to be a great coach, and if anything should definitely be on the shortlist of candidates that the Nets consider.

Stan Van Gundy

Van Gundy is another name that could likely be in the running for the Knicks coaching job as well. His last gig was in Detroit where he made the playoffs just once in 2016, and finished with a 152-176 record. That has less to do with Van Gundy’s coaching chops though, and more to do with the lack of talent in Detroit. He’s proven that he can coach talented rosters, as evidenced from his five seasons with the Orlando Magic, where he made the playoffs each season, including a trip to the NBA Finals in 2009. He’s studied under Pat Riley from his time as an assistant with the Miami Heat in the ’90s, and early ’00s, and his name has been popping up a lot lately with the various coaching vacancies that will likely be available this summer. Like many names on this list, if it came down to choosing between the two New York franchises, the Nets is the more intriguing job with likely more stability.

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