Kenny Atkinson
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images, AP Photo

The seat that Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson is in could become hotter when the 2020-21 campaign comes along.

The Brooklyn Nets are stumbling this season. After a return to the playoffs in 2019 as the six seed in the Eastern Conference, the Nets currently sit at 25-28 with a bottom-tier playoff seed as the most likely scenario.

The loss of D’Angelo Russell and the nagging injuries to Kyrie Irving have kept the Nets with a middling net rating of -0.3. The impending return of Kevin Durant next season is putting a lot of pressure not just on the front office, but on head coach Kenny Atkinson as well. Simply speaking, the Nets must improve…big time.

Atkinson was recruited in 2016 following his stint as an Atlanta Hawks assistant from 2012-16. In his first head-coaching gig, he’s been tasked with morphing a porous lineup into a contender.

Atkinson inherited raw talents like Caris LeVert, and former D-Leaguers Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie. He’s since turned the trio into valuable rotation players who could provide the Nets with stability in the future. Or, at least, individuals who could become trade bait for another star.

Following a 117-106 road loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in January, Irving didn’t shy away from the possibility of landing more help down the line.

“It’s glaring, in terms of the pieces that we need in order to be at that next level,” Irving said, per Tim Bontemps of ESPN. “We’re going to do the best with the guys that we have in our locker room now, and we’ll worry about all the other stuff, in terms of moving pieces and everything else, as an organization down the line in the summer.”

In the team’s final game before the All-Star break, the aforementioned trio combined for 56 points to end the Toronto Raptors’ 15-game win streak. LeVert—who scored 20 points on 50% shooting—led the team in scoring in its 101-91 victory. Harris shot 40% from three, while Dinwiddie also contributed nicely with 17 points, six rebounds, and nine assists.

The three core pieces are entering their prime, and couple them with other valuable role players like Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, and DeAndre Jordan, and the Nets make the case of being serious contenders in the East when fully healthy.

The only problem is if Irving’s comments could prompt serious changes to the roster—or even the coaching staff.

Atkinson’s stellar player development skills highlighted the Nets’ three-season hiatus from the playoffs. He essentially turned a team with an uninspiring future into a gold mine of young talent.

Nevertheless, as seen in the past, the introduction of superstars like Irving and Durant could test the front office’s patience. One example was the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012.

Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown was fired by the Lakers after a 1-4 start. With the likes of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol at his disposal, the front office had no room for patience with Brown working through the team’s slow start.

The super team in Los Angeles was one of the top picks to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. Then, a rough start prompted Lakers president Jerry Buss to cut ties with Brown after a loss to the Utah Jazz on Nov. 7.

As evidenced by the Lakers’ situation, front offices aren’t hesitant to change gears when there are expectations of success. With stars comes expectations and that problem may surface in 2020 with the Nets. It’s highly unlikely that Atkinson is fired after five games, but the point is that teams with expectations don’t always have patience.

In the past, star players have had a major influence on who’s coaching the team.

After leading the Orlando Magic to back-to-back No. 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference in the mid-90s, the roster unanimously voted for the organization to part ways with Brian Hill as head coach.

Sticking with the Magic, center Dwight Howard didn’t shy away from expressing his disagreements with head coach Stan Van Gundy. A month following their awkward encounter in which Van Gundy discussed the All-Star’s comments, Orlando fired him and Howard subsequently left town for another poor player-coach relationship in Los Angeles.

This isn’t just an organization-centered struggle for the Magic. Teams across the league have entertained player frustrations regarding their coaches. This includes Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams in 2011 and the infamous P.J. Carlesimo-Latrell Sprewell feud that led to a physical altercation in 1997.

Clashing player dynamics and coaching philosophies play a role in the ever relentless politics of the NBA. Simply speaking, the Nets’ inconsistencies with a solid roster has begun to thread a tight leash on Atkinson’s position.

Atkinson will surely survive the year, but with a first-round exit seeming imminent, his fifth year at the helm could be over before it ends. Failing to meet Irving and Durant’s demands — who’ve called out personnel regarding chemistry issues and underwhelming play — could result in the departure of Atkinson for a more experienced coach who can take better control of the team and its stars.

The drama has yet to surface. Nonetheless, Irving’s comments and the uphill battle of expectations could present a head coach dilemma arriving in Bed-Stuy.

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