Well, the news that the New Orleans Pelicans have moved on from head coach Monty Williams came as a bit of a surprise. The Pelicans had squeaked into the playoffs this past season, making it a fun but brief four-game series with the Golden State Warriors, and who can forget team owner Tom Benson congratulating both Williams and general manager Dell Demps for their efforts at season end?
I’ve been an advocate of upgrading at the head coaching position because the Pelicans lack the flexibility to make massive changes to the roster, nor do I think they want to do that. If that is indeed the case, getting a better head coach in place is probably the biggest upgrade the Pelicans can make this offseason. Even as the playoff push concluded, I found myself thinking of a possible upgrade for Williams, and that the next coach could be the Steve Kerr to Monty’s Mark Jackson.
Now that Williams is officially let go, it’s time to (continue) looking at some options for the next head coaching option. One name that the Pelicans brass should consider is Atlanta Hawks assistant head coach Kenny Atkinson.
Atkinson is an ideal assistant head coach to make the leap into the head guy. He played college basketball at Richmond from 1986 to 1990, then enjoyed a playing career that had Atkinson in the United States Basketball League (USBL), the now defunct Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and overseas from 1990 to 2004.
Moving into the coaching side of things, Atkinson was a part of the now defunct Paris Basket Racing from 2004 to 2006. Next he enjoyed four seasons as an assistant under Mike D’Antoni in New York from 2008 to 2012 before jumping to the Atlanta Hawks for the last three seasons. He’s been a part of four playoffs coaching staffs, including this season’s Atlanta Hawks team that finished with 60 wins and the number one seed in the East.
After D’Antoni resigned with the Knicks, Atkinson was the only assistant coach to remain under Mike Woodson. When he left for Atlanta, D’Antoni called it "a coup" for Atlanta. Not shockingly, Knicks general manager James Dolan prevented Atkinson from joining the Portland Trail Blazers the year before. During the peak of Linsanity, it was Atkinson who Lin credited for helping him succeed, crediting him for his desire to help him and keeping everything ready for the next game.
"I mean this guy wakes up at 6 a.m. every morning," Lin says. "I’ll text after a game at midnight, 1 o’clock when I go home and I’ll say, ‘Hey can I look at those turnovers. Can I look at the upcoming team? How they run pick and rolls?’ And he ’ll have the film ready when I walk into the facility the next morning.
"When I wasn’t playing much, we were working out before practice, and after practice he was picking apart my game, teaching me what it’s like to play in Coach D’Antoni’s system."
During his current stint in Atlanta, Atkinson was instrumental assistant coach for both former coach Larry Drew and current head coach, Mike Budenholzer. As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz stated in his annual "Who are the next head coaches" article, former Hawks general manager Danny Ferry insisted that Budenholzer keep him on his coaching staff. Then, Arnovitz offered a bit of a preview for what Atkinson can offer as a head coach.
"After four seasons under Mike D'Antoni in New York, Atkinson has flourished in Atlanta as far more than a player-development guy. He's earned a reputation as an affable teacher who is both cerebral and a high-level communicator. He thoroughly enjoys getting on the floor with a player and sees that individual development work as a collaboration between player and coach."
"After a nice college career as a point guard at Richmond, Atkinson had a long career in Europe, where he stayed to coach before heading to New York. He's worldly, with a curiosity for forward-thinking ideas, everything from injury prevention to analytics. He's someone who would look for new solutions as a head coach rather than insist he has every answer and rely on tired conventional wisdom."
Atkinson's Fit in New Orleans
The next step for New Orleans is evolving into the "pace and space" era of basketball. That means pushing the ball, and getting shots at the rim. The Pelicans are good at the latter, finishing first in the league on shots within five feet. Tyreke Evans is one of the best in the league at getting to the rim and the pick and roll damage he does with Anthony Davis is phenomenal when it’s on.
The relationship with the 3-point shot is a confusing one. The Pelicans finished fourth in the league in 3-point percentage at 37.0%. However, they weren’t fans of forcing them, finishing 23rd in the league in percentage of 3-point field goal attempted at 23.3%,19th percentage of points from three pointers at 21.6% and 23rd in the league at three pointers attempted per game at 19.3 per game.
Defensively, the Pelicans can scheme better. Even as New Orleans jumped into the top 15 into the all-star break, they never appeared to be a good defense. Some of it was due to injury, like New Orleans being ranked 28th overall with a 0.84 PPP in defending the pick and roll or 23rd with a 1.03 PPP in defending the roll man. Those numbers probably aren’t as bad if Holiday was available for a full 82, but then again, the Pelicans were bad defensively when everyone was healthy.
I believe Atkinson can help fix the defense, while maintaining a top 10 offense.
As a member of a team that ran both a D’Antoni system and a Spurs system that emphasized getting the best shot. During his tenures with New York and Atlanta, Atkinson was apart of high scoring offenses, but only two teams have an offensive efficiency in the top 10. New York was in the middle of rebuilding seasons in Atkinson’s tenure, while Atlanta lost star centerpiece Al Horford twice to injuries.
Still, Atkinson has the accelerated pace of a D’Antoni offense, mixed with the elegance of a San Antonio scheme. Having knowledge in both systems gives Atkinson a wonderful mix of plays and ideals to work with and the Pelicans have the players who can run an up-tempo offense with the goal of getting more threes. Jrue Holiday being the maestro of the offense, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon on the wings, Anthony Davis knifing opponents at the rim and in the mid-range, the elements are there.
On the defensive end, the Pelicans have some work to do with a roster that may find itself without the services of Omer Asik. In New York, Atkinson was a member of a rebuilding Knicks team, resulting in three seasons where the Knicks were in the bottom ten defensively in his tenure. However, as the Knicks retooled their roster, the Knicks reached top ten status as a defense, thanks to Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler’s arrival, the Knicks moving Carmelo Anthony into the power forward position and giving minutes to helpful defenders like Iman Shumpert and Jared Jeffries.
Arriving in Atlanta, the Hawks came off a season where they finished 6th in the league in defensive efficiency. They fell to 10th in his first season, then fell to 14th in the year Al Horford was injured. This season the Hawks remained relatively healthy and finished 6th overall in defensive efficiency. As Seth Partnow broke down their defense midseason, the Hawks formed an impeccable defense without a legitimate rim protector.
"The Hawks win on defense by defending well at either end of the shot clock. Any way you slice the numbers, one thing is clear about NBA defense: preventing early offense is an important first step. Once these initial thrusts have been parried, not having breakdowns late in the clock are key to finishing a good defensive play."
The Pelicans have the talent to be a solid defense, but they also need another perimeter defender. Atlanta was a great defense without a rim protector because of the buy into the scheme, but also because of guys like Thabo Sefolosha on the perimeter, DeMarre Carroll as the escalator defender and Paul Millsap and Al Hoford being good post defenders who can step out and shuffle with attacking wings.
Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, and Omer Asik all register as above-average defensive players. Quincy Pondexter’s length makes up for some of his mental mistakes and Norris Cole’s scrappiness makes up for the fact he just isn’t a great defender. With the first three on the floor, you can put guys who are good, not great defenders on the floor and attempt to play solid team defense — helping on pick and rolls, etc.
Kenny Atkinson isn’t a familiar name to many, maybe even to some in the Pelicans front office, but I think he would be a perfect replacement for Monty Williams as Pelicans coach. If the Pelicans go in more of a veteran route, then Mike D’Antoni would be an excellent hire, and to a lesser extent, Tom Thibodeau would be great as well. However, if the Pelicans decide that they want a fresh face, I struggle to think of many names that come before Atkinson.
How would you grade a potential Atkinson hire?
This poll is closed