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Kenny Atkinson could be slam-dunk hire for Pelicans and his point guard whispering ways could unlock Lonzo Ball and Nickeil Alexander-Walker

A search has begun to fill what David Griffin coins “the most attractive job in the NBA.” Here is part six of our spotlight series in trying to unearth the best coaching candidate.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On Saturday, August 15th, the New Orleans Pelicans announced the end of head coach Alvin Gentry’s tenure and executive vice president David Griffin made clear that the organization will be in no rush to hire a successor, preaching patience in their process.

“We will not be quick with this at all. This is not a rush,” Griffin said in response to a question regarding the timetable. “We have a job that we believe is going to be the most attractive in the NBA, quite frankly. With all of the candidates still in the (Orlando) bubble – and there are some that may not be – candidates you may want to talk to are still with teams, in many circumstances.

So, let’s take a closer look at potential candidates who may be the right long-term fit to lead Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the roster to the next level.


The stars may be aligning.

That was my first thought upon listening to a part of The Woj podcast back in mid-March.

With the coronavirus outbreak confining him to his residence, Adrian Wojnarowski was missing his usual special guest so he resorted to answering a few questions posted by fans on Twitter and Instagram. One stood out in particular.

“Is it possible we could see coaching changes, front office changes during this hiatus?”

The New Orleans revamped front office was undoubtedly safe with less than a year at the helm, but the idea that we may had already seen Alvin Gentry coach his last game for the Pelicans immediately popped into my head — regardless of whether the 2019-20 resumed at some point or not.

This notion picked up further steam when pairing it with the firing of the Nets head coach nine days earlier as there existed a few dots connecting Kenny Atkinson to the Pelicans. Trajan Langdon and Atkinson had worked together in Brooklyn, and Will Weaver, who gained experience on Atkinson’s bench as an assistant and was the head coach of the G League Long Island Nets, guided Didi Louzada and the Sydney Kings from the sidelines in the NBL this past year.

Although it took another five months for the major domino to fall, New Orleans now has a vacancy to fill at head coach, and fortunately for them, Atkinson remains available. He is widely considered one of the favorites for the job.

Denver Nuggets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

In explaining the dismissal of Gentry during a media call earlier this month, David Griffin made it abundantly clear that the organization was disappointed with the team’s showing in the Orlando restart of games.

“First let me say that no one in this organization is happy with the way the season concluded. We, like all teams, are the sum of our habits. Beginning with myself, everyone contributes to that. Our habits are just not good enough as we sit here today.”

Those porous habits were fully evident and led to New Orleans’ 2-6 record inside the bubble. While the Suns and the Trail Blazers took full advantage of the eight seeding games, the Pelicans did not, showing a disheartening lack of effort, fire and focus. With the entire legion of the NBA having a front row seat, that can’t be a problem again next season. Griffin needs to avoid getting off to another rocky start with Zion Williamson in tow.

The following head coach of the Pelicans must possess an exemplary track record of teams playing extremely hard. Do you know who Langdon praised soon after filling New Orleans general manager position for such a distinction?

“I give a tremendous amount of credit to Kenny Atkinson and his staff, for instilling the mind-set of hard work every day. Do the right things, over and over. They drove that every day, and we had players who were willing to listen. You saw players get better day-to-day, game-to-game and season-to-season.”

Before he was unceremoniously let go by the Nets, Atkinson made nice waves in his three full years with Brooklyn. The team improved every season, topping with a 42-40 record and the eighth seed in the 2019 Eastern Conference playoffs. While the Nets were in the midst of the postseason, Atkinson and his staff signed contract extensions, and he finished fifth in Coach of the Year voting (Mike Budenholzer took home the 2019 Award).

What followed though, has also been well documented. Brooklyn traded D’Angelo Russell for Kevin Durant and also signed Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Then following a 28-34 record — not bad considering Russell or Durant didn’t soak up a single minute while Irving appeared in only 20 games, Atkinson was fired.

Rumor has it that some of the Nets’ players were behind the firing, with Irving reportedly souring on his head coach earlier in the season. They, along with GM Sean Marks, denied it; however, it was interesting to see Jordan instantly get elevated to the starting lineup in place of Jarrett Allen, who had started nearly every game, as soon as Jacque Vaughn grabbed the interim coaching duties. Plus, there’s no denying the logic that if Durant and Irving had legitimate interest in keeping Atkinson around, he would still be the one calling the shots from the sidelines.

Many feel Atkinson is going to land another head coaching position because he’s deserving of another shot. It’s worth noting that three vacancies currently sit open outside of New Orleans, with Houston possibly needing a replacement for Mike D’Antoni soon, so the odds are good that someone takes a chance on him. Should it be the Pelicans?

With a minimum of three players in the starting lineup set to be 23 or younger (Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball), other important young guys on the bench (Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and perhaps Didi Louzada and Frank Jackson) and New Orleans set to consistently add valuable talent through their impressive war chest of draft picks, player development is undoubtedly going to be biggest key to the future success of the Pelicans. Well, that area is Atkinson’s biggest strength and there are good stories to be told from all of his stops.

His first staff job in the NBA was with the Houston Rockets, after out-going assistant GM at the time Dennis Lindsey (current GM of the Utah Jazz) gave Daryl Morey a heads up on an exciting new developmental coach.

“His energy, his ability to teach, his way with people, multiple languages,” Lindsey said. “I loved his ability to demonstrate because he was an excellent player as you guys know in high school and college and internationally, so I’ve always felt like the guys that can demonstrate what you want the players to perform to when you’re teaching skill always have a little bit of an advantage and Kenny was superior.”

Several credited Atkinson with laying the groundwork for Aaron Brooks’ rise to prominence, eventually resulting in the 2010 Most Improved Player Award.

In due time this ability to nurture young floor generals led to Atkinson being called a point guard whisperer, and no player probably made a bigger splash working with him than Jeremy Lin.

Kenny Atkinson is the guy behind the guy. In the days and weeks before Jeremy Lin became an international phenomenon, the then-mostly anonymous second-year point guard from Harvard was just another fringe NBA player assigned to work with Atkinson, the Knicks’ mostly anonymous developmental coach and no-nonsense workaholic.

Lin was known as a tireless worker too, so the player-coach relationship was a match made in heaven. It soon bore wonderful results for the Mike D’Antoni-led Knicks.

According to an article in the New York Times, Atkinson worked with Lin on his jumper and his decision-making in pick-and-rolls. Upon being thrust into the starting lineup after a 25-point eruption on Feb. 4, 2012, Lin went on to average 18.2 points, 7.7 assists and 2.0 steals over his next 25 games before a knee injury spelled the unfortunate end of Linsanity.

Following that season with the Knicks, Atkinson joined Mike Budenholzer’s staff on the Hawks for the next four years, and he made an even greater positive impact on a roster. Many feel Atkinson was primarily responsible for Jeff Teague’s success, which led to an All-Star berth in 2015, including the player himself.

Teague, for instance, said Atkinson saved his career.

“Before he got to Atlanta, when I was there, it was, get the ball to Joe (Johnson). Post-up. Get the ball to Al (Horford) and Josh (Smith),” Teague said. “And when he got there he just showed me a whole new light on basketball, really. He let me be myself.

“He opened up to me and he showed me a whole new way of looking at basketball.”

According to Teague, Atkinson is fiercely devoted to his craft and as competitive as they come. He’s also a little crazy.

“He’s a nut. He’s a full nut,” Teague said once when telling the barefoot story. “He used to be out there barefoot in the gym at six in the morning.

“He was one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever been around. So he just had a different way of working out. He would be barefoot. I didn’t understand it, but he would. And he got out there and play 3-on-3 with us barefoot and everything.”

NBA All-Star Game 2015 Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Whatever the methods, they worked. The Hawks surprised the world during the 2014-15 season by winning 60 games, and Teague was far from the only player to find immense success under Atkinson’s tutelage. Kyle Korver, Al Horford and Paul Millsap joined Teague on the 2015 All-Star team. DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore became legitimate cogs on playoff teams.

“I think our player development has been second to none the last four years,” said Korver. “I think it has been amazing watching guys develop and grow and Kenny leads that.

“He’s going to be a great coach. He’s got a great mindset. He is really detailed and understands culture. [The Nets] are in a tough spot where they don’t have draft picks. It is a tough scenario to walk into, but what they are trying to do is establish player development and a great culture and Sean Marks was in San Antonio and they are going to try to do that. Kenny is the right person for that job.”

Atkinson went on to precisely do that with Marks in Brooklyn. His teams were praised for fantastic levels of effort and execution well before a largely no-name Nets squad made it to the Eastern Conference playoffs in Atkinson’s third season at the helm.

“I just love him as a coach,” Doc Rivers said after the Clippers handed the Nets their sixth straight loss on Feb. 12, 2018. “I think he does a great job. His team executes, they play hard, they play together. I don’t think people appreciate how hard that is when your team is not winning to get guys to play together.

”Most of the guys start looking at contracts, they get selfish and it’s all about numbers. Somehow Kenny has figured it out. They still play together and that’s pretty impressive.”

When Atkinson was relieved of his duties this past March, it was somewhat astounding to read and hear the reactions from some of his players, proving the tight bond that he had established with each of them. Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie all spoke very highly of him specifically.

Earning an immense amount of respect from players is no easy chore. A head coach must first cultivate working relationships with everyone inside their locker room and then a sincere trust must be built over time. And this task is made harder against the backdrop of a recent losing history.

As we witnessed this past season, the Pelicans are not assured of trips to the playoffs simply for possessing a wealth of talent. There could be more rough patches ahead before jaunts to the promised land are experienced. So even if times get tough, the Pelicans need a coach who will consistently reach his troops while working tediously behind the scenes to grow their games individually. And in my humble opinion, there is no position which begs for more attention in New Orleans than at point guard.

Lonzo Ball and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have oodles of ability, but not only does consistency remain elusive, it is apparent they are missing requisite parts in their games. First and foremost, both player’s pick-and-roll reads and execution need vast improvement. Ball ranked in the 11th percentile as pick-and-roll ball handler, while NAW finished the season in the 19th percentile. That’s woeful production. According to Kent Bazemore, Atkinson could make significant inroads there.

“He is just as into it as we are, and he was a point guard and point guards are special. They are the kind of people you don’t come by a lot in the game of basketball. As far as how you know they can translate it from the court to off the court and put it into certain words for you so you understand. He is very good at that.

“And his workouts, a lot of ball-handling stuff, a lot of pick-and-roll stuff, which is what you need to survive in this league. If you can’t run pick and roll as a wing it is going to be tough for you. He has one of the most integral parts of the offense, pick and roll, down to a T.”

New Orleans Pelicans v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Can you imagine Zo and NAW flawlessly executing a pick and roll with either Zion or Hayes for high-flying dunks or hitting Melli or Ingram for pick-and-pop threes? That would help open up New Orleans offense in the half court tremendously, and in one way or another you have to like the chances for team improvement translating in clutch-minute situations, too.

Another thing about Atkinson, he doesn’t force his players into roles they’re not comfortable. Nearly the entire fan base exclaimed game after game on social media that Ball needs to drive into the paint more often, create opportunities for contact to get to the free throw line with greater frequency and/or just generally play more aggressively. D’Angelo Russell once felt the pressure to similarly attack the rim more, but Atkinson changed that thinking, thereby bringing the best out of the now Minnesota point guard.

“Today’s league, old-school point guards go out the window. Whatever you do best, Kenny pushes that. Like do you. Do you. And with that being said, he gives you the confidence to want to do it, as well. Me, I feel like I’m not a dunk-on-you type point guard or go in there and throw my body around and do all this contact. I’m not that. So he allows me to not have to be that.

“I think that’s pretty much where the success is coming from. Because we have different type of point guards. We have 6-6 Spencer Dinwiddie that’s a freak athlete that can throw it down and get the contact and finish and all that. You got Shabazz, he’s smaller but he’s shifty and quick. And then you have me as more in between trying to do that at different levels. And he gives you the confidence to do that.”

The real task for a basketball head coach is to bring a locker room together and lead their group varying in age to victory. A team’s culture and how players interact as people is every bit as important as how they fit on the court. Within all of the team goals, there also needs to be careful personal attention paid to individuals for development purposes. Atkinson’s resume is littered with check marks of wonderful examples of all of the above.

Before Atkinson arrived in Brooklyn, the Nets head coaching job was considered a wasteland. That theory changed quickly during his tenure. The Pelicans are not starting from the bottom, but New Orleans entire roster still requires sizable boosts in numerous facets. And don’t overlook the potential for the Pelicans and Atkinson bonding quickly due to certain familiarity. Organizations strive for continuity so Atkinson would represent a head start, and given the on-going pandemic issues, that could be a godsend for next season.

Former Hawks’ players once considered Atkinson’s hiring in Brooklyn a slam dunk. Now the same thing is being echoed by some on the Nets.

“You could see every year that I was with him, and every year that he coached us, we kept getting better and better, and the players that were under him kept developing and developing and bringing us more confidence,” Jarrett Allen said on a Zoom call from the Orlando bubble. “So whatever team he goes to, they’re going to get a hell of a coach.”

Atkinson sounds like a fantastic choice for the Pelicans, but there’s one more incentive in case someone’s still on the fence about the potential hiring of a coach with a 118-190 won/loss record.

Remember when Griffin placed a great deal of importance on wanting to see the next head coach be able to get the most out of his players on a nightly basis? Specifically, he referred to the concept as “buy-in” on his media conference call following Gentry’s dismissal.

Guess who Spencer Dinwiddie claimed the Nets bought into before the start of the 2019-20 campaign?

“We buy in to him, because he buys in to us,” said Dinwiddie. “You don’t feel like when you make a mistake, he’s like ‘Well, the coaches got it right. Y’all just trippin.’ You really feel like we’re all in this thing together. That’s the most special part about being coached by Kenny and why I don’t think that there’s a ceiling on his ability as a coach.”

A great developer of talent, a widely respected leader of men, and runs a modern offense while possessing no ceiling on his coaching abilities. Seriously, sign me up for Kenny Atkinson being named as the next head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans!

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.

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