Six weeks into their exhaustive coaching search, the Charlotte Hornets appear to be zeroing in on the person they want to move the franchise forward.
Kenny Atkinson’s name has been bubbling underneath the surface in league circles dating back to the NBA Draft combine in Chicago last month, and it’s looking more apparent that, barring an unexpected turn, the Golden State Warriors’ assistant has emerged as a serious contender to succeed James Borrego as head coach of the Hornets.
Atkinson is scheduled to meet with owner Michael Jordan at some point in the coming days, league sources confirmed to The Observer, and that’s typically the final step in the process. Jordan did the same thing prior to hiring Borrego in 2018.
There is a three-day gap between Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals, which shifts to Boston following Sunday night’s matchup in San Francisco, creating a window for the two sides to meet. If all goes well, and Jordan is enamored with Atkinson, he conceivably could be hired by the end of the week, per a league source. But it’s not a done deal yet.
Should Atkinson get the nod, he wouldn’t be able to do much right away, since he has to put the bulk of his attention into helping Golden State and former Davidson standout Stephen Curry capture their fourth Finals crown in eight years.
Still, with the NBA Draft rapidly approaching on June 23, and plenty of questions looming over the roster heading into the offseason, there won’t be much time for Atkinson to assimilate himself into his new environment. The Hornets are already up against it, because whomever is hired will have to fill out a new coaching staff, which may or may not include Borrego’s former assistants, who’ve continued to work behind the scenes, according to sources. They are waiting to see if any of them will be retained in a similar role.
With Atkinson inching closer to potentially taking the coaching reins, here are three things he would bring to the Hornets:
Currently finishing up his first season as an assistant coach with Golden State, Atkinson is a noted grinder who’s paid his dues.
Born on New York’s Long Island in Huntington, and a Northport, New York native, he spent three-plus seasons as a head coach with the Brooklyn Nets, compiling a 118-190 record while helping the franchise transition from a salary-cap strapped team with few assets to a destination that attracted the likes of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency.
He was key in incrementally building up their win total from 20 in his initial season to 28 in Year 2, followed by a 42-40 campaign in 2018-19, guiding Brooklyn to its first playoff berth since 2015. That 14-win increase from 2017-18 to 2018-19 was the third-largest among all teams, and those three straight years of improving the win-loss record represented the first time the Nets accomplished that feat since 1990-94, when it happened in a franchise-record four straight seasons.
Atkinson was let go by Brooklyn with the Nets sitting in seventh place at 28-34 in the Eastern Conference on March 7, 2020, falling shy of lofty expectations aided by Irving’s arrival as a free agent in 2019. His win total ranks third in franchise history and he’s third all-time in games coached with 308.
Boasting an NBA coaching resume that dates back to 2007, he’s patiently waited his turn for another crack at a head gig, spending 2020-21 in Los Angeles on Ty Lue’s staff with the Clippers before heading up the coast to the Bay Area to be a part of Steve Kerr’s staff this season.
Grooming young talent has been an integral element of the Hornets’ growth over the past few seasons. Given their roster is loaded with many early twenty-somethings, led by LaMelo Ball, it’s important to sustain that while also reaching for the next level of success.
One of Atkinson’s strengths centers around getting the most out of an individual.
He began his NBA coaching career as the Houston Rockets’ director of player development in 2007-08, which came on the heels of him serving in that same role overseas for France’s Paris Basket Racing Club.
Lengthy assistant coaching stints with New York from 2008-12 and Atlanta (2012-16) preceded his leap to Brooklyn, so he has worked with his fair share of players over the years. He helped the likes of Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen enhance their games.
Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez has Atkinson to thank for igniting his showing from long distance. Lopez never averaged more than 0.2 attempts per game from 3-point territory in his eight seasons prior to Atkinson’s arrival with the Nets. But the 7-footer hoisted 5.2 per game with Atkinson’s blessing and canned 34.6% in that first year. Lopez is now a 34.1% career 3-point shooter.
Another plus: Atkinson played abroad professionally for 14 years and was a primary ball-handler. He seems to incorporate that knowledge into dialogue with his players, allowing for give and take in certain situations.
He’s even coached abroad, providing him with a unique perspective judging international talent.
In his tenure with the Nets, Atkinson was defensive-minded, and that mentality should greatly benefit the Hornets. The glaring deficiencies on that side of the ball were a detriment this past season and they learned the hard way that simply trying to outscore teams on a nightly basis isn’t going to work when the competition ramps up come playoff time.
Despite not having any overly great defenders in Brooklyn, Atkinson slowly got the Nets to respectability on that side of the ball. Their defensive efficiency went from 23rd during his first year to 14th and ninth in his final season-plus.
Just imagine the possibilities if he can do something similar with the Hornets.
He has a track record to point to and that could help him command the defensive attention of his new team, which is in dire need of an inside rim protector and an overall attitude adjustment when it comes to guarding the opposition consistently with the appropriate amount of intensity and mental focus.
This story was originally published June 4, 2022 3:44 PM.