With Kevin Durant likely out for the full season, the Brooklyn Nets will rely heavily on Kyrie Irving in 2019-2020. Besides for potential steps forward from the Nets young core, the team will only go as far as Kyrie takes them.
Kenny Atkinson is going to be a major factor in determining if Kyrie Irving’s first season as a Net is going to be a success. In his brief coaching career thus far the closest player to a star that Atkinson has coached (as a head coach/not assistant) is D’Angelo Russell—and he’s just recently emerged as one.
Generally speaking, you like head coaches that bring a certain level of experience to the table to garnish respect from their star players. Phil Jackson‘s ability to coach Kobe and Shaq was largely driven by his championship pedigree from his days winning in Chicago. Steve Kerr brought a championship culture to Golden State based on his own experiences on the Jordan led Bulls and the Duncan led Spurs.
Atkinson’s lack of championship pedigree certainly puts him in a precarious position, but inexperienced coaches have had success with mega stars in recent years. Not too long ago Nick Nurse was securing NBA D-League Coach of the Year honors, look at him now. Eric Spoelstra and Tyronn Lue were also inexperienced in their own rights but led superstar driven teams to the Larry O’Brien trophy.
In a sense, there is less pressure coaching teams that don’t have playoff aspirations or aren’t expected to contend, the Nets over exceeded last year under Atkinson’s direction. Now the team is expected to be amongst the best in the Eastern Conference—the pressure is on.
It’s a star-driven league, that’s no real secret, stars have never had as much power as they do now. If Kyrie and KD do not like Atkinson, the prospect of him being the long term option behind the bench dwindles.
It is thus imperative that he builds a strong relationship and trust with his star players, and that starts with Kyrie this year. At the Nets press conference last week, Atkinson said that the Nets play a system that he does not imagine changing for Kyrie Irving.
You want a coach to be confident in his philosophy, but this should not be the approach or mindset with star players. Atkinson has to be flexible and adjust to Kyrie’s style of play, not the other way around. Stars have egos and may wonder why they should be listening to a coach who is less accomplished than they are.
From all accounts, Coach Atkinson is an abrasive but loving guy. He is not scared to get up into players faces during practice. He treats all players equally in order to get the best out of everyone. Hopefully, Kyrie respects that, but it is up to Kenny to have clear communication and build the type of rapport he had with D-Lo.