Fresh off a frustrating season under an even more frustrating head coach, the Chicago Bulls finally have a new front office. Now, with plenty of momentum on their side, executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley will make one of their first major decisions – picking the team’s next head coach. Over the following weeks, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the rumored candidates, including their history, what they bring to the table, what they might cost, and their general desirability.
Previously: Ime Udoka
Today: Kenny Atkinson
Name, Current Team, Current Position
Kenny Atkinson, Free agent
Let’s start at the end and work our way back. On March 7th of this year, the Brooklyn Nets decided to fire head coach Kenny Atkinson. The announcement came one morning after the head coach led his team to a 139-120 victory over the San Antonio Spurs (#rude). With Kevin Durant out for the season, Kyrie Irving frequently on the injury report, and All-Star D’Angelo Russell off the team, this felt like a premature decision. After all, Atkinson helped turn a last-place team in the Eastern Conference into a 6th seed in just three seasons (won 20 games in 2016-17, and won 42 games in 2018-19).
As the team slowly showed improvement, Atkinson’s reputation in the player development department saw an even greater boost. People started to praise the culture he established in Brooklyn and his ability to get the most out of young talent. Many loved Atkinson, but those who mattered most reportedly didn’t. Rumors swirled that Irving and Durant played a large role in Atkinson’s departure, as the Nets jumped from rebuild mode to win-now mode.
Before Atkinson stepped foot in Brooklyn, he was an assistant for current Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta. He sat on the Hawks bench from 2012-2016, and the team made the playoffs each year he was there (including an Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2014-15). He didn’t see as much winning during his time in New York – with stretched from 2008-2012 – but he did learn under another quality head coach in Mike D’Antoni.
While Atkinson’s experience may not be the most eye-popping, it’s consistent and lengthy. The guy has racked up over a decade in NBA coaching circles, working with some top names and earning plenty of respect. A lot of the names on the Bulls current list are would-be first-timers – and for good reason. Choosing a fresh face could offer an entirely new perspective in the locker room, as well as tap into some hidden-gem qualities. With that said, an argument could be made that Atkinson’s experience makes him the happy-medium between a new-comer and a veteran. Many believe his time in Brooklyn was cut too short, and after only four seasons into a head coaching career, I think it’s safe to say he has a lot left in the tank.
From the moment Atkinson was released, he became one of the top head coach candidates on the market. The New York Knicks interviewed Atkinson for their head coach vacancy in July before eventually hiring former-Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
Since then, the New Orleans Pelicans and Chicago Bulls have been the teams to reportedly have Atkinson on their initial list. The two other teams with vacancies – the 76ers and Pacers – have yet to be connected to the former-head coach (Brooklyn is also still looking for a coach, but I’m excluding them for obvious reasons).
The 76ers and Pacers have both been in the playoff mix for the past several seasons, which makes the lack of interest in Atkinson understandable. I suppose it’s still possible both offer him an interview, but the Pelicans and Bulls feel like the more intriguing options for someone who is known for their player development chops.
A team constructed on young talent, Chicago is in desperate need of someone who can tap into that potential. Atkinson proved he could do just that with a youthful roster during his time in Brooklyn. He helped turn D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Spencer Dinwiddie into starting-caliber players. An argument could be made that the Bulls current young core has a higher ceiling than that group (with possible Russell as an exception), which means the competitive turnaround should prove faster than what we saw in Brooklyn.
While the Bulls may not be in a huge rush, it’s in their best interest to figure out who among this young roster is worth keeping around ASAP. Atkinson’s proven ability to get the most out of players could help Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley make tough decisions faster (for example, should they move on from someone like Lauri Markkanen?).
Even more importantly, his past system could complement the Bulls personnel nicely. In 2018-19, the Nets ran the 11th-fastest PACE in the NBA, and the team finished 15th in TS%. The team also averaged the 8th-most passes a game, which coincides well with Karnisovas’s desire for a high-pace offense led with ball movement.
Atkinson is said to run an “equal opportunity offense, and for a team that lacks a bonafide star to lead the way, this feels like a must. The Bulls finished with the 29th-overall offensive rating last season, which we can all agree is unacceptable for a team that has multiple young players who are praised for their offensive upside. I think it’s worth pointing out as well that Chris Fleming – the Bulls current lead assistant head coach – worked with Atkinson in Brooklyn before joining Chicago last offseason. Fleming helped lead the offense in Brooklyn, so it’s quite possible that if Atkinson is hired, he would call upon Fleming to play the same role.
At the end of the day, it’s pretty obvious why the Bulls would be interested in Atkinson’s services, but that doesn’t mean we can’t think of any red flags. Atkinson possesses some hard-headed tendencies that could ruffle feathers. His Brooklyn departure is oftentimes seen as a mutual agreement, as he didn’t love the idea of working with superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. For what it’s worth, both those guys are said to be tough players to deal with (and they seemed to want him out more than he wanted to get out), but that’s still not the best look.
On top of that, it’s not as if he’s a proven winner. He may be able to develop talent in the right direction, but a 42-40 record is his crowning achievement. How confident are we that he can do a lot better?
They Said It …
“He always has this good aura and swagger about himself,” Bazemore said. “Even just how he walks around, he still stays in shape, he is out here warming up barefoot, doing push-ups. 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.