Nets Rumors: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving 'Never Connected With' Kenny Atkinson

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2020

Brooklyn Nets guard Theo Pinson, left, guard Kyrie Irving, center and forward Kevin Durant watch the game action during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, in New York. The Nets won 123-116. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

The Brooklyn Nets reportedly held a team meeting after Wednesday's 118-79 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in which the season-long fissures between coach Kenny Atkinson and players bubbled to the surface.

Shams Charania and Alex Schiffer of The Athletic reported Atkinson and Nets players had "honest and frank discussions" as tensions reached a boiling point over the last week, leading up to Atkinson's firing over the weekend. During the Wednesday meeting, players expressed frustration with how the team played in its blowout loss that night but also voiced wider concerns about Atkinson's rotations and pecking orders.

At one point, Kevin Durant reportedly offered his opinion that the Nets were not building a culture capable of winning a championship. Durant's point speaks to Charania and Schiffer's reporting that he and Kyrie Irving "never connected" with their head coach, and that there was a "growing belief" the two All-Stars did not have interest in playing for Atkinson next season.

Atkinson's main failure appears to be one of communication. Players in the meeting reportedly bemoaned a lack of consistency in the team's hierarchy, particularly in identifying roles.

The decision to bring DeAndre Jordan off the bench in favor of Allen caused consternation. While Jordan publicly said the right things, he reportedly signed in Brooklyn with the assumption of being a starter next to Irving and Durant. Interim coach Jacque Vaughn's first rotation move after taking over for Atkinson was replacing Allen with Jordan in the starting lineup—likely not a coincidence.

"When Atkinson made Jarrett Allen the starting center this season, it changed the dynamics," Charania and Schiffer wrote.

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The players did not actively campaign for Atkinson to be fired, and they reportedly spent time in the Wednesday meeting criticizing some players' individual play as well. But there was an increasing sense of acknowledgment over the last week that Atkinson would not be back in 2020-21. He was reportedly "dejected" after the team meeting, and when he met with general manager Sean Marks, asked to be fired now rather than kept around as a proverbial lame duck for the remainder of the season.

Charania and Schiffler said there were "concerns" about Atkinson's level of rigidity and commitment to his philosophies on both ends of the floor. An egalitarian approach is his preferred method of offense, but the Nets thrived last season with D'Angelo Russell, a point guard who (like Irving) prefers to probe the defense and has a tendency to over-dribble. None of Atkinson's more innovative ideas, like playing Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert in the same lineup, ever got off the ground because of injuries.

It's possible the gap year of Durant's absence was too much for either side to bear. The Nets roster will look different next season, as it's a virtual certainty that some trades are made to fit players around him and Irving. When Durant returns, there won't be any question about hierarchy. Irving's absence this season only made things more difficult to manage, especially with Dinwiddie playing well in his stead.

With Durant and Irving back healthy, the next coach will have a job far easier than the one Atkinson had in 2020-21. We'll never get to know whether he had the acumen to make it work or if the Nets simply got ahead of the inevitable.