LOS ANGELES — The Brooklyn Nets and former head coach Kenny Atkinson surprised the rest of the NBA by mutually agreeing to part ways March 7. Assistant Jacque Vaughn was named interim head coach, though he hasn't had much of an opportunity to prove himself because the league shut down just a few days later.
Vaughn's future remains uncertain, as the franchise is putting together a list of possible coaching candidates, per Marc Stein of the New York Times.
Stein notes the search "is not expected to hit top speed until this season is either completed or canceled" and that Tom Thibodeau is "solely a [New York] Knicks candidate." Stein also lists Golden State Warriors assistant Mike Brown as "another name to monitor."
Of the names listed (Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Vaughn and Brown), who would be the best choice for the Nets? Several executives and agents polled around the league almost unanimously picked Lue as the best of the reported options.
One agent said it may come down to the preference of Kevin Durant's agent, Rich Kleiman.
"Kleiman will have a lot to say, so try and figure out who Rich likes the best," the agent said.
Lue Understands Kyrie
Kyrie Irving is one of the league's most talented point guards—one with a championship ring he earned with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Irving has a reputation in NBA circles for being challenging to coach.
He pushed for a trade out of Cleveland, ending up with the Boston Celtics, with whom he excelled, but that relationship also ended poorly. One Eastern Conference executive noted several months ago that Atkinson was not enjoying his time coaching Irving with the Nets. The divorce wasn't unexpected, though the timing certainly was.
Lue helped guide LeBron James and Irving back from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors, earning the title in 2016. He knows Irving well, but more importantly, from the Nets' perspective, Irving knows Lue.
"Ty is the same guy who you can relate to and at the same time tell you to calm the [expletive] down," one former Western Conference executive said.
Lue took over midway through the 2015-16 campaign after the Cavaliers fired David Blatt. Cleveland advanced to the NBA Finals the next two seasons but couldn't get past the Durant iteration of the Warriors. After James left for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018, the Cavaliers were no longer a contender. Cleveland fired Lue after the team started the season with six straight losses.
Whoever is in charge of the Nets next season will need to manage what could be an elite pairing in Durant and Irving. They're both top talents but also relatively sensitive individuals.
"He can handle egos," the former executive continued. "[They] need a guy with rings ... Ty all day."
Lue was the top choice for almost everyone asked.
They May Respect Kidd, but Does He Have the Chops?
"I think Kyrie and KD would need a championship coach (Lue) or a Hall of Famer (Kidd)," said one Western Conference executive. "I think both [players] have personalities that are mercurial and require different aspects from their coaches."
Kidd has a history with the Nets, coaching the team to 44 wins through the 2013-14 season. That squad earned a first-round playoff series victory in seven games over the Toronto Raptors before losing to James and the Miami Heat in the second round.
As Andrew Keh of the New York Times reported in June 2014, Kidd had a "clash with ownership about expanding his role in the organization ... with a request to head the team's basketball operations, a position that would put him above the general manager."
Instead, Kidd moved to the Milwaukee Bucks, coached them for three-and-a-half seasons (139-152) and was fired in January 2018. He's an assistant on the Lakers staff under coach Frank Vogel.
"I like Kidd. He's very charming ... LeBron speaks highly of him," the executive continued, acknowledging Kidd comes with a reputation. "Some people around the league say that's his game: Be very nice, then get in while your guard is down."
The Nets may or may not have bad blood with Kidd after the one season, but the franchise has since been sold by former owner Mikhail Prokhorov to Joe Tsai.
Another question about Kidd is his acumen as a coach. There's no question he is one of the NBA's all-time great point guards, but his track record with the Nets and Milwaukee doesn't jump out. After Kidd coached the team to 23 wins in 45 games (51.1 percent) before he was fired, his replacement, Mike Budenholzer, led the Bucks to 60 wins and conference finals appearance the following year.
"Kidd can't coach," a different Western Conference executive said.
Vaughn's Spurs Lineage?
General manager Sean Marks will orchestrate the search for the Nets. His roots are with the San Antonio Spurs, which could bode well for Vaughn.
"[Marks] will likely hire from the Spurs tree, so I'm betting on Vaughn," the agent said.
"I like Jacque," the former executive said while noting he doesn't have a long enough resume for Irving and Durant. "[They] need a guy with a ring."
Technically, Vaughn does have a championship, earned with the Spurs as a player in 2007. Does that count?
"It does, but not his personality," he responded. "[The Nets] need to have someone that can control the egos."
Vaughn coached the Orlando Magic from 2012 to 2015, losing his job in February of that final season after a 15-37 start and a 60-158 record. The sample size with the Nets isn't significant, though he has yet to lose a game (2-0).
"He's never really had big success [as a coach], but he comes from good programs," the first Western Conference executive said.
Jeff Van Gundy's Knicks Angle?
Van Gundy hasn't coached in the NBA since the 2006-07 season, winning 52 games with the Houston Rockets that year. He also had a successful run with the New York Knicks, including a Finals appearance in 1999.
Instead, he's been one of ABC and ESPN's primary game analysts. On the side, he started coaching the United States senior men's national basketball team at different FIBA tournaments.
While the agent was pro-Van Gundy, others were skeptical.
"He is one of the last coaches that is super tough and also loved by players," the agent said. "Kleiman [as a longtime Knicks fan] will have a high opinion of JVG."
Both Western Conference executives had similar takes on Van Gundy: "He's been out of the game too long," and "Van Gundy is too outdated."
How Much Credit Should Mark Jackson Get for Golden State?
Jackson, often Van Gundy's broadcast partner on ABC and ESPN, got a similar reaction.
"Perhaps Durant and Kyrie are too new-school," the agent said, but "[Kleiman] loves him."
Jackson spent three years coaching the Warriors (2011-2014). The team was terrible when he got there, reached 51 wins in Jackson's final season and then took off under coach Steve Kerr.
How much of the Warriors' success should be credited to Jackson's role in turning the team's culture around? That's a tough one to answer objectively.
"He's better suited for a younger team," the second Western Conference executive said. "I don't think he's a good X and O's guy. When he was the Warriors coach, they ran nothing offensively. They just isolated all the time. I think you saw a huge difference with Kerr because he preached ball movement and action away from the ball. Mark is a very good motivator, but vets like Kyrie and KD would see right through him."
"The times have passed Jackson," the former executive said.
Mike Brown/Durant Connection?
Brown coached Irving for one season in Cleveland (2013-14), a transition year that produced just 33 wins, before James returned. Brown also coached the Cavaliers from 2005 to 2010 (with one NBA Finals appearance) and the Lakers during the 2011-12 season (along with five games in 2012-13 before he was fired after a 1-4 start). He's since worked as an assistant to Kerr with the Warriors (dating back to 2016-17).
Opinions on Brown were mixed.
"He was a very good coach. He just talked way too much, and his practices were too long," the second Western Conference executive said. "He over-coaches.
A third executive, also in the West, believes Brown has grown during his time in Golden State and would be good for the Nets.
The former executive didn't agree: "No way ... the stars will eat him alive [in Brooklyn]."
The agent noted he does have a connection with Durant from their time together with the Warriors. If Durant thinks that, then perhaps Brown has a shot.
Ultimately, Marks, along with Tsai, will make the decision. They'll presumably take the input from their star players in Durant (along with his representation, Kleiman) and Irving. Given the state of the game, there's no rush for the Nets to choose.