Orlando Magic Coaching Search: Making the case for Kenny Atkinson

LA Clippers assistant Kenny Atkinson helped guide the Brooklyn Nets from lottery team to the playoffs. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
LA Clippers assistant Kenny Atkinson helped guide the Brooklyn Nets from lottery team to the playoffs. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic find themselves at the precipice of an offseason where every decision matters in a way that cannot be understated.

With one of the youngest rosters in the NBA, potentially two top-10 picks and a vacancy at the head coaching position, the decisions president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman makes in these next few months will define the next decade of Magic basketball.

Success in the NBA is derived from a sense of organizational synergy. The matriculation of a “culture” that permeates from the franchise’s upper ranks down to the non-basketball employees establishes the tone for how a franchise wishes to define its success.

The Orlando Magic are interviewing a wide range of potential coaching candidates and fits. But one name in their early list is already standing above the rest for doing the job the Magic will ask of their next coach.

In the NBA hierarchy, it is no surprise the most successful franchises have been able to remain competitive due to a unified vision from the key decision-makers on all levels of team construction.

Sure enough, Weltman has been cautious in limiting his search to any key candidate and has been vague in his ideal coaching candidate in order to cast the widest possible net to secure the best coach possible:

"“I don’t have a cookie-cutter answer for you,” Jeff Weltman said after announcing the team had parted ways with Steve Clifford. “I can’t tell you we are going to look for a young guy, or a guy with experience or without. We’re going to meet with a host of bright, sharp coaching candidates and see where they take us.“Obviously, we need to develop a great number of young, talented players. That will figure into the conversations. I don’t think there is a right answer to is there a right age or experience level to be able to accomplish your goals. It’s finding the right person. that’s what we’ll be looking for and that alignment. It’s everything.”"

The team has indeed cast a wide net and the number of candidates who are interviewing for the Magic’s coaching job is already fairly diverse.

Reports are the Orlando Magic will interview San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon and Los Angeles Lakers assistant Jason Kidd. They reportedly have interest in interviewing Milwaukee Bucks assistant Darvin Ham, Brooklyn Nets assistant Ime Udoka and LA Clippers assistant Kenny Atkinson.

Tuesday, Mike Singer of the Denver Post reported the Orlando Magic are seeking permission to interview Denver Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr.

There will surely be more candidates who emerge and plenty more interviews the Magic conduct, if they have not started already.

While I am in support of a “cross your t’s, dot your i’s” exhaustive coaching search, it is clear there is a head coaching candidate available that is already a perfect match for what the Magic desperately need right now:

Former Nets coach and current Clippers assistant Kenny Atkinson.

Standing above the others

Michael Scotto of HoopsHype recently linked Kenny Atkinson to the Orlando Magic among several other viable candidates on a podcast. His name certainly should carry a lot of weight in the Magic’s search.

While there are some impressive candidates the Magic are looking at, Atkinson has proven himself adept at developing a winning culture from a bleak situation.

To put it bluntly, Atkinson fulfills the paradigm of a player’s coach to a tee. Having been a player himself in the 1990s, the 54 year old from New York understands the plight of the journeyman, underdog player having been one himself.

Atkinson played internationally in five countries in his 14-year career and uses his experiences  as connective tissue with his players. This is a skill that has granted him glowing performances across his coaching jobs.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Look no further than the worldwide phenomena of “Linsanity” as a referendum on the power of Atkinson’s influence.

Jeremy Lin credited Atkinson as an instrumental piece toward his development from a fringe NBA player to a bona fide starter after that burst in New York:

"“I was literally the 15th guy,” Lin said. “Everyone knew I was going to get cut. I knew I was going to get cut. And [Atkinson] was still pouring everything into me like I was his star player. And so to me, that’s when I saw, hey, this guy’s a man of character. And I’ll never have to question that about him. Because I saw how he treated me before everything happened.”"

That is where we see the magic of Atkinson.

Development journey

Several players at all his positions have lauded Atkinson as a man who is zealous about his commitment to player development and has the passion and genuine love for his players to maximize the talents of the roster.

As an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks, Atkinson was instrumental as an assistant coach to Mike Budenholzer’s staff on teams where unheralded players like Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap become first-time all-stars under his direction.

Atkinson embraces the ideal of the hard worker – a mantra that propelled him into his first head coaching position for the Brooklyn Nets.

And while the stories above may convince many of his reputation as a player’s first coach, Atkinson’s work with the Brooklyn Nets showed why he should be the preeminent option for any rebuilding team.

The 2016 Brooklyn Nets team was swimming in an ocean of irrelevancy.

A few years removed from the abhorrent trade with the Boston Celtics that saw all of the Nets’ first-round picks for the foreseeable future jettisoned to division rivals, the Nets brought in Atkinson as a possible guide for a roster filled with misfits, undesirables and castoffs combined to form the league’s laughing stock.

Without any of their future picks, the Nets’ future was bleak and they knew they would absorb a lot of losses.

Brooklyn indeed lost a lot in Atkinson’s first few years. The team won just 48 games in his first two seasons. But Atkinson took this challenge with aplomb, citing in his initial press conference his determination to player development in a statement that should bring utmost excitement to every Magic fan:

In Brooklyn, Atkinson was able to establish an egalitarian system of offense that catered to the strengths of his players while simultaneously providing his players with opportunities to expand their own games based upon what the system asked of them.

The one thing everyone noticed about the Nets in those days was that they played hard. Talent might have overwhelmed them in the end, but Brookly built the bones of a strong team.

While sometimes outlandish, Atkinson would constantly devise ways to assist his young players in understanding complex defensive and offensive sets.

Regardless of the method, Atkinson created a system in which his players functioned as a unit, rather than a collection of individual players. And as a result, he was able to instill confidence in players who otherwise would have never grown into the talents they eventually became.

Players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Jarett Allen become viable contributors for an exciting Nets team that surpassed all expectations in the 2018 season as a 42-win playoff team just after a season that saw them win 28 games.

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The smart buy-low acquisition of D’Angelo Russell helped in this pursuit. But Atkinson pushed all the right buttons to have this young team prepared to take that leap.

The right fit?

The win total does not his job justice.

Kenny Atkinson was in tune with his team and was dedicated to ensuring his players were at the center of each of his key schemes and personnel decisions. Atkinson treated every day as an opportunity to connect with his players, often using practices as a means of showing his determination towards their success.

In three years, Atkinson helped turn the Brooklyn Nets from a barren heap of NBA castoffs to a premiere location where players like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were so inspired, they formulated a plan to sign in Brooklyn, cementing the team’s status as a key NBA locale.

While Atkinson lost his position as the Nets head coach in the following season, it is clear his presence as a player developer and culture creator is something the Magic desperately need.

Orlando needs a head coach who will be able to amplify the talents of the bevy of young players on the roster and make them buy into a culture of the team over a player. Atkinson has been instrumental on several teams that have prioritized this mentality and has affected the trajectory of several players along the way.

Atkinson has a decade of professional coaching experience under his belt,  punctuated by remarkable player breakouts at each and every major coaching position he was tasked with and a universal affection from each organization he was a part of.

It is not hard to imagine what impact Atkinson could have on this iteration of the Magic – an ultra young and incredibly competitive team that is in need of direction and commitment towards their skill development.

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If Jeff Weltman is serious about ensuring the next decade of Magic basketball begins with the best long-term outlook, Weltman should not hesitate to hire Atkinson at the first opportunity presented to him.