When Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving formally announced their decision to sign with the Nets in the offseason, they made sure to underscore the prevailing culture as a primary reason for the move. The more illustrious Knicks — who counted the Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of hoops and just a subway ride from Barclays Center — were among the numerous suitors who likewise knocked on their doors, but they decided to latch their futures on a franchise historically closer to futility than success. They argued that the foundations were solid — epitomized by the two-way collaboration between management and the coaching staff, and particularly between general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson.
Today, that “culture” is gone. The so-called partnership built through two years of toiling in lottery territory and then another season of certain progress before Durant and Irving latched on has fallen by the wayside, once again underscoring the considerable currency players hold in establishing the status quo. In making the public announcement yesterday, the Nets took pains to highlight that the development was agreed upon mutually, and that the parties noted the need for “another voice” to get them “to the next level.” Yet, it’s telling that they likewise conceded the result to be a “compromise that both Kenny and I and ownership came up with.”
Needless to say, Atkinson didn’t want to part ways with the Nets. That Marks presided over a news conference he didn’t attend is the first telling sign he’s not on board with the outcome. What bench tactician would not want to reap the fruits of his labor? The next season was supposed to be the first in which he stands to harvest the gains of his sacrifices. Instead, he was effectively given the boot because, in the opinion of other stakeholders, he doesn’t have as good a “voice” in feast as in famine. And forget about the platitudes Durant and Irving bestowed on him upon their arrival; if they truly wanted him to be their coach moving forward, he would be their coach moving forward. As the GM admitted yesterday, “I just got done talking with them now and updating them.”
Perhaps the Net did really have to make the change immediately, and not at the end of their 2019–20 campaign as planned. Perhaps the players had enough of Atkinson, whose predisposition for substitution patterns as dictated by circumstances grated on them. That said, there can be no devaluing his contributions; he led them to the playoffs last year, and then looked to be doing the same this season despite all the injuries and lack of lineup continuity. And it’s all right; it’s the prerogative — responsibility, even — of franchise owner Joseph Tsai and Marks to deal with the cards as dealt.
From here on, though, let it not be said that the Nets have superior culture. It may have been their biggest asset during Atkinson’s time. It’s no longer one from here on. They just proved they’re no different from the rest. It’s not right or wrong. It’s just how things now are for them, and far be it for them to be disingenuous and insist they’re still better in that regard. They know they took a step back yesterday, but they believe it’s what will have them taking two steps ahead. Point granted. The sooner they own up to it, though, the faster they will get to where they want to be.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.