The addition of Kenny Atkinson to the Golden State coaching staff is less about Steve Kerr’s coaching style than his management ideology. Kerr is comfortable enough to invite “smoke” from his assistants, and Atkinson is a bringer of smoke.
“It’s part of my personality,” Atkinson told NBC Sports Bay Area. “If I have a well-thought-out idea that I think is worth bringing to the table, I’m going to do it. I’m definitely not going to be the quiet one. I’ll bring it to the group. I love to put an idea on the table, debate it, fight about it, disagree – and hopefully get together united at the end.”
Democratic in philosophy, Kerr lives for the exchange of ideas. As a first-year head coach, he welcomed an idea from a staffer, Nick U’Ren, that put the Warriors on the path to their first championship in 40 years. Kerr dived into debates with former assistants Alvin Gentry, Luke Walton and Jarron Collins, and does the same with Mike Brown.
Only Ron Adams remains from Kerr’s original staff, perhaps because Kerr sees value in the septuagenarian who is as knowledgeable as he is cynical.
Atkinson, who joined the NBA coaching fraternity in 2008, is a 54-year-old brain-stormer unto himself.
“I’ve always been kind of an out-of-the-box thinker, not afraid of engaging,” he said. “I’m a bit of risk taker. In an assistant’s role, I definitely want to push out new ideas.”
A grinder who looks the part – tight, well-conditioned physique – Atkinson has been around the game since his childhood in the 1970s. From St. Anthony’s High School in New York to the University of Richmond (Va.), where he was an all-conference guard as a junior and senior. After going undrafted in 1990, he knocked around minor professional leagues in the United States before heading overseas and playing 11 seasons and coaching for two more.
Upon returning to America in 2008, Atkinson brought the full European basketball experience with him. The emphasis on coaching. The discipline. The dedication. He got a job under Mike D’Antoni with the Knicks, where he spent four seasons before heading to the Hawks under Mike Budenholzer.
Four years later, Atkinson was head coach of the Nets – and already had established a professional relationship with Kerr.
“He was always generous in helping me and he would give me details,” Atkinson recalled. “We created this kind of respect for exchanging ideas for a long time. Just as a colleague, I started texting him. He was really generous; a lot of coaches are like that, but he was above and beyond in giving me information, whether I was a head coach or an assistant. And it really helped me.”
Brooklyn was 20-62 in Atkinson’s first season, one game worse than under a different coach the previous season, but rose to 28-54 in Year 2 and 42-40 and a playoff berth in Year 3. Atkinson was fired late in the 2019-20 season – reportedly related to a rift with Kyrie Irving – but recovered last season to reach the Western Conference finals as an assistant to Tyronn Lue with the Clippers.
When the Warriors released Collins in June, Atkinson was at the top of the list of possible replacements. He joined the staff in early July. He is one of four new additions, with DeJan Milojević (assistant), Jama Mahlalela (director of player development) and Kris Weems (player-development coach).
Atkinson and Brown both have experience as an NBA head coach, but Atkinson is the jalapeño in the staff stew.
“He has great energy and is sort of a contrarian, an outside-of-the-box thinker, which I really like,” Kerr said of Atkinson. “And I love that he comes in here with head coaching experience. He knows what I’m going through each day because he’s been there and can give me great advice.”
Said Atkinson: “That’s the basis of our relationship. We were always – even when he was coaching championship teams – kicking around crazy ideas. That’s another reason why I think this is a good fit.”
This stop, no matter how long, is another in which Atkinson can absorb lessons. He has taken ideas from D’Antoni, Budenholzer and Lue. And now, he’s working alongside Kerr, with whom he has talked basketball for the better part of a decade.
Atkinson says he’s not eager for another opportunity to be a head coach, which is not to be mistaken for lack of desire.
“I always feel like I’m hanging on to the NBA by my fingernails,” he said. “There are a lot of talented people out there. All of a sudden, you can look around and not be in the league any more. My fear, what keeps me up at night, is making sure I do the things that will keep me in the league. I’ve got to stay in the league. That is really my goal, because it’s the best job in the world.”
For someone who loves basketball and is wired to debate, even argue, it’s hard to do better than to get hired by a kindred spirit.