The Bulls have started interviews for their head coaching vacancy and, encouragingly, the candidate list is extensive.
So far, eight external names have been widely reported, most long-tenured assistants ready to make the jump to the big chair (internally, Bulls assistant Chris Fleming will interview, and Roy Rogers may draw consideration, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski). A few — Denver Nuggets Wes Unseld Jr. and Philadelphia 76ers assistant Ime Udoka — have past ties to Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley.
Only one has past head coaching experience: former Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson. Appearing on the latest Bulls Talk Podcast, Sports Illustrated senior NBA writer Chris Mannix called Atkinson a “no-brainer” hire for Chicago.
“I don’t know why this isn’t a no-brainer. I mean, you have a Bulls team that has a lot of young players that need to be developed. Hands down Kenny Atkinson is the best development coach available,” Mannix said.
Mannix acknowledged that Atkinson’s reputation is one of a coach without the Xs and Os acumen to ascend to a championship level. But perhaps that’s not entirely where the Bulls’ focus should be.
“It’s just like, you’re trying to get to Point B before you get to Point C, and Kenny Atkinson is that guy that can take you there (to Point C),” he said. “I just think it should be an easy call in my mind that Kenny Atkinson, all the support should be thrown behind him and he should be the next Bulls’ coach.”
Atkinson coached to just a 118-190 record in his time with the Nets, but context is key. He inherited a barren roster with little-to-no draft capital for the immediate future back in 2016, and the Nets improved in each of his three full seasons. He helped foster a number of player development successes in that span, including Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and D’Angelo Russell, who made an All-Star team in 2019.
There, Fleming also served as an assistant on Atkinson’s staff, which would help ease a potential transition.
But most importantly: Over the course of Atkinson’s tenure, the Nets bloomed from an unmitigated dumpster fire into a free agent destination desirable enough to lure Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2019.
The Bulls should be looking to make a similar leap, given their books are set to clear markedly after the 2020-21 season, when a star-studded free agent class looms. It’s part of what makes the gig an attractive one, even while competing with the attractive destinations like the New Orleans Pelicans, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers (who might be about to fill their vacancy) on the open market.
“I think it’s a really solid job,” Mannix said. “The market is appealing to a lot of coaches. The young talent on the roster is appealing to a lot of coaches...
“Working with [Artūras Karnišovas] is also appealing at a high level. Plus we know the contract situation in Chicago, their books are going to get cleaner in the coming year so there’s going to be an opportunity if the next head coach develops the young talent on the roster to really build this thing pretty quickly if they get a free agent in the summer of 2021 or 2022.”
A coach with Atkinson's experience developing young talent could get the Bulls — who employ some intriguing young pieces — to that point. But there isn't time to waste.
Whether the choice ends up being a known commodity like Atkinson, or a qualified assistant ready to build the Bulls from the ground up, all those factors make it imperative for Karnišovas and Co. to nail this hire. The future of the franchise depends on it.