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Atkinson goes from Warriors ‘grad school’ to Cavaliers bench

Former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson looks on during a basketball game.
Nick Wass
The Cavaliers will reportedly name Kenny Atkinson as their new head coach. Atkinson, seen here coaching Brooklyn, also spent time on Steve Kerr's staff at Golden State.

Considered the favorite from the beginning of the search, Kenny Atkinson will reportedly be hired by the Cavaliers as head coach, replacing J.B. Bickerstaff.

Atkinson was one of at least six known candidates to interview with the team since Bickerstaff's firing on May 23 — a week after Cleveland was eliminated from the playoffs in five games by the eventual champion Boston Celtics.

Ideastream Public Media's sports commentator Terry Pluto believes the Cavs likely had their sights set on Atkinson for some time.

“I would have found it hard to believe they were going to fire J.B. Bickerstaff, who really was a pretty successful coach for them over the last three years, and not have someone else in mind,” Pluto said.

Still, Pluto said there weren’t many experienced, successful coaches floating around.

“There were a bunch of guys who had never been head coaches before, and then there were a couple of people who had been head coaches and really didn't go very far in the playoffs," Pluto said. "None of this is to negate the feeling that Atkinson could do a good job here, but it is simply to say it was a hard choice. But I think that they liked Atkinson for a while."

Pluto talked with former Cavs coach Mike Fratello, who got to know Atkinson while doing NBA telecasts. Atkinson was an assistant on Mike D'Antoni's staff with the New York Knicks in 2008.

“He said, ‘I would watch this young Atkinson out there working with players before games' and also the network TV guys would go to practice and (Fratello) goes, ‘I was just impressed with his ability to teach (and) connect with different players,’” Pluto said.

When Fratello was named the coach of the Ukrainian national basketball team in 2011, he hired Atkinson as an assistant.

In 2016, Atkinson became the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. He went 118-190 in his three-plus seasons, overseeing their rise from the lower tier of the Eastern Conference to a playoff berth in 2019. He was fired the following season.

“The Nets decided to bring in some veterans and they traded for Kyrie Irving," Pluto said. "He played only 20 games and got hurt and they brought in Kevin Durant. Durant didn’t play at all because he blew his Achilles (tendon). In the end, they just fired Atkinson and Fratello said to me, he goes, ‘I was there. You can't blame Atkinson for any of that.’”

Atkinson has spent the last three seasons as an assistant under coach Steve Kerr, who’s won four championships with the Golden State Warriors.

“Kerr is now considered, I think, the best coach in the NBA," Pluto said. "What you get there from Golden State, it's almost like going to graduate school for coaching, and the Cavs put a lot of weight into the fact that the last three years, Kenny Atkinson spent three years with Steve Kerr."

Pluto said the Cavs believe Atkinson can take the team to the next level.

“Atkinson is known as a guy that is a very creative coach offensively," Pluto said. "The Cavs want to play at a faster pace (and) make more three pointers."

Pluto said it’s a huge opportunity for the 57-year-old Atkinson.

“He's taking over a team that went to the second round of the playoffs," Pluto said. "This team has got a lot of potential, and it also has players going into their late 20s, which is exactly where you want to get them. They should be peaking. He will never have a better chance to prove he's a long-term NBA head coach than the one in Cleveland."

Pluto said the Cavs likely talked with star Donovan Mitchell about Atkinson, and it’s possible Mitchell and his agent also met with the candidate. The Cavs are hoping to sign the All-Star guard to a four-year, $209 million extension this offseason. Pluto said Atkinson, along with the front office, will have to make some big decisions with the roster.

“He's like one of these people that the hardcore basketball guys thought,'If you ever give him the right team, put him in the right race car, watch him go,'" Pluto said. "You know, he could really leave a lot of people behind that rearview mirror that he's ready to ride it. So, we'll see."

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