I don’t know where Kenny Atkinson is going to coach next, but I do know that his next employer is going to have a chance to dramatically expand its fan base. When the Nets announced over the weekend that they and their head coach had “mutually agreed to part ways,” the organization offered a stinging reminder there is no such thing as a breakup that is mutually agreed upon. It also made Atkinson the presumptive sentimental favorite of this year’s NBA coaching market, particularly for the legions of lonely hearts who have been looking for a hero ever since Dashboard Confessional last went platinum.
Say this for Atkinson: He came out ahead of most people who end up on the wrong side of mutuality. The worst part about breakups isn’t the month or two spent slumped in a couch in a Cheetos-dusted V-neck, or the diet that consists entirely of alcohol and hydrogenated oils. It’s having to convince everyone in your social circle that you both really did decide that you were better off as friends (“We’re both self-quarantining.”). At least Atkinson got it in writing. The rest of us don’t get the benefit of a press release.
Yet every failed relationship is instructive in its own way, and the disintegration of the one in Brooklyn warrants some consideration for Sixers fans who have spent the last several years pining for a breakup of their own. By my count, Atkinson was the 47th NBA coach to be fired since the Sixers hired Brett Brown back in August 2013. Simply in terms of scale, that’s a remarkable figure. Of the 30 teams in the league, 23 have fired at least one coach since Brown arrived. Twelve have fired two. The Knicks, God love 'em, have fired four.
Where things get really interesting — and relevant to the Sixers — is when you think about these numbers in terms of probabilities. Take, for instance, those 23 teams that have changed coaches over the last seven seasons. As of today, only 11 of those teams have not had to make a second coaching change. Of the 30 coaches who entered the current season with a full-time job, 14 were entering their first or second season with their current team. And two of those guys are already gone.
Which raises an important question for anybody who thinks that the Sixers would be better off with a different coach: What are the odds that will actually prove to be the case?
There aren’t a lot of stone-cold truths in life. One is that nothing is ever mutual. Another is that things can always get worse. That last one is something that we always seem to forget when the topic turns to personnel changes. It probably sounds like a loser’s mentality to a lot of people, especially those who have spent the last few months repairing the drywall each morning after the Sixers play on the road. And it may well be.
The case against Brown is not a difficult one to make. The seventh-year coach often refers to the NBA as a “show me" league with regard to his players, and it’s only fair that his bosses hold him to the same standard. The Sixers have been a below-.500 team for nearly a half of a season now, with a 15-16 record and a negative point differential since Christmas Day. On the season, they are 14-14 when either Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid does not play, and 2-3 when neither of them do. Granted, that means they have played at a 54-win pace when both Simmons and Embiid were healthy and in the lineup. But even that would mean that they have not improved much over where they were two years ago, when the starting five was rounded out by a trio of guys who combined to make under $30 million.
There’s a chance we look back years from now and realize that the Sixers were the far superior team in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals and that it was actually the Raptors who took them to Game 7, and won it to boot. Toronto had Kawhi Leonard, but the Sixers had a guy who has single-handedly led the Heat to two more wins than they had all of last season, with 18 games to go. If Jimmy Butler can have that big of an impact on a team that surrounds him with Kelly Olynyk and a bunch of bottom-of-the-lottery kids, why were the Sixers more or less the same team with him as they are with Al Horford?
Or, so the case goes.
But it isn’t that simple. Nothing in the NBA is. While it’s debatable how much credit Brown’s coaching deserves for back-to-back 50-win seasons and a couple of playoff series victories, it certainly deserves credit for things not being worse. As dysfunctional as the Sixers can sometimes look on the court, they’ve been a 1950s television family off of it. That’s easy to take for granted, but it shouldn’t be. Not when you consider the sorts of strong personalities and odd skill fits that have shuffled through the rotation over the past few seasons.
That Simmons and Embiid have made it through three years together without any visible friction is a testament to the players, sure. But there’s no guarantee that would have been the case with a different coach. Same goes for Butler’s departure, and the addition of Horford. Atkinson didn’t even make it one season with Kyrie Irving. It took Jim Beilein, what, three months to lose his young locker room in Cleveland?
The reality in the NBA is that however skilled a tactician a coach may be, it only matters if his players allow him to be it. Whoever the Sixers coach is next season, his primary job responsibility will still be managing Simmons and Embiid. One trade demand, and the Sixers could find themselves longing for the days of 50-win disappointments.