Philadelphia 76ers: Kenny Atkinson is name to watch on coaching market

(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers can’t fire Brett Brown without an exciting candidate on deck.

The Philadelphia 76ers, currently sixth place in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, have yet to live up to last summer’s expectations. While many would argue the front office deserves a lion’s share of the blame, many expect Brett Brown’s tenure as head coach to come to an end sooner rather than later.

If the Sixers are ousted in the first or second round — a likely outcome at this stage — it’s difficult to envision a path forward for Brown. The recent Jimmy ButlerJ.J. Redick podcast laid bare some concerning tendencies, and it’s clear the energy around the Sixers isn’t what it once was.

It might be time to burn it down and start fresh — front office, coaching staff, even roster changes. If the Sixers’ current trajectory is sustained, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons should be all that’s safe when next offseason begins.

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Given the exceedingly hot nature of Brett Brown’s seat, it’s worth exploring the current coaching market for a potential upgrade. The Sixers shouldn’t can Brown for the sake of canning Brown. There needs to be an exciting candidate on the market — someone who can reinvigorate the team and inject positive energy into a stagnate organization. An upgrade, not a lateral move.

At this point, the market doesn’t have a ton of “exciting” names. Count me out on Stan Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, or any other studio head who garners undeserved media hype. David Blatt seems ill-fitted to the NBA. Jay Wright has some pizzazz, but the risk-reward tied to college coaches might not fit Philadelphia’s win-now aspirations. And please, for the love of all things pure in the world, don’t leave Joel Embiid’s health in Tom Thibodeau’s hands.

The ideal Brown replacement is Mike D’Antoni, who is on a similarly hot seat in Houston. Put aside Bryan Colangelo’s well-documented desire to hire D’Antoni once upon a time, and the idea has a real shine to it. He could spice up the offense in much-needed ways.

Since D’Antoni isn’t on the market yet, however, a more readily attainable name to watch is Kenny Atkinson, the former Nets coach who helped carry Brooklyn through an impressive rebuild. It was Atkinson who helped cultivate talent and culture on a team without top-end draft picks. He deserves major credit for Brooklyn’s postseason appearance in 2019.

It’s abundantly clear Atkinson’s departure from Brooklyn was due, in some form or fashion, to the presence of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Since Durant and Irving are singular in their personalities, it’s difficult to fault Atkinson for a separation he wanted.

Atkinson is known for the culture he established in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia, it’s clear Brett Brown’s ideals of toughness and physicality are slipping. I’m higher on Brown than most, and I consider him a genuinely strong coach. But if the Sixers decide to bring a new voice into the locker room, there are few more trustworthy than Atkinson.

There is also great appeal in Atkinson from an X’s and O’s perspective. The Nets’ offense played to the extremes — up-tempo, with a focus on 3’s and shots at the rim. Philadelphia could use a more vigorous offense, and Atkinson seems prepared to deploy Ben Simmons in a more imaginative role. Simmons’ rigid role in the Sixers offense is, frankly, the most damning critique of Brown.

Of course, Atkinson would need to change his approach in Philadelphia — one cannot simply remove Joel Embiid from the post. Embiid slows down the offense, and it’s necessary. But Atkinson can still change how the offense revolves around Embiid and Simmons, which is vitally important given the sludgy product fans have been treated to in 2019-20.

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Similar to Brown’s lopsided record in Philadelphia, Atkinson’s career 118-190 record doesn’t do justice to his impact on Brooklyn basketball. He may not be a seasoned contender in the coaching ranks, but he’s the type of modern voice who could help shape the Sixers post-Brown. He should have Philadelphia’s full attention if Brown is eventually let go.