It took exactly 22 seconds for Sean Marks, the Crown Prince of Culture, to break out his favorite word during a press conference in Brooklyn on Saturday in which he explained why he had just taken his closest foxhole guy on a boat ride to the middle of a lake and done away with him, Fredo-style.
“We deliberated for four years on how to build a team, how to drive a culture, personnel, difficulties each one of us might have been having here,” Marks, the Nets’ GM, said a few hours after firing his coach and erstwhile wingman, Kenny Atkinson. “And it was this open dialogue that led us to this point today.”
Marks spent a lot of time at HSS Training Center dancing this slick dance, trying to tell us things he insists are true, but defy logic on even the most basic level.
Start here: that this was a mutual parting of the ways. If you believe, for one second, that Atkinson was as eager to leave as Marks was for him to go, you are as delusional as a fan Marks wants you to be. Forget that Atkinson is the classic example of the grinder coach, the lifelong gym rat who has only known sweat equity as the fuel to his climb to the top of his profession. He has also been a vocal co-sponsor of everything Marks has done to and for this team for four years. That included waves of self-imposed agony for two years, then an innocent-climb playoff run, then the big payoff — the signing of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant last summer that was going to launch the Nets into a new stratosphere.
The whole time, the people around the Nets all but patented words like “collaboration,” and enjoyed the notion from some across the NBA that they’d actually accomplished something over at Barclays Center.
Oh, the poems they’ve written for themselves in Brooklyn about “culture.”
“This is really a players’ league,” Marks had said last summer, not long after their huge Irving-Durant parlay. “It’s about taking advantage of that and using it to your benefit. With this particular opportunity, they wanted to play in Brooklyn.”
This is what Atkinson himself had said last October, fresh off a season in which he’s covered himself in significant glory dragging a wildly over-achieving team into the playoffs and taking a game off the 76ers:
“I always felt like I got along with every guy on every team I’ve been a part with, whether you’re the 17th guy or the first guy. I can’t change who I am, because the guys will spot that right away. You have to be yourself. And even once I realized that we were getting some incredible players, that’s what I knew. I had to be true to who I am.”
Of course now he won’t get a chance to actually coach those incredible players. There are firings that are wrong. And then there are ones that are grossly unfair. This one is both. Atkinson earned the right to coach the Nets as they are supposed to be, as they’ve yet to be. Durant has yet to play a single game for them. Irving has played 20. Last year’s hero, a successful Atkinson reclamation project named D’Angelo Russell, is long gone. And yet the Nets are still in the No. 7 slot in the East playoff picture.
Atkinson deserved a raise for that, not a trip to the middle of the lake.
So the next logical question is this: Did the players want him gone, and if so, which ones? Those were the whispers that took hold as soon as the shots were fired Saturday. Marks, of course, ran as far away from this as possible.
“I think this was a decision that wasn’t even about Kevin, Kyrie, Caris [LeVert], Joe Harris, Spencer [Dinwiddie], Jarrett Allen. This was a decision that Kenny, myself and ownership came up with.”
Marks then offered the reporters in the room a chance to buy the Manhattan Bridge for $78. Plus tax.
This is some kind of culture, it really is. Look, there are plenty of good coaches who will likely run to Brooklyn to take a crack at a title with the Nets’ foundational players once they’re available again next fall. Offing Atkinson doesn’t preclude the Nets from making the same kind of run next year they’ve been forecasting since last summer.
But it does forbid then from acting like the smartest, smarmiest, most sanctimonious kids in the room anymore. The Nets declared themselves, from the top, to be just like every other team in the league Saturday: ever susceptible to the whims, the whys and the wherefores of player-coach relationships, fickle things that change with the wind. Collaborators? At the end of the day, Sean Marks is like every other scared boss in pro sports: he saves his own spot in the foxhole, then worries about everything else later.
Atkinson? Don’t cry for him. He’ll be unemployed for about 15 minutes. He should already be on the short list of the other basketball team in town looking for a coach. There will be other openings in the weeks to come. He’ll get one of those jobs. But that’s really not the point. He should have had a real go at this job. That’s unfair. And it’s also wrong. Very wrong.
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