Atkinson has no regrets spurning Hornets to stay with Dubs


SAN FRANCISCO – The man who voluntarily traded Michael Jordan for Steve Kerr is neither insane nor expressing regret.

Kenny Atkinson is sticking with and grinning through his decision, which stunned the basketball world four months ago.

While the Warriors were making their NBA championship run in June, Atkinson was assisting Kerr and also acing interviews to become head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. He received a four-year contract from Jordan, the team’s CEO.

Atkinson initially agreed to sign, but couldn’t get past his lingering unease. His conscience ultimately guided him back to the Warriors and the Bay Area.

How could Atkinson know it would be so hard to leave a place where he’d spent only one year? Could he tell his family, happily adjusted to the Bay, that it’s already time to pack up and return to the East Coast?

He couldn’t. And didn’t. He felt better about being an assistant under Kerr than a head coach under Jordan, who he could encounter Saturday in Charlotte, where the Warriors face the team Atkinson came so close to coaching.

“We’re doing great here. Doing great,” Atkinson told NBC Sports Bay Area. “That really was the overwhelming factor. Living where we live, the kids in a great school district. It’s pretty ideal.”

Atkinson, 55, conceded that several issues kept him from going to the Hornets but declined to offer specifics.

“I didn’t love how it went down,” Atkinson said. “But I’m not going to disparage (the Hornets) in any way.” 

Though it’s obvious Atkinson wants to be a head coach again – he spent three-plus seasons in that role for the Brooklyn Nets before being fired in 2020 – he insists he is willing to wait for the right offer. His stance similar to that which Mike Brown took after his first two seasons as an assistant under Kerr.

Brown said his experience with the Warriors provide clear insight the value of positive relationships at every level of a franchise. He spent six seasons before leaving in June to become head coach of the Sacramento Kings.

Atkinson, who had been with four previous NBA franchises before coming to the Warriors in July 2021, echoes that sentiment, identifying general manager Bob Myers, players Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, along with Kerr, as reasons why Golden State is both attractive and successful.

“This isn’t my first rodeo; I’ve had a lot of experience in this league,” Atkinson said. “But from a leadership standpoint, top to bottom, plus 1-through-15, we have a great group. Usually, there’s something that doesn’t work. Something staff-wise that’s not always perfect. But this is kind of perfect. 

“Well, nothing’s perfect, but this is as close to perfect as you can get. I’m not just saying that to blow smoke. Everything kind of comes together here, from a staff and front-office leadership standpoint. It’s all impressive. And probably the most important thing, it’s led by Steph.

Atkinson, who left an assistant coach position with the Clippers to join the Warriors, admits that even though he occasionally trades text messages with Kerr when they were competitors, he was curious, even skeptical, about the principles he established with Golden State.

“It starts with Steve and ‘joy,' ” Atkinson said. “I kind of wanted to see if that’s fake s--t. And it’s not. You come here wondering if it’s true. It is true. It's enjoyable to come to work. Really, really enjoyable.

“I’ve been in other situations where it’s, it’s, it’s . . . not as enjoyable. Where you don’t have that big smile.”

The biggest smile on June 22, when Atkinson decided to stay with Golden State, might have been the one on Kerr’s face once the suspense ended.

“I was fired up, excited,” Kerr said this week. “We need Kenny. Losing Mike was a big deal. Losing both would have been really tough. It’s great to have him back.”

Even during the heat of The Finals, Kerr acknowledged experiencing a bit of anxiety at thought of losing his top two assistants. Atkinson’s return meant there would be some stability.

Insofar as he inherited Brown’s role as defensive coordinator, Atkinson has not had much to smile about lately. Golden State’s defense through the first four games has been a weak spot, ranking 22nd in defensive rating (114.8) and 25th in opponent’s field-goal percentage (48.4).

Some of the ugly statistics are attributed to the offense, which is averaging 16.5 turnovers per game – only the Clippers and Jazz have been more giving – and allowing a league-high 22.5 points per game off turnovers. Opponents are averaging a league-high 21.3 fast-break points per game against Golden State.

“I’m still in learning mode,” said Atkinson, who last season focused on offense. “Still learning the system, the players and how things work.

“But Mike’s leaving is a huge loss because he was such a big part of this. I learned a lot from him. A ton. So, you feel like a responsibility to fill that role. (Assistant coach) Chris DeMarco, who worked closely with Mike, has great knowledge and has been here awhile. So, we kind of double-team the defense.”

RELATED: How Warriors' culture remade Mike Brown after three decades in NBA

Atkinson’s challenges, then, are apparent. In the short term, he has to get the defense, which had dips under Brown, back to its typical standard.

Over the long term, he might have to engage in a degree damage control to wipe away the negative connotation that can come with accepting a job and then backing out.

Being with the Warriors is giving Atkinson a first-hand look at a different culture, on and off the court. He likes it. His family likes it. 

That’s enough to grant him a considerable amount of serenity, which can be more beneficial than any position or salary.

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