The Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors have been battling in the NBA’s Western Conference for more than 40 years. But for much of that time, one (and often both) was mired in long periods of ineptitude. That has changed of late, with LA being an almost perennial playoff team and the Warriors winning three titles since 2015. Now things have been taken to a different level with reports Golden State is preparing to hire Clippers assistant Kenny Atkinson.
Atkinson came to the Clippers before last season after nearly four seasons as head coach for the Brooklyn Nets. Before that, he was an assistant coach for both the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. While he never played in the NBA, Atkinson was a professional point guard from 1990-2004 in a couple of U.S. minor leagues and abroad in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The Warriors are reportedly bringing in Atkinson as the lead assistant to Steve Kerr.
If you’re thinking at this point that, wait, the Warriors already have a lead assistant, you would be correct.
Kenny Atkinson would be one of the lead assistants for the Golden State Warriors
Mike Brown has been the lead assistant for the Golden State Warriors since replacing Luke Walton in 2016. Brown isn’t going anywhere; instead, the Warriors will have two lead assistants, according to The Athletic.
Atkinson comes in with a reputation as a player-development coach, credited for his work with point guards such as Jeff Teague in Atlanta and D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie while in Brooklyn. He was Tyronn Lue’s lead assistant last season with the Clippers, and given there have been openings for teams embarking on rebuilds, such as the Orlando Magic, it’s a surprise he didn’t gain more traction as a head-coaching candidate.
Atkinson inherited the Nets at a low point in 2016, a lousy team that gambled on lost on a blockbuster trade that fell only three rounds short of an NBA title in 2014. Brooklyn had no draft picks, not a lot of talent and won only 48 games over Atkinson’s first two seasons.
But with a team of retreads and rejects in 2018–19, the Nets won 42 games and returned to the playoffs. That run prefaced Brooklyn signing superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and that’s where it didn’t go well for Atkinson. He was fired on March 7, 2020, just four days before the pandemic shut down the NBA season for four months.
The Warriors and Clippers haven’t always been that friendly
The Golden State Warriors and the Clippers have played just twice in the playoffs, both within the last seven years. They faced off in an emotionally charged series in the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs during LA’s Donald Sterling controversy. Golden State pushed the Clippers to seven games before bowing out.
They met again in different roles in 2019. This time, LA came in as the underdog, while Golden State was the two-time defending NBA champion. The Warriors won the first-round meeting in 2019, but not before the Clippers set an NBA record by erasing a 31-point deficit to win Game 2 at Oakland’s Oracle Arena.
The teams even staged a chippy Christmas night matchup in 2013 that featured multiple dustups and ejections.
The Golden State Warriors have the culture to pull off an unusual coaching arrangement
The evolution of the NBA coaching staff has led us to this point, where the Golden State Warriors will slap a lead-assistant tag on more than one coach. However, the Warriors have enough of a system in place to make it nearly seamless.
Steve Kerr is entering his eighth season at the helm in Golden State, with three rings to show for it, while Mike Brown is a veteran NBA coach with seven-plus seasons as a head coach in Cleveland and with the Lakers. He coached LeBron James with the Cavs and had Kobe Bryant in LA. He also coached Nigeria to a massive upset of Team USA in a pre-Olympic exhibition game.
Atkinson is also a veteran who’s been around the NBA long enough to understand roles and fit into them. But there are still reports Atkinson didn’t mesh well with Irving, particularly when the Nets transitioned from plucky underdog to superteam. He worked with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in LA this season. Now he’ll get to see the Kerr-Stephen Curry dynamic first-hand.
The Clippers and Golden State Warriors may not be archrivals, but there is some history there. Will poaching a coach add to the bad blood? NBA rivalries spring from more minor incidents.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.