July 19, 2024

Cavaliers hiring Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson as next coach: Sources

By Shams Charania, Joe Vardon and Jason Lloyd

CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers are hiring Golden State Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson as their next coach and are working to secure a lucrative contract extension with All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell.

Atkinson, 57, beat out New Orleans Pelicans associate head coach James Borrego for the team’s head-coaching job, league sources told The Athletic, in a process that had not concluded heading into the weekend.

Atkinson’s contract is not yet complete, league sources said.

While working toward hiring Atkinson, the team’s executives are set to present a four-year, $209 million maximum contract to Mitchell, team and league sources said. Atkinson is an offensive-minded coach who values ball movement and diversity in his attack — things Mitchell craves. To be fair, Borrego values those same traits.

Both Atkinson and Borrego had support among the Cavs’ executives to replace J.B. Bickerstaff.

Borrego, sources said, was the front-runner as of last week, until Cleveland’s front office met with Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert on Wednesday. Atkinson’s candidacy gained considerable momentum after the meeting between Gilbert and team executives.

Gilbert has in the past intervened in coaching searches, driving initiatives to hire David Blatt in 2014 and John Beilein in 2019, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to lure Tom Izzo away from Michigan State in 2010.

Atkinson is Cleveland’s fifth coach since winning the title in 2016, following Tyronn Lue, Larry Drew, Beilein and Bickerstaff since the momentous evening for the franchise in Oakland, Calif., nearly a decade ago. Bickerstaff was dismissed after guiding the Cavs to the second round this season and three consecutive postseason appearances. There was enough dysfunction between the coach and players that the front office felt a change was needed.

Cleveland took significant steps forward under Bickerstaff over the past few years, improving from back-to-back 19-win seasons before Bickerstaff took over full time to 98 combined wins the past two seasons. Their playoff series victory over the Orlando Magic this year was the Cavs’ first since LeBron James left for Los Angeles in 2018.

Atkinson coached the Brooklyn Nets from 2016 to 2020, tallying a 118-190 record during those four seasons with one playoff appearance. He is highly respected as a development coach with creativity on both ends of the floor. Atkinson and the Nets mutually parted ways just before the NBA season temporarily shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19, when it became clear that Atkinson, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (who was injured at the time) would be more comfortable with a change.

Atkinson spent the last three seasons studying the intricacies of the Warriors offense under Steve Kerr. The Warriors are expected to rework their coaching staff, and were waiting to see if Atkinson was hired in Cleveland before moving forward.

Two Cavs currently under contract — Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen — played for Atkinson in Brooklyn. Both players had positive experiences and, in essence, started down their paths to NBA success under Atkinson.

Borrego, 46, coached the Charlotte Hornets from 2018 to 2022, amassing a 138-163 record during those four seasons with two Play-In Tournament appearances. Borrego’s tenure there gets a large asterisk, as LaMelo Ball missed 30 games in 2020-21 and Gordon Hayward barely played half of Charlotte’s games over Borrego’s final two seasons due to injuries.

Borrego spent this past season as an assistant under Willie Green in New Orleans and was also the interim head coach for the Orlando Magic at the end of the 2014-15 season.

Borrego is known as a creative tactician and was a finalist for the Lakers’ head-coaching job this summer, which went to JJ Redick. He is a candidate for the coaching vacancy in Detroit, open after Monty Williams’ firing last week.

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(Photo: Rocky Widner / NBAE via Getty Images)