I woke up this morning as groggy as could be, made a quick cup of joe, and flipped on ESPN to learn that Avery Johnson had been fired as head coach of the Nets.
I’m frankly not surprised. The Nets are 14-14 playing in a pretty thin Atlantic division. In what was supposed to be a close match, they got railroaded by the Celtics on Christmas Day and lost badly to the Bucks yesterday. But I’m not surprised that Johnson got the axe because the Nets are bad. Au contrair, they were way worse last year, losing 11 of their first 14, and started out 11-4 this season. Johnson has gone from league coach of the month to not even a coach at this point.
The blame for this termination has nothing to do with the Nets awful skid or Johnson’s abilities as a coach. This one is the fault of Deron Williams, who has become just the most recent player to get their coach canned.
Let’s take a look back in time to last year and the saga of Superman and his arch-nemesis, the Grand Van Gundy. This wasn’t even a difference in systems, this was two guys who couldn’t get along. So away Van Gundy had to go in the Orlando owners’ desperate attempt to keep their franchise player who was never ever staying. I’m not going all the way back to Mike D’Antoni’s departure from the Knicks because, despite his constant feuding with Carmelo Anthony, all reports would suggest that D’Antoni left New York of his own free will.
Howard eventually shuffled off to Lakerland where he met his next coach, Mike Brown. Brown was another coach, like Johnson, whose previous failures could be chalked up to a simple lack of talent. But he was expected to succeed this season since he was given not just some talent, but had perennial all-stars at four fo his five starting spots, with a sure-fire hall-of-famer running the floor. Brown’s Princeton Offense was heavily criticized has being a poor fit for iso players like Kobe Bryant or guys like Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, who still could be the most dynamic pick-and-roll tandem since John Stockton and Karl Malone. Worse, the Princeton was a complicated system, and it took so much time to learn that the Lakers had no time in practice to work on their defense, the results of which can still be seen during Lakers today. Despite Bryant’s public support of his coach, it’s widely speculated that he quietly asked the Buss family to depose Brown, a move which was made after a winless preseason and a 1-4 start.
Which brings us to now. Unlike Bryant, Williams has been complaining publicly about Johnson’s ball movement wing attack offense for weeks, wistfully pining on camera for the flex-offense that he ran as a member of the Jazz. I can see why Williams would miss his old way of doing things, the Flex is slower and gives the point a more conductor-like control over the game.
But unlike Nash, who’s savant-like vision of the floor and scoring ability make his skill set wasted in the Princeton, there’s no reason I can see that Williams, who before this season was a good shooter, shouldn’t be able to be effective in Johnson’s offense. Yes, Williams prefers to play pick-and-roll as opposed to the more iso-oriented Johnson system. But Johnson himself has said that a coach should adapt their system to the players they have. That adaptation should be a two-way street, and I doubt that Williams was able to hold up his end. When Jerry Sloan left Utah, there was little suspicion that Williams forced him out. That lack of suspicion should probably be reexamined now.
But in the bigger picture, the Johnson firing just confirms that NBA owners are taking a new approach to building their teams. Instead of hiring a coach and bringing in/developing players who will work with that coach’s philosophy and style to build a successful team, the new model is to bring in a superstar player to attract attention to the franchise, even if that player is poorly suited to the way that coach plays, then fire the coach when the mismatch between that coach’s style and the superstar’s skill set causes trouble. When the Lakers signed Nash and Howard, Brown should have known that his days in LA were numbered. Credit should be given to Erik Spoelstra here, as he has created an entirely new offense based on the enormously wide-ranging skill set of his super-duper star, LeBron James.
Barring that, the most perennially successful teams (San Antonio, OKC, Boston) have players who buy in to their coach’s philosophy. When egos or lack of ability get in the way, someone has to go. The official trend in the NBA is that, in those situations, the coach gets the walking papers. When Red Auerbach was coach of the Celtics, he picked his players. Now, in the less successful corners of the league, it’s almost the other way around. Less successful teams think the key is to make the world revolve around their precious superstars. How’s that working out for you, Orlando?
Best of luck, Avery Johnson. I do hope your land on your feet. Best of luck to the Nets as well… you’re going to need it.