Less than a month after Avery Johnson was honored as the coach of the month in the Eastern Conference after guiding the newly minted Brooklyn Nets to an 11-4 start, Johnson was fired on Thursday after the Nets had stumbled through a 3-10 December to fall to the .500 mark.
The end for Johnson came Wednesday night in Milwaukee. Star point guard Deron Williams sat out with a wrist injury and the Nets got hammered by the Bucks, 108-93. That came after being blown out at home on Christmas Day by the Boston Celtics.
Williams is taking a lot of hits for being primarily responsible for Johnson’s getting the axe, but to be fair, there is a reason Johnson was out of NBA coaching for as long as he was between being fired by the Dallas Mavericks and being hired by the then-New Jersey Nets.
He has a reputation as being an irritating S.O.B., with a way of politicking in the background that eventually costs him jobs.
Johnson was in the final year of a three-year contract he signed to coach the Nets prior to the 2010-11 season and he wanted an extension in the worst way.
For its part, management had spent a lot of money to upgrade the roster, committing more than $330 million this offseason. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov was willing to pay the luxury tax penalties—the payroll is estimated at more than $13 million over the threshold this season and more than $15 million over for next season—if the team was in the hunt for a championship.
Prokhorov said before the season that a good finish for the Nets would be a conference final; a bold statement for a team that lost 172 games the last three years and last finished above .500 in 2005-06.
But Williams, a two-time Olympian, is having the worst season of his career, shooting less than 40 percent and averaging a career-low 7.8 assists. He publicly blasted Johnson’s system last week.
This wouldn’t be the first time Johnson clashed with a point guard, either. In his final season in Dallas in 2007-08, management brought in Jason Kidd—coincidentally enough from the Nets—for a late season run, but Kidd and Johnson never meshed and the Mavs wound up being bounced in the first round of the playoff by the New Orleans Hornets.
Johnson’s reputation preceded him to New Jersey and Brooklyn. Even as a player with championship pedigree teams in San Antonio, he had a reputation for wanting control and for being adept at shifting the blame away from himself. With all of the former Spurs who have gone on to GM jobs in the NBA, you’d think Johnson would have popped up on their radar as a potential coach. But he never did. Maybe Danny Ferry, Steve Kerr and the others knew something the rest of us didn’t.
Sources told CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger than Phil Jackson, the 11-time NBA champion, is intrigued by the Brooklyn job. Prokhorov can offer Jackson two things he really, really loves—money and New York. So does Jackson end up in Brooklyn? If he does, it won’t be right away. Johnson is meticulous about making decisions and he will want time to investigate the organization. That means examining the roster, the personnel decisions and the team’s philosophy before jumping in.
Prokhorov, for his part, loves big names and Johnson would be a huge one, not just because of his 11 rings but also because of his ties with the New York Knicks, for whom Jackson played for all but two of his 12 seasons as a player in the NBA, including being a member of the Knicks’ 1973 championship squad. Jackson also has ties with the Nets, however. He played his final two seasons in New Jersey, including serving as a player-assistant coach for the 1979-80 squad.
Jackson’s triangle offense could fit the Nets’ roster. Brooklyn doesn’t have a dominating big man, but neither did the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. They won six titles with Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley manning the center position.
The system would give Williams the type of offensive freedom he seems to crave and reigniting Williams’ career will be job No. 1 for whoever comes to Brooklyn as the next coach.
There are other possible candidates, as well.
The Van Gundy brothers have to be considered, of course. Stan Van Gundy’s work in Orlando looks even better given how little impact Dwight Howard has had since joining the Los Angeles Lakers. Jeff Van Gundy, meanwhile, took the Knicks to the Finals in 1999 and might be willing to put down the microphone for another shot at coaching in the Big Apple.
Nate McMillan, the former Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers coach, worked with Williams with Team USA but McMillian’s defense-first, ball-control style might irritate Williams as much as Johnson’s system did.
One thing that won’t happen? John Calipari won’t be returning to the Nets. Calipari would only consider leaving the University of Kentucky for another shot at the NBA if he were given total control, something that won’t happen as long as Billy King is in place as the general manager in Brooklyn.
The most amusing speculation from Thursday centered around former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. The guy who Williams drove into retirement might come back for another go-around with D-Will? Seriously? That’s just crazy talk, even if Williams was fondly reminiscing last week how much he enjoyed playing in Sloan’s offense.
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