Avery Johnson: Questioning The Little General

Avery Johnson Brooklyn Nets

(AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

I’ve approached criticism of Brooklyn Nets coach Avery Johnson — bountiful, if you’ve read this blog’s comments or my Twitter mentions — with a long-term vision approach. I’m perfectly willing to throw out the past two seasons because of the horrendous team; I don’t care much if he can turn a bad team below average, moreso how he can lead a very good team into greatness. Johnson found success turning an offensive-minded Dallas team into a top-10 defense; with a similarly skilled roster, I was excited to see how he could maintain an excellent offensive presence while improving the defensive efficiency in Brooklyn.

To his credit, the defense is there. In bits and pieces, but it’s there. Opponents aren’t getting in the lane as much this year, the Nets are defending the three-point shot more effectively, and once-sieve Brook Lopez has begun to look like a capable (if not dominating) defensive threat. The offense is still more effective than the defense, but the Nets have made defensive, systemic strides this season. Johnson won Coach of the Month in November after leading the Nets to their best start in franchise history, and I agree with the decision.

But lately, it’s not the defense that’s worried me; it’s the offense. In critical moments in games, the Nets have stopped playing basketball, and started playing heroball. And the crux of heroball isn’t to score, but to impress: give the ball to one of your best perimeter players, and let him try to create a moment. If it works? It looks awesome! Fans go home knowing they saw something special from one of the league’s special players. But more often than not, teams go home the loser.

The Brooklyn Nets, early this season, have showed a frightening propensity for heroball:

  • The Nets tried heroball with a curious call against the Los Angeles Lakers, ending up with a terrible, double-teamed look.
  • Against the New York Knicks last Tuesday, the Nets — who had one timeout left — tried to poke and prod with isolations, only swinging to Gerald Wallace for a tough three with isolation options exhausted and time running out. Not one screen was set, and the only movement off the ball was to create space for the isolated Williams or Joe Johnson. According to Avery Johnson, the team “ran something that we’re familiar with,” though the scrambling nature of the post-transition seconds and Deron Williams’ post-game quote — that the team was “just go(ing) up and try(ing) to get something” — made it seem that the team wasn’t running a set; which, in late games, seems to be something the team’s familiar with.
  • Even the game-winner against Detroit, Joe Johnson’s beautiful buzzer-beating 20-footer, came off a simple-to-defend isolation play. Though it went in, a fading 20-footer off the dribble is not the highest-percentage look, even in the short five seconds they had.
  • In the waning moments against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, Deron Williams eschewed a hand-off play for another isolation. Williams, who has struggled with his jumper this season, missed a 15-footer, a decent look off the dribble but not an open one.

In the final 10 seconds of games, with the game within three points, the Nets are 1-7 from the field this year, and 0-4 from 3.

It does seem odd that Avery Johnson, former Spurs point guard and disciple of the rare and surprising Gregg Popovich, would relegate his talented roster to mostly isolation plays with the game on the line. Williams can be a great scorer, despite his current shooting, but he’s even better as a distributor. Brooklyn has off-ball weapons; Wallace, Humphries, and Evans are all great screeners, Watson, Stackhouse, and Johnson are reliable threats from deep, Lopez is phenomenal at finding space near the basket for little dump-ins. The Nets have a variety of talents, one that makes Johnson’s decision to shut it down late so puzzling.

Perhaps it’s time. Maybe the team, that has openly focused on locking down its defensive mindset first, just hasn’t run enough offense in practice to feel comfortable doing anything else. But the comfort of heroball often comes with the discomfort of losing.


  1. A horrible offensive coach who doesn’t know how to utilize the talent he has.

    I sort of piggy-backed this in my forum post – http://thebrooklyngame.com/forums/topic/why-deron-williams-has-struggled-with-nets/ – about how Avery’s offensive ineptitude had led to D-Will’s struggles.

    I think we would have a few more wins if we had better play calling down the stretch. I also wonder what Avery tells the team in the huddle before a key possession…”Ok, Deron, you are going to hand the ball off to Joe. Joe, you will then isolate until you can shake off the defender and score.”

  2. Yeah, there have been question marks lately about the offensive scheme which I found curious, especially since I thought they were looking more fluid when Brook went down, compared to earlier on in the season when they would look totally lost in the third quarter of games.

    Max, you need to chill, dude. You’re wound too tightly, spewing venom about Hump, who can’t be traded now anyway, now harsh words for Avery. Next the Brooklyn Knight will be the target of your wrath. It seems you haven’t been a Net fan for long. They’ve come miles from the 12-win season. It’s only December. They’re still jelling. Avery went from coach of the month to being inept? Would D-Will have re-signed if he thought he had a bad coach, especially when the great Rick Carlisle’s team was courting him?

    I’ve been actually extremely impressed, when the lineup is at full strength, of the team’s defensive efforts. I think that has gotten the team more wins. If you consider the fact that a team of entirely new parts coming together and overcoming pretty major injuries, I’d say we’re off to a good start. It’s only a quarter of the way through.

  3. Also, how is it you have total confidence in Billy King, who is doing a good job but has a questionable track record from Philly, than Avery Johnson, who has a track record of Coach of the Year and a Finals appearance?

    1. Hmmm…how is it I have total confidence in BK? Well he is the guy who put this team together, he is the guy who convinced a superstar to stay with a team that was in the lottery the past two seasons, he is the guy that took a career threatening risk in trading for Gerlad Wallace. How can I not have confidence in this guy?

      As for me being a “new nets fan,” that’s funny, that’s all ill say about that. Perhaps you are the new Nets fan? Because you seem to be oh so positive about a Nets team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 5 years, and don’t seem to have a worry in the world that this team is not equip with a starting PF or that the “superstar” of this team has come up very small this season. Don’t act like I’m Mr. Negative because if you survey nearly all long time Nets fans (that have been with the team for the past 10+ years), you will find that my opinions are not very far off.

      As for Avery Johnson, and as this story explains, I just don’t see how one can have such confidence in him when we’ve seen some of the stuff that has happened on the court during his tenure.

      I’ll also add about the part where you question whether I’m a new Nets fan, that your point about us coming far from a 12 win team is silly and could easily make a point about you being an example of a “new Nets fan.” Is it too unreasonable to ask for a team that has one of the most expensive starting lineups in the league to be a top team in the east?

      I think you are overblowing my negativity level. I’m realistic, not negative. I’m not going to say that everything will be fine, when at times, it looks like it won’t be. I’m a Nets fan, and because of that, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be “realistic” and not optimistic until they actually win something. Besides, if you disagree with something I say, go to the post and argue it with me. I’ll be glad to do so with you.

      1. Okay, first, sorry for new Net fan comment. I want us to be able to have discussions and debates without being insulting. So my bad.

        Every pessimist says they’re being realistic. You make good points, but my point is, assuming we agree to toss the first two seasons aside, judging a performance in December with less-than-perfect health is waayyy too soon. If you told me they finished the season with the seventh seed, even with a brand new team, I’d say that’s a disappointment. If you tell me in they are the sixth seed in December, I would say who cares? Really? Season is not even halfway old. Remember how the Celtics started off last year? They came within half a quarter of going to the Finals. Look how they are this year. Yet, there’s no panic coming from Beantown.

        Sure, the Chicago game wasn’t pretty, but I can also say well, it’s their fourth game in five nights, plus just came off a double OT game.

        I can’t believe that D-Will would stay here if he thought Avery was not a good coach. I’m sure King would have axed him if that’s the case and hired anyone D-Will wanted. I can’t believe Dwight Howard, the best big man on the planet, would be begging to come here if he thought Avery wasn’t the right man to lead. I can’t believe Brook Lopez would be willing to re-sign here, if he thought there was a problem with Avery. The way you say, “a move needs to be made asap” which would be a panic move, is impatient thinking. You can’t panic in December.

  4. Devin–
    I appreciate how you want to discount the first two years of Avery’s misrule, but I don’t think you should. He is still obviously completely incompetent in all aspects of coaching besides defense: designing an offense, making the most of the talent he has, and teaching and developing players.
    I guess we should be thankful that he finally cares enough this year to work with the team on defense. Of course, part of that is that he does play Bogans and Watson far more than he should. The good defense partly comes from there, and it’s not something that marks him as a good coach.

    1. I agree with you sentiment of him being a poor offensive coach, but to say he hasn’t developed players? That’s just silly – how do you explain these guys then: Andray Blatche, Kris Humphries, Josh Howard, Desagana Diop, Gerald Green? All developed or helped out tremendously by Avery Johnson.

      And again, your point about him not “caring” about defense these past 2 seasons is beyond silly and irrational. If you followed the team last year you would know why they couldn’t/didn’t play D: injuries/lack of personnel.

      1. The jury is out on Blatche. Gerald Green was just as good the day he arrived from the D League as the day he left. I’ll give Avery Hump, and the Dallas players I don’t care about. That was 6 years ago, and I didn’t watch 60+ Mavs games a season.

        Here’s who has gotten worse with Avery:
        MarShon Brooks. Derrick Favors. Brook Lopez (until this year). That’s three young, very valuable properties who lost their game instead of improving quickly like their peers.
        Deron Williams. Terrence Williams. Shawne Williams. Shelden Williams. So much for the Williamses.
        Joe Johnson (same caveat as Blatche, though–let’s say we ex them both out).
        Brandan Wright. Travis Outlaw. Johan Petro. Troy Murphy.

        His record is obvious, and it’s not good.

          1. Brook has had 3 full seasons prior to this one, his first two under Frank and his third under Avery. From his first to his second year he improved in most categories. In his third year he declined in PER, WS/48, ORtg, FG, eFG%, TS%, FT%, AST%, Steal%, Block%, and of course his rebounding collapsed. The only improvement was in PPG.
            That is what you call a decline. Well, maybe not you.

          2. Lol, I agree, Max. This comment got very silly. Favors? He was there half a season. Terrence Williams? He’s had great success since he left, right? He’s playing in China.

  5. Considering most of the “very serious” (thanks paul krugman) pundits predicted troubles for the Nets defensively before the season, some credit has to be (and has been)given to Avery’s job in this regard.

    That being said, the offensive woes culminated in that brutal finale in Chi-town. Avery has to be held accountable. And on the development front, there have been some gems as mentioned, but what about Marshon?

    1. I think Marshon had a very solid rookie year under Avery. What is he supposed to do with a player who is not equipped to play defense at the NBA level both physically and (as of now) mentally?

      1. Yeah, he was great at the beginning of the year and got worse every month. If time goes backwards, Avery did a great job.

    1. Need scoring? Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Andray Blatche need scoring?

      There’s a difference between not having any scorers and having scorers that your coach is unable to properly utilize.

  6. I dont think we need to talk about firing or extending him until after the season. Either one is a mistake DURING the season. The amount of new players on the team makes it worth giving him the full year to see improvement of this bunch.

    Like Ive said before, I dont love Avery Johnson but I wouldnt trade him for McHale, Hollins, Woodson, Casey, Collins, etc etc etc

    If they wanna bring in Thibs, Pop, Brooks, JVG, SVG, Mark Jackson, Phil Jackson, then cool. But I dont trust more than half of the coaches in the league right now so I can wait until after the season to deal with Avery.

  7. Regardless of the semantics of scoring vs utilizing scoring, you really think Stack and Bogans deserve more playing time over the course of 82 games than Marshon? Please.

    1. I agree with that. But that is on Avery. I thought Marshon was over rated last year by most people. But this year he is actually playing like the guy folks seemed to describe last year. But his minutes have been cut down to almost nothing. His TS% is 60%. That is way higher than any of the other guards on the team. Yet he can’t sniff the court.

      One possible issue, is that if given time Brooks might so outplay Joe Johnson that it could create controversy about who the starting guard is. Avery may be hoping that Johnson can regain his form before the demand for Marshon becomes too loud.

  8. Always felt that Thibs and Pritchard would have done much better jobs than Avery and King.

    I have very little respect for King’s negotiating abilities.

  9. It’s not Avery’s fault our “Star” PG can’t shoot since joining the nets and to be honest with you considering where this team is at now it still doesn’t seem to be on the decline. Now do I think Avery is hands down the coach for this team? No, but he is still working the parts in as well as making his fair share of mistakes.

    Everyone is starting to find their niche even against Chicago Deron was penetrating to score more than he had in a while. They key for this team is going to be efficiency with our top scorers and yes there will be more iso/post ups because that seems to be what works for now. Our spacing is still an issue so using motion is moot unless we are playin our small lineup IMO.

    Case in point is Avery is the one who sees this team every time in practice so even the games we see don’t tell the full story. This team will continue to improve but Deron is just as at fault as Avery so stop giving him a pass!!

  10. They had just finished a huge week including a tight game against the Knicks, a travel to Toronto, a double OT and win against Pistons and then gotten up that morning for flight to Chicago. Of course there was nothing left in that team. I wouldn’t put much weight on the results of that game.