Avery Johnson came to the Nets organization as the coach with the highest winning percentage in the NBA. Granted, he never won a championship as a coach, and his juggernaut Dallas teams famously flamed out in the postseason, including an epic first-round collapse against the 8th-seeded Warrios in 2007, but one thing the “Little General’s” teams seemed apt at doing was winning.
However, since joining the Nets, the team has gone 46-102, good for a winning percentage of .311. That’s just not good. Now there are many things to consider here. The Nets have hardly put a quality product on the floor, and before you start talking about Avery’s influence in bringing dead weight like Johan Petro and Stephan Graham to the Nets, let’s also consider the career renaissance of guys like Kris Humphries and Gerald Green, who were not only statistically better, but played like they were Scarecrows who finally got basketball brains from the Wizard. Is it Avery Johnson’s fault that trade rumors have decimated his teams’ chemistry the past two seasons? That Brook Lopez broke his foot, then sprained his ankle? That the Nets lost more players to injury than any other team this past year? That Deron Williams thought the Prudential Center had terrible sightlines? That Anthony Morrow regressed? If you think it is his fault, then Avery gets an “F” right now and should be fired. But if you understand, as I believe, that the situation is more complicated than that, then we need to dive deeper.
A personal gripe of mine is how Johnson has talked up the idea of “accountability” since coming on board, and yet the team rarely seems to practice what it preaches, especially on the defensive end. A year after giving up 107 points per 100 possessions on defense (good for 22nd in the league) the Nets only got marginally better this past season, giving up 106.9 points per 100 possessions – which interestingly enough gave them the second-worst defensive efficiency in the league behind the NBA’s worst-team ever in the Charlotte Bobcats. In January, Devin famously (for me at least) outlined what made the Nets defense so deplorable. It was an eye-opening post because if there was allegedly any accountability in this organization, why were these mental lapses allowed to persist?
While there was no coach-player Cold War-style confrontations this year mirroring what went on between Troy Murphy and Avery, but there was the curious case of MarShon Brooks to consider. After starting the season impressively, Brooks’ play tanked in March, averaging a season-low 10 points per game. His three-point shot disappeared, shooting only 24 percent from behind the arc in March. As a result, his minutes decreased to 26.7 minutes per game. Was this just a case of the league figuring Brooks out, or a reflection of MarShon being in the notably tough to please coach’s doghouse? When the Nets lost even more players to injury in April, all of his numbers improved so it can’t be totally a byproduct of a rookie hitting the wall.
That’s why determining a final grade for Avery is so tricky. If I go strictly on my personal opinions, I’m honest about the fact that I’m not a fan. I still think it was a mistake of this organization to go for the “bigger name” in Avery, rather than who appeared to be the better tactician in Tom Thibodeau. Unlike other sports, I do think coaching matters in the NBA. Player rotations are important and while people who support Avery like to dismiss those of us complaining about why Johan Petro gets minutes over Jordan Williams, or why Stephen Graham continued to get minutes last year despite being one of the worst positional players in the league, it can make a difference between a win and a loss.
Then again, despite my distaste for Avery the coach, how I can I reasonably call for his removal based on the talent of the players he’s been given the past two years? I see no other option than for Avery to get at least one more season -– the team is in Brooklyn now, so everyone should be watching. If he has close to a full season with Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez (or perhaps some other star player) and the team still loses more than it wins, then you absolutely have to cut the Little General free, and focus on hiring a good coach, not a personality with a hypnotic Southern drawl. If the team wins, then all Avery has to worry about is getting away from the post-season demons that managed to haunt his Dallas teams for all those years.