On Avery Johnson

Avery Johnson Brooklyn Nets

(AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

After two full seasons and 28 additional games of vision, the Brooklyn Nets fired head coach Avery Johnson today, or, as the team put it, “relieved him of his duties.” Johnson, who joined the franchise as the winningest coach in NBA history by winning percentage, completed his tenure in Newark & Brooklyn 19th on the same career list, finishing with a blemished 60-116 record in two-plus seasons with the Nets franchise. Like most fads in Brooklyn, Johnson did not last past his second month.

It has not been the easiest of tenures for Johnson, who entered Newark with grandeur visions of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010 and was left instead scrambling for answers with Travis Outlaw and Johan Petro. I freely gave Johnson a pass for his wild two-season ride in Newark, noting that most teams weren’t going to win basketball games when their only competent players consistently fell prey to the injury bug and the coach had no choice but to give players like Quinton Ross and Stephen Graham playing time.

But the well of excuses ran dry in Brooklyn, the borough where everything was supposed to change for our hapless Nets, where Deron Williams and Joe Johnson were meant to lead victory after victory over even tough opponents. In two seasons with Williams, in 28 games with Johnson, those promises never came to fruition under Coach Johnson, as across the bridge the Manhattan Knicks put together the strongest start of any Eastern Conference team. Nets General Manager Billy King stressed today that he could sense Johnson losing grip over his players, and recent outbursts from Nets CEO Brett Yormark and swiss army forward Gerald Wallace only exacerbated the issue.

(Johnson, incidentally, attributed losing his players in some part to his contract, which was up at the end of this season. The team had no desire to enter into an extension with him at any point.)

The Nets faced increased pressure and scrutiny on both sides of the floor this season, and both sides underwhelmed fans and analysts alike. After the team’s rebranding with three offensive stars, Brooklyn projected as one of the league’s best offensive teams, and Johnson’s penchant for coaching defense would, if not reach the lofty top-10 defensive goal he’d set, improve the defense substantially enough to make them competitive. But after the injury to Brook Lopez at the end of November threw Johnsons’ rotations in disarray, the writing appeared on the wall — slowly, but surely, with every #FireAvery tweet and every question about his pull with his players, a disconnect emerged between Johnson and the organization that Mikhail Prokhorov chose not to ignore any longer.

This decision came from the top, and in this case, I don’t mean “Assistant GM Deron Williams” top. Though the easy story is to lay the blame on Williams, considering his alleged hand in Jerry Sloan’s departure from Utah, the pieces simply don’t add up. Even casting aside Williams’ public remarks defending the coach, Williams would never have re-signed with Brooklyn if he had an uncomfortable relationship with coach Johnson, and was amicable to solutions in the offense. Whether or not Williams quit on the team as Howard Beck reported, This was not a decision from Williams — this was handed down from the high hand of Mikhail Prokhorov, and let no one convince you otherwise.

Sitting in Johnson’s organizational funeral, it was clear from his tone and language that the firing blindsided him. He often referenced “fairness” (which he repeatedly qualified as immaterial in this business) and his long-term vision for this team, noting that good and bad stretches come and go throughout seasons, his hope that the team turns it around without him, and that he joined today’s phone call with King in the hopes of discussing roster moves on January 15th. I presume the conversation did not end with such amicability. It was hard to watch Johnson today and not get the vision of a jilted ex, someone who had the desire to move forward with the relationship but no recourse to do so.

Johnson also took slight digs at Prokhorov’s “rationale,” and sent a warning shot to whatever coach takes the team’s reins next:

I just know when the coach comes in, he’s going to have to be able to do it his way. Hold everybody accountable, coach true to his style. That’s the way it’s going to have to be.

The implication in this quote is perhaps as damning as the team’s December record: Johnson, who said that the team needed a new voice and a stylistic shift, did not seem to feel he had the freedom to hold everybody accountable in public and the ability to stay “true to his style” as a coach. Consider the next team’s hire duly warned.

With Manhattan reigning supreme, with the Nets floundering, with #FireAvery becoming a mantra, patience was no longer a virtue Johnson could count on. This isn’t Newark anymore; in New York, the time is always now. As Johnson said, whether or not he got a fair shot with a real team doesn’t macro matter. In New York, the bragging rights always go to the team that’s winning today. The Nets weren’t; because of that, Avery Johnson is no longer the coach of the Brooklyn Nets. In that culture, consider 176 games a blessing.


  1. “Johnson… did not seem to feel he had the freedom to hold everybody accountable in public.”
    I’m sure that’s what he meant, but I very much doubt that it is true. He certainly had the power to humiliate Derrick Favors in public while he was already considered the big chip for Melo. He had the power to do it to MarShon, too, and did it. He certainly mocked Brook’s rebounding.
    The only reason he never went after DWill (and that’s who he’s talking about) was his natural inclination to kiss up to those with power.
    “I just know when the coach comes in, he’s going to have to be able to do it his way.”
    Yeah, Avery did do it his way, the way of playing favorites and political games, and benching rookies and game plans. The way of micromanaging and absolving himself of responsibility. The way of refusing to try and make the best use of what talent the team had and assuming he’ll stick around until the Nets have Dwight or LeBron.
    Good riddance, and I never want to see his stupid face again.

    1. Actually, Toasters is right on target—last year,while the strike was just starting and the season was postponed-i became friendly with one of the former Net players who was working out at my gym in nyc—
      he told me that no veteran wants to play for Johnson and that Avery got the nets head coaching position because no one else wanted it–he also said over a year ago that once the nets start to get better-Johnson would be fired
      it sounds like what he was telling me a year ago actually happened –clearly,his veteran players did not respect him

      1. That is very interesting. It also hits on something that the media never really focuses on. The veteran NBA players know a lot about basketball. When they don’t agree with the coach it is sometimes because the coach is actually coming up with bad schemes, bad lineups, etc. and the players know this. Because they have been playing high quality ball for years. A coach that says the wrong stuff too often in games and in practices will lose its players. This can happen even when the team is winning if the players think they are winning despite the coach instead of because of the coach.

      2. So D Will passed up playing with HOFer Dirk and for the great Rick Carlisle in his hometown, so he can play for a coach he couldn’t stand? That makes no sense. Who was at your gym, Terrence Williams?

        1. Dan is, of course, just as right as always. The evidence that DWill loved Avery is just overwhelming. Pay no attention to Deron throwing him under the bus a week ago. Or the stories now leaked about Deron showing Avery up at practice. None of that ever happened (or was misinterpreted, etc.)! Also, there’s no other reason to pick Brooklyn over Dallas than Avery. I expect DWill will demand to be traded now that his one reason to be here is gone! Amirite or amirite, Dan?

  2. I didn’t like the way he dished out minutes. He seemed to have a major preference for getting guards on the floor, while only the forwards and centers actually consistently produced for the Nets. Also he insisted on riding the older players far too much. Joe Johnson can’t be expected to be both a huge part of the offense when on the court and average 40 minutes a game and stay injury free and be fresh for the playoffs. Stackhouse is a nice option and locker room leader, but going to him again and again throughout games at this stage of his career didn’t make sense to me.

    1. i completely agree because stackhouse is useful but u can’t play him and bogans in front of marshon brooks. and hump and evans need to start playing more again. we don’t need small-ball unless we r playing a team who plays small-ball

  3. I think this was the right move, although I do feel bad for Avery. For whatever reason, the team was clearly not responding to him anymore. If that wasn’t reason enough, there was the clear lack of adjustment between the halves of the games. Teams adjusted to what we were doing, and Avery never seemed to be able to counter the adjustments or make any adjustments of his own.

    I never really bought into him as the coach to bring us to the Promised Land to begin with. This is the same coach who lost in the playoffs to the #8 seed. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Neither does filling your coaching staff with the likes of PJ Carlesimo, whose main claim to fame is getting choked by Latrell Sprewell.

    The author is probably correct in saying that no one else wanted the Nets job at the time it was offered. Hopefully the job will be more desirable now that we are in Brooklyn. I don’t think Phil Jackson is the right move though. Quite frankly, I’m sick of seeing him in the NBA. It’s time to let someone new develop his talents as a coach, someone the Nets can grow with.