As the Brooklyn Nets dropped their eighth game over their last ten last night, the topic of conversation has focused tightly on the team’s offensive “system,” or lack thereof. Of course, this idea was most pointedly promoted by point guard Deron Williams, primarily in comparison to the “system” he ran in Utah under coach Jerry Sloane. But then the idea was brandied about by other players, most notably, the team’s other highly-paid backcourt player in Joe Johnson. Simply, the argument is that the Nets -– owners of an 11-4 record on the last day of November and a 13-12 record today – don’t have an offensive system to speak of, especially when the team goes into offensive ruts and relies too much on one-on-one isolation plays.
And yet, when you look closely at what has cause this rather dramatic about-face in less than one month’s time, the problems run deep and systemic. It’s easy to lay all the blame on Avery Johnson’s feet –- and boy is that tempting for me, as someone who has yet to get excited about this big personality who apparently charmed the rubles off the team’s billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov. But it's a much bigger problem than just Avery.
Sure, these recent public complaints by the players seem to indicate that on the offensive side of the ball, Avery isn’t doing much of what he’s paid to do; mainly coach his team by developing some bread and butter sets, all while making adjustments when the team hits its predictable ruts in the second half of basketball games. On the defensive side of the ball -- Avery’s strong suit -- the team’s frontcourt players are still struggling to successfully defend a pick-and-roll, while its backcourt seems to pick and choose when they are inspired to guard perimeter shooters. This is partially on Avery, but firing Avery tomorrow won’t change a thing if other elements of the “system” remain unchanged.
Which brings us to Deron Williams, who the Nets and Net fans desperately wanted back at any and all cost last year to the point that lottery draft picks were traded, one of the NBA’s largest contracts was acquired, and a young, offensively promising center was dangled and dangled and dangled for another star player for so long that after the window closed on that trade, the team had no choice but to offer this player a very large contract despite only playing in five games due to injury last year.
When the team was 11-4, all seemed justified, but over the last 10 games we’ve seen what we already know about these players –- that Gerald Wallace does many things well, but not one thing great; that Joe Johnson is an unheralded scorer but not a “put the team on my back” leader; and that Brook Lopez still struggles with some basic tenets of defense while his injured foot continues to be the 800 lb gorilla in the room that threatens to torpedo this season.
And DWill … fresh off his payday, Williams is having the worst season of his career. For parts of the last three seasons, people have placated this player. First it was his supporting cast, then his wrist, then his supporting cast again, then the Prudential Center’s sightlines and HVAC system, some more supporting cast issues, some more injuries, and now we talk about the system and how the same coach he praised two-plus years ago for opening up the playbook for him after he was acquired from the social wasteland known as Utah, has now implemented such a restrictive, unimagined “system.”
One quick thing to note about D-Will’s comments: these publicly-aired grievances were made for one of two reasons. Either Williams is truly the “coach killer” who ran Jerry Sloan out of Utah and is doing the same with Avery now; or he’s so self-absorbed and caught up with his hype that he was completely oblivious that making comments like these to the media would do anything but start a controversy for a team that wasn’t performing up to snuff.
Which brings us up to this point, which was so excellently worded by Dave D’Alessandro:
Of course, the lack of accountability is also management’s fault. We recall those stories about (Deron Williams) finishing practice and heading up to Billy King’s office to plop yourself on the couch — where even the new boss chuckled along when you called yourself “the assistant GM.” Haw!
When the Nets organization first announced its plans to move to Brooklyn about 10 years ago, the risk was always obvious – would this team be able to move into a major market where another team and its brand had been long established and come out on the side of relevancy? Every major decision related to this move, from the stunning architecture of the arena, to the assortment of past and present all-stars who make up the roster, has been deep-rooted in trying to establish relevancy. The problem is, while procuring artisanal local vendors for the arena food court, painstakingly marketing the team’s logo so it would appear on 900 different t-shirts and hats, and engaging in a media boxing match with the owner of New York City’s other basketball team, a “system” of unaccountability and lack of control developed on the basketball side of operations.
Despite some of the reports percolating right now, there was no effort or call to action about Avery Johnson when this team was unimaginably bad during its last two years of New Jersey. No one outside of a few snarky bloggers ever questioned why players like Stephen Graham, Johan Petro and now Keith Bogans, were some of the first guys rushed into an NBA rotation. Nobody held Avery’s feet to the fire about how much he valued defense, and how little his team played it for two years straight.
And all the same, nobody in the franchise has questioned D-Will. No one criticized him for his toxic body language during games last season. No one told him that blaming the Prudential Center’s design for his poor shooting and high turnover rate ranks as one of the most pathetic excuses ever made in a profession that is chock-full of pathetic excuses. No one that told him that generally players make terrible GMs (ask Starbury, LeBron and Dwight Howard about that). Even after his most recent bus trampling courtesy of Williams, Avery’s response was passive and unassertive. Instead of publicly reprimanding his player and showing some backbone in front of the media, Johnson is more interested in talking about player fatigue and “battling.”
Wise coaches from other sports have said “you are what your record says you are” and “you’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.” I think both these statements are accurate regarding the 2012-13 Brooklyn Nets. But never question that there is in fact a system, a culture, an identity.
The front office needs to think long and carefully about this last question: are the Nets content to be a shiny new toy for the next few seasons, one that places premium value on merchandise and catchphrases, or are they more interested in instilling a winning “system” that stresses organizational accountability and leadership? These two factors shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but over the past three years, there has been zero evidence of this team being able to balance them both.