Debate: Is Avery Johnson the Coach for the Nets?

Is the Little General worthy of attention?

Both Mark and I have made our opinions of Avery Johnson as coach of the Nets quite clear over the last few weeks, but we just couldn’t reconcile our differences. So we ruminated back and forth on the topic — because that’s what writers do. Here’s a transcript.

Danny Savitzky: There was no doubt one of the focal points of the Nets’ offseason was to find a solid head coach to right the ship after the team canned Lawrence Frank last December and proceeded with the Kiki Vandeweghe lethargy experiment for the remainder of the campaign. Among a field of candidates spanning from the likes of Mark Jackson to Phil Jackson, Avery ultimately emerged as the man for the job, at least in the eyes of the Nets’ front office.

Now that the team has started the season at a tortoise’s pace, questions are beginning to manifest themselves with regard to Avery’s qualifications for the position. For his persistence in discipline, his unflappable commitment to defense, his background of winning, and, of course, his hilarious voice. Avery Johnson should be the Nets’ long-term solution for the coaching slot.

Mark Ginocchio: Obviously Avery Johnson brings stability to the coaching seat, something the Nets were without all of last season, but I question thedirection of this franchise with Johnson as a long-term fixture. Obviously, the Nets are an improved team from a year ago — they play defense now, sometimes, which is something — but despite only retaining three players from a year ago and essentially handpicking this roster, the team has regressed in many areas under Avery, especially on the offensive end.

Brook Lopez is emerging as one of the more inefficient players in the league and despite the acquisition of some solid outside shooters in Anthony Morrow, Travis Outlaw and Jordan Farmar, they still can’t get enough space on the floor and the offense resembles a jumbled mess. Both Farmar and Devin Harris seem to be ignoring the pick and roll game completely. From my perspective, it’s not for lack of execution, but lack of direction. Meanwhile, two months in, what’s the identity of this Avery Johnson team? Besides “we play hard,” it’s hard for me to pinpoint what Avery is working with here. And with the front office looking to blow up the roster already, I worry how Avery is going to be able to shape a team of veterans, when he couldn’t even sufficiently shape a roster of youngsters.

Danny: To be honest, it’s hard to promote any definite direction with the roster as up in the air as it is. With the latest rumors suggesting that eight of the 12 players on the active roster could be on the move in a ‘Melo deal, there isn’t much to build around. While I agree with you that Avery’s offensive schemes are unimaginative and rudimentary, his attention to defense is what won him over 70 percent of his games in Dallas and would have won him an NBA title if Dwyane Wade hadn’t gone beast mode in the 2006 Finals.

As for Brook Lopez, he’s certainly struggling with double teams. With regard to the floor spacing, however, Anthony Morrow has been out — and let’s not delude ourselves with the suggestion that Travis Outlaw has fit the bill. As for being able to deal with veterans: again, he did that well in Dallas, handling a corps of players assembled by Don Nelson. Doesn’t his abrasive attitude lend itself better to controlling more mature players who are already used to the league?

Not only that, but such less players are a lot less likely to do things that irk him (e.g., repeatedly missing practice and thinking it’s okay). Moreover, I think we both know Avery is pulling some of the strings behind Billy King, and he’s not going to do anything he doesn’t think he can manage.

Mark: But this argument actually feeds into what rubs me the wrong way with Avery. By most accounts, this was a roster that Johnson worked with the previous administration (Rod Thorn) and the current one (Billy King) to put together, and Avery seems surprised by its limitations. Johnson has been on the record in saying he thought Outlaw would be more of an “energy” player, and there’s nothing in his career to suggest that. Favors was drafted with the understanding that he was going to be a work in progress, and Johnson has sounded disappointed that the rookie hasn’t forced his way into the Nets starting lineup until recently.

Then there are the players who get into Johnson’s “doghouse” and the subsequent moves that have occurred. We all know that Terrence Williams had some maturity issues, but there was undoubtedly some talent to be unearthed there, but rather than demonstrate patience, Johnson appeared to quickly dismiss T-Will as a lost cause. Then there’s the mercurial case of Troy Murphy, a double-double guy throughout his career who was injured for the beginning of the season and hasn’t been able to get into the rotation since. With this possible trade on the horizon, I’m starting to question if Johnson has the demeanor to get all kinds of players to play for him.

Danny: I don’t have a problem with identifying limitations for a team that is 10-27 and is sure lottery fodder for the fourth straight year. He might have made some mistakes in free agency, but then again, there is a minimum-salary threshold that the Nets had to meet by signing some players. No, giving Outlaw $35 million over 5 years isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a good deal, but Morrow’s and Farmar’s contracts weren’t bad. And every coach in the NBA will tell you that he wants his players to be energy guys. Isiah Thomas would have told you that about Eddy Curry four years ago. It doesn’t mean they actually believe it. Outlaw is also out of position playing at the 3 instead of as a stretch 4.

I also don’t think Avery has expressed disappointment with Favors, and he surely would have been in the starting lineup long ago had Kris “Please don’t exercise your player option” Humphries not vastly exceeded expectations this season. As for the doghouse cases, history will tell you that one bad apple can ruin the whole harvest. Johnson is a disciplinarian for sure, but there’s something to be said for that. You won’t see the Nets in the headlines drawing weapons on one another or fighting one another at practice. T-Will’s expression that he didn’t think being late for practice repeatedly was a big deal was a strong indicator his locker-room personality is questionable.

As for Murphy, I, too, was once wary of his total lack of minutes. But when he did get his shot a couple weeks ago, he blew it by missing jumpers that he has made easily throughout his career. If you want to develop Favors, there’s no reason to cut into his minutes with a player who doesn’t seem to be able to make good on his promise of shooting ability.

Mark: But there’s a difference between learning more about your players as they evolve as the season progresses versus miscasting them and watching them regress as the season chugs along. If Avery maybe had more of a pedigree in building a team from the ground floor, I would feel better about these oversights. But he inherited a team in Dallas that was already built to win and had an MVP candidate in Dirk Nowitzki.. While an argument could be made that the Mavs were jobbed out of a title in 2006, the team had a colossal collapse in the first round against the 8th-seeded Golden State Warriors the following year and then had their doors blown-off by NOLA in 2008 (after trading Devin Harris for Jason Kidd).

Yes, the West was stacked those years, but Avery was given a winning team to play around with and rather than grown and evolve, the team regressed every season until he was eventually fired. To expect him to be the main man in rebuilding the New Jersey Nets was a gamble when he was hired, and he’s shown me very little in his first few months to suggest he has the guile and patience to mold his players into a unit that goes out and competes every single night.

What do you think? We’d like to know.