On Avery Johnson

Avery Johnson Brooklyn Nets
(AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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.