As the Nets become more and more inept defensively, I now think it’s fair to raise the question as to when some – any – of this stink reflects on the coaching. I’m talking, of course, about the “Little General,” Avery Johnson.
I know Mikhail Prokhorov is supposedly enamored with the little guy, and with the Russian’s attentions reportedly more focused on becoming the next president of the world’s largest country, I’m going to guess that the defensive deficiencies of his American plaything are the least of his concerns. And if nearly 30 years of sports fandom has taught me anything, you can’t always expect the GM to take control of a situation like this, because after the coach is disposed, the attention always turns to the GM. With all that said, I can’t help but think that Johnson has an expiration date, and if he doesn’t, he should.
You can call this the worst case of 20-20 hindsight in recorded history (though I am on record here calling for Tom Thibodeau two summers ago), but I guess my tolerance is low for coaches who preach defense-first and accountability, then oversee teams that are terrible defensively and have superstars like Deron Williams running the show and holding the team hostage. You can talk about the talent on the Nets roster, or lack thereof, though I would like to add that this is also the guy who thought it was pragmatic to start Stephen Graham 28 times last year, despite the fact that he was absolutely terrible and will probably never play another NBA game in his career now that he’s been cut from the Nets. And again, you can only blame the talent-level for so long. When the team was struggling to shoot 30 percent from the field, you could say they missed Brook Lopez in the post and were adjusting. But when the team continues to get its doors blown off by failing to execute simple defensive rotations, someone has to be held accountable, and it goes beyond with the jerseys.
Perhaps what upsets me more is as the New Jersey-turned-Brooklyn Nets make their long-term vision clearer and clearer, the decision to go with a guy like Avery makes more and more sense. Prokhorov believes this is a “superstar” league, and rather than advocating building a roster intelligently and gradually, with a combination of draft picks, free agency and savvy trades, he’s been obsessed with the “big splash” since he came to the league. Not to repeat well-versed history, but the Nets failed to land LeBron, spent months chasing Carmelo Anthony, grabbed DWill in a coup, and are now chasing after Dwight Howard to the point that they signed nobody of note beyond one year last month. And while this strategy worked wonders for the Miami Heat, one has to wonder if the Nets are really equipped in terms of front office personnel to be big game hunters. As good of a job as I think he’s doing, there’s a steep dropoff in clout and cache from Pat Riley to Billy King.
Avery was just another excuse for a “splash.” With Phil Jackson sticking in LA and Coach K uninterested in the NBA two summers ago, Johnson was the “sexiest” name available, and with a big personality to match. Avery enchanted the Russian into spending big money on the likes of Travis Outlaw and Johan Petro, before deflecting that blame on outgoing president Rod Thorn months later. But was Johnson the right choice for the Nets? While Thibodeau worked hard through the coaching ranks and now has turned an above average Chicago team into an elite one, Johnson’s big distinction was his winning percentage, which came from his time spent at the helm of an offensive juggernaut with a star player who was in his prime and was the best offensive threat in the league outside of Kobe Bryant. While I know you can find enough newsprint of former players praising Avery, you also have to admit when you think hard enough about it that what Avery accomplished in Dallas was the equivalent of Mr. Burns telling Strawberry to hit a homer in the power plant softball league. And even then, the team never won anything past the regular season with Avery in charge.
Revisionist history? Maybe. But if we’re going to sit around all year and sweat over the fact that Dwight Howard may end up in Los Angeles, and/or Deron Williams may get sick of the losing and bolt for Dallas in the off-season, then we then have to contend with the fact that the only long-term “splash” made in the Prokhorov era was the head coach. And if the Nets think going into Brooklyn with Avery and a team of losers is going to matter to anyone who doesn’t attend the Johnson-family Thanksgiving, they’re sadly mistaken. Instead, what we’re witnessing is despite his coaching record on paper, Avery doesn’t have what it takes to elevate a team by himself. If the Nets are inevitably forced due to injury, circumstances and DWill’s “grumpiness” to rebuild a team the “normal” way, rather than the Russian Playboy way, I suggest they start by breaking whatever hypnotic trance Johnson has on the organization and recognize that there are probably a lot better options out there to coach this team back to respectability rather than the guy who was on television and who won a lot in a situation where it was near-impossible to lose.