With the benefit of hindsight, we should not be all that shocked that the Nets decided to part ways with Avery Johnson when they did. They set him up like a bowling pin by refusing to give him a contract extension last summer.
It is an article of faith in NBA coaching circles that you do not want your coach going into the final year of his contract. Unless, of course, you don’t really, really want your coach. Or you’re Donald Sterling.
But that’s exactly what Nets ownership did to Johnson. He took his lumps for the organization, presiding over a couple of tough seasons and one eminently forgettable summer of free agency. But when he went to ask for some security going forward, he got the Dikembe Mutombo treatment.
Yes, you can change locales and you can change ownership and you can change uniforms – but you are who you are. The new Nets, unfortunately, acted like the Nets of yore in this one, not by jettisoning the coach – they may have actually done him a favor – but by refusing to deal with the realities of the NBA.
You want a send a message to your players that the coach is vulnerable? Do exactly what the Nets did. You want to establish the ideal atmosphere for marquee players to underachieve with impunity? Do exactly what the Nets did. Do you want to project that upper management isn’t behind the coach (other than judging it by its actions?) Do exactly what the Nets did and have your CEO send out a tweet following the embarrassing Christmas Day loss to the Celtics, criticizing the team and promising better times ahead.
Johnson began this season with a blindfold and a cigarette and it was only a matter of time. Did it matter that he was the conference coach of the month in November? Apparently not. That would have been the ideal time for the Nets to announce they had locked up their coach for the next few years. They were 11-4.
“Three weeks ago, they were playing as well as anybody,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of the Nets after learning of Johnson’s firing. “The NBA is a league of ebbs and flows. That’s the way it is. You go on good streaks. You go on bad ones. I thought it was awful quick to make a change.”
So the coach of the month of in November is now an ex-coach in December. (That is not unprecedented. Jimmy Rodgers of the Celtics was the Coach of the Month in April 1990. He was fired a couple weeks later after the team lost its first-round playoff series to the Knicks.)
It was quick. And whoever the lucky fellow that succeeds Johnson happens to be will have to deal with the outsized expectations that accompanied the team’s relocation to Brooklyn. The Nets and their zillionaire owner, Mikhail D. Prokhorov, want success and they want it now. With the second highest payroll in the NBA, the franchise wants to co-opt those fair-weather Knicks fans. Johnson was the first victim of those expectations.
Never mind that he had to deal with a new roster – not to mention an injury-prone center and a Rotisserie League backcourt that doesn’t seem to mesh. Or that in Deron Williams, he had a stubborn star who didn’t hesitate to throw his coach under the bus by openly questioning the offense. Williams then pretty much signed the execution order for his coach by (a) going through the motions in their embarrassing Christmas Day loss on national TV and (b) sitting out the next game against Milwaukee with a wrist injury that he had endured all season.
Johnson was said to be quite surprised when the news came down on Thursday that he would no longer be the head coach. He shouldn’t have been. He didn’t just fall of the turnip truck. He’s been around long enough to know that it had to be coming the moment Prokhorov told him ‘nyet’ on a contract extension.
That’s not an excuse. That’s just the way it is. Yes, there may have been locker room issues, but those things can be exacerbated when you have the situation that was going on in Brooklyn.
“In this business, you got to have the power, in terms of the ability to coach – and the respect,” Johnson said. “It would help if you do have a contract that the players respect. That’s the nature of our business.”
Don’t worry about Johnson. He is going to be a well-compensated ex-coach for the time being. But he’d rather be a well-compensated coach, period, and one with some degree of security. The Nets could have taken care of that if they thought it was important. They didn’t – and Johnson went from lame duck to dead duck.