June 10, 2010
We would like to welcome Avery Johnson to the brotherhood.
The collective that cannot truly say a single intelligent thing about the NBA until LeBron James(notes) has decided where he is going to play in 2010-11 and beyond. Though some would say that, as an ESPN analyst, Johnson was already part of that brotherhood, with the result of that group's output not having the luxury of blaming LeBron's indecision for its, um, "statements." OK, we kind of like Jamal Mashburn. Moving on.
Whatever the result, Johnson is set to become the new coach of the New Jersey Nets, a team that alternately has about as clear a slate as slates come, while boasting a pretty sound foundation even at this low ebb. The Nets are lucky to have Johnson, a sound tactician, and he's in a promising situation, no matter where James goes. Even though the Nets threatened the NBA's record for losses in a single season and ended up winning just 12 games, the checks on the "pluses" side of the ledger far out-number the ones on the "minuses" side.
The Nets have an All-Star level center, a proper center, in 22-year-old Brook Lopez(notes). They have a penetrating point guard in Devin Harris(notes), who has proven he can work at an All-Star level. Most of the junk that forced the Nets toward 70 losses this season will be gone as the team enters 2010-11, and the team will have around $33 million in available cap space to work with this summer (excluding cap holds and incoming rookies).
Incoming rookies? The Nets have the third pick in the draft. Not the first — no LeBron-luring CAA clients to glom onto here — but the third, and the third ain't bad. It also has the 27th pick later in the round.
The Nets also have this owner, you've likely heard of him, who has a great deal of money.
Mikhail Prokhorov is the Russian billionaire who took over the Nets, and if you want my early opinion on the guy, he seems like a bit of a doof who really doesn't know how this league works, how this league builds winners, and I'm convinced he shouldn't really even be mentioned in the same breath as Mark Cuban — who could probably recite Erick Dampier's(notes) 2003-04 rebound rate by memory and Jason Kidd's(notes) 2008-09 adjusted plus/minus figures in the same instant.
With money comes spoils and arrogance and clumsiness. But with money also comes opportunity, potential and room for error. And despite a bad season or three, the Nets have a fine general manager in Rod Thorn, and Avery can coach. And despite the NBA's salary cap — an obstacle that has prevented the New York Knicks from spending their way to a championship for decades — big money spent smartly can create a winner.
With Thorn spending that money and Johnson leading the acquisitions, the Nets could work this out. In spite of Prokhorov's naiveté.
In Johnson, the Nets are getting sort of a mini-Doug Collins. The man knows every play in the book, while retaining somewhat of a contemporary edge. Johnson tied up every loose end he could in Dallas, cleaning up after Don Nelson's laissez-faire turn with the club and the free-agent defection of Steve Nash(notes), running those Mavericks to their most successful seasons in history. No championships, of course, which is Johnson's biggest stain to date.
The loss in 2006? To the Heat, as Dwayne Wade shot 47 free throws a game? Blame Bennett Salvatore all you want, those were some pretty dodgy calls, but Johnson definitely deserves to be raked over for Dallas' blown 2-0 lead in those finals. He never got his men to stop pressuring Wade, picking up those hand-checking calls, and he kept sending out a helpless Adrian Griffin(notes) to try and guard him. This is where Avery gets stubborn, and this is where Avery gets it wrong.
2007? The first-round loss to the Warriors? Don't blame Avery, but you're allowed to criticize the man if he continues to let this semi-surprising loss color the rest of his coaching career.
The Warriors had Dallas' number. Had for years. Had a little bit to do with the fact that Don Nelson was now coaching the Warriors, but Golden State had matchup advantages over Dallas well before Nellie showed up in California. Fearful of his team's relatively poor regular-season record against the W's, Johnson made waves by going with a small lineup in Game 1, and because TNT often helps people think causation equals correlation, this is the taint that stuck with Avery for years.
That he should have started Erick Dampier against the Warriors. Which is nonsense.
Dampier's demotion had absolutely nothing to do with the Warriors doing what they'd done to Dallas for years, namely walking all over a Mavericks team that just didn't match up well. But because we're Americans and we value our shiny guns that long to be stuck by, Dampier's benching was viewed as a cowardly act, a sign of weakness.
What's a cowardly act and a sign of weakness, is if Johnson uses that series as some sort of excuse not to listen to new voices. Because it was former Maverick stat guru Wayne Winston that suggested the Mavs go small, and Johnson pointed out last March that this was one of his greatest regrets as a coach, listening to Winston in that regard.
Now, I don't often agree with Winston, but the Dampier switch was so far down the line of reasons why the Mavericks lost in 2007, that it's laughable to cling to this three years later. And if Avery's coaches, through the years, hadn't listened to new voices? They wouldn't have won as many games as they did, and Avery wouldn't have ascended to a head-coaching gig as quickly as he did, because he was one of those new voices.
Johnson has to keep growing and keep learning, because he's been as fortunate as he's been good. Getting a head-coaching job almost instantly after retiring, getting paid quite well after being fired, taking to the ESPN job and being handed a chance at what could be the NBA's next great team? Avery's great, but you can't help but point out that he's been pretty lucky, too.
If he acts on his good fortune, then the Nets are in for a successful ride. If he stays humble and keeps learning, pairing those open spaces with his already formidable coaching knowledge? He'll do great things.
Provided, of course, the Nets get players. Check back when LeBron checks back in. I think he's on the Joy Behar Show later Thursday night.