Avery Johnson had this amazing ability to irritate everyone, a relentlessness of back-room politicking and angling that eventually costs him trust and contributes to costing him jobs. This is the reason that it took so long for a franchise to rehire him after the Dallas Mavericks fired him, and why it will likely take so long again.
From the Eastern Conference's Coach of the Month in November, Johnson didn't make it until New Year's Day. This was no power struggle with general manager Billy King, but it appeared to surprise Johnson once the franchise's extension talks with the GM came before those with the coach, sources said.
Johnson badly wanted a contract extension with the Nets, and the organization was unwilling to deliver it until he had taken this upgraded and expensive roster into the playoffs. In the end, there was a sense that Johnson had lost too much of this locker room – that the Nets had lost their way – and ownership and King came to a decision together to fire him on Thursday morning.
Within the organization, the Nets' recent free-fall had made them resemble a lottery team again, and King – with the support of ownership – ultimately wanted a change now, sources said. An able tactician, Johnson had built up too little organizational goodwill once the Nets started to spiral to 10 losses in 13 games this month.
There's a reason all those former Spurs teammates who became GMs never considered hiring Johnson as coach. From Cleveland to Phoenix, they all passed on Johnson. His demand for control, his penchant for passing blame – in ways large and small – played a part in his demise.
[Related: Nets fire Avery Johnson as coach]
Two-and-a-half years ago, the Nets needed toughness and accountability restored. And when Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau turned down the Nets, Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov and former GM Rod Thorn settled on Johnson. In a lot of ways, he was never built for the long run, and he never learned from his undoing in Dallas.
For now, P.J. Carlesimo will get a chance as interim coach, but he's no long-term solution for the Nets. In a perfect scenario for Carlesimo, the Nets play better, start winning again and he gets them into the playoffs. Nevertheless, he's a stopgap for a staff short on head-coaching experience.
King is expected to investigate several candidates, but it won't be easy to convince high-profile possibilities like Jeff or Stan Van Gundy to take over in the middle of a season. With Dwight Howard still uncommitted long-term to the Los Angeles Lakers, it's unlikely the Nets would pursue either Van Gundy until every bit of hope for a possible Howard trade is exhausted. And truth be told, the demise of Deron Williams' career makes this job less appealing every day.
As much as Johnson's own craving for control, the biggest issue for the coach has been the regression of Williams. With Williams no longer playing like a superstar guard and grumbling over Johnson's offense the way he used to grumble over Jerry Sloan's in his final Jazz days, no one with significant coaching options will be dying to take over with him as the centerpiece.
King did everything right in trading for Williams and recruiting him to re-sign, but only Williams knows how much of his struggles can be blamed on the offense, on injuries, or, perhaps, on his own desire to stay a great player.
Back when Mike Brown was considering the chance to be the Nets' coach, someone with knowledge of the Russian ownership group had warned him: You don't want to be the Russian's first coach, be the second one.
Nevertheless, this wasn't as rash of a decision as it feels with the Nets losing 10 of 13 games this month. Johnson had moved into the final year of his contract, wanted an extension and the Nets were left with a choice: Give it to him, or move him out now.
Perhaps that could've been a decision given more time, but Johnson has never made these things easy on himself. From the moment he was hired as coach, he methodically ingratiated himself with Prokhorov and the owner's emissaries running the Nets stateside. Yet, there was no contract extension coming for Johnson and no commitment for a long-term partnership.
In the end, Billy King will get to choose his own coach, the way that it almost always works within NBA franchises. CEO Brett Yormark – who oversees the business side, not basketball – has always loved John Calipari. Yormark even traveled to Lexington to see a Kentucky game this season. Nevertheless, Yormark doesn't have the power to try and bring Calipari to the Nets as emperor again. Calipari loves New York, but he wouldn't return without complete control.
That won't happen with King ruling the day – not unless Yormark won over ownership on Kentucky's coach. For now, the Nets aren't chasing a power-play on the sideline, but a basketball coach to get this roster righted, get the team back on course for a playoff push. Between now and then, Deron Williams has the ability to make this job the most appealing again. King sold Williams on Brooklyn, and now he needs to sell a coach on his franchise player.
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