Rather than cherish the chance for another interim and eventually permanent head coach to get a role leading an NBA basketball team, the coaching fraternity usually derides all moves made by other front offices as they fire a former head man. That intro was very wordy and dry because this is how coaches talk. They don’t like it when other coaches are fired, even if the firing (the Brooklyn Nets let Avery Johnson go on Thursday) results in a friend and former co-worker (P.J. Carlesimo) getting to take over for a spell.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is Carlesimo’s former co-worker, as the current Nets interim coach was an assistant on Popovich’s staff for five seasons. Former Nets coach Avery Johnson, though, worked with Popovich as a player in both Golden State (where Coach Pop was an assistant) and San Antonio. Popovich, for years, heard from all sorts of critics that Johnson wasn’t swift nor sizable nor shoot-y enough to lead his talented Spurs to a title. It was Avery, though, that put the Spurs over the top in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in 1999 by hitting a pair of baseline jumpers to seal the title.
Patience, for Popovich, paid off. Which is why he’s more than a little upset, while utilizing the super-dry treatment, and Johnson’s dismissal. From Friday’s practice, as quoted by the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff MacDonald:
“Of course, many of us were surprised to see what happened in Brooklyn. From my perspective, Avery’s not a good coach, he’s a very good coach. He’s a hell of a coach. He’s proven that. There aren’t too many of us out there who have ever won 67 games in a season. He’s taken a team to the Finals. If my memory serves me correct, he was Coach of the Month. It sort of shows what a fickle, volatile business we’re in. We all know that. Avery knows that, too.
“Often times, situations like that have nothing to do with the ability of the coach. It has more to do with circumstances. We’ve seen it before. I can’t help but think sometimes a little patience could go a long way.
“You think about coaches … I believe Dean Smith, they did a little effigy in his honor in the beginning when things weren’t going well. Johnny Wooden had a rough patch in the beginning. Mike Krzyzewski, arguably our best coach we have in basketball today, things didn’t go very well in the beginning. He had an AD who was smart enough to know what he had. He exhibited a lot of patience, so now you see where Coach K is. I think we all understand that. But circumstances, especially in the NBA, have a whole lot more to do with firings than how well or how poorly a coach did. It’s unfortunate. But we all move on, including Avery."
(Gregg Popovich has such clout in the basketball coaching brethren that he is allowed to call John Wooden “Johnny.” That’s a black AMEX card for the ages, chums.)
The blame for Johnson’s firing, even as we attempt to stray from the typical take, stems from Deron Williams’ poor play. He was categorized as potentially the best point guard in the NBA years ago in Utah, weirdly by people who weren’t aware of how brilliant Chris Paul was, and spoke of as a franchise-changing star upon his move to the Nets. So far in 2012-13 he’s played below standard. His work in a motion-styled offense could shift the team’s fortunes if he were able to draw defenses away from his teammates with his scoring acumen, and yet Williams has been a detriment overall for a .500 team.
The ending reality, though, is that Avery Johnson was unable to create an offense that made each of his significant offensive threats into world-beating scorers. Popovich is right when he calls him a “very good coach,” but he didn’t do a very good job of coaching this team this season. As was the case in 2006, when Johnson stubbornly stuck to the same defensive pattern and sent Dwyane Wade to the free throw line (if memory recalls) 29,000 times a game in that year’s NBA Finals.
Avery Johnson does have an offense, usually one that attempts to work its way to your heart from the right wing, and this was the problem. Gregg Popovich doesn’t have an offense. Hell, he doesn’t have a defense. He has a constantly rotating series of movements that shift from year to year based on the personnel; though he’ll be the first to tell you how lucky he is to have Tim Duncan anchoring those shifts for a decade and a half. It’s true that you can see consistent strings between the play calling between Pop’s late 1990s teams and the current one – summer retellings on NBA TV help with that connection – but by and large the coach regarded as the league’s most stubborn is actually one of the more flexible types in the league.
He has to be. The league, and his job, demands it. Avery Johnson, for whatever reason, is still learning this. He’s also learning that players hyped as superstars can turn hesitant when it comes time to get to the rim.
Popovich was right to defend his former player. Slapdash work by a GM happy to spend oodles of his ownership group’s money met with outsized expectations and a superstar that isn’t playing like a star. Toss in a few injuries and a tough December schedule and you have a .500 record after 28 games.
Avery Johnson, though, still wasn’t the right guy to lead this mess. We’re not sure who is, but we can be certain that Avery’s touch in Brooklyn wasn’t fixing anything any time soon.