Johnson embraces challenge in N.J

Avery Johnson won an NBA championship as the starting point guard of the San Antonio Spurs. He came within two games of winning another as coach of the Dallas Mavericks. He hasn’t lacked for success in the NBA – which is why he knew his current job would test him in ways he’s never been tested.

As the new coach of the New Jersey Nets, Johnson is tasked with trying to turn one of the worst teams in league history into a winner. The process, as Johnson has discovered, will take some time.

“In terms of growing something from the ground up,” Johnson said, “it’s a fascinating challenge for me.”

Guiding the Nets is certainly a change from Johnson’s first coaching job with the Mavericks. When he took over in Dallas near the end of the 2004-05 season, he inherited a veteran group of players led by All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki(notes). The Mavericks reached the 2006 NBA Finals and took a 2-0 lead over the Miami Heat before losing. The following season, the Mavs won a league-high 67 games before being upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors. After another first-round exit in 2008, Johnson was fired.

“Sometimes your strongest trait can turn into your worst trait,” said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. “Avery worked as hard as any coach on any team ever, and that makes it tough sometimes because he outworked his staff and outworked everyone around him. But that’s what made him successful as a player. That doesn’t always work [as a coach].”

Johnson said he doesn’t have any regrets from his stay in Dallas.

“The one thing I disagree with in the Dallas situation was even though we had some guys that had some regular-season success … we didn’t have a lot of playoff experience [prior to 2005],” Johnson said. “Was it a team that kind of knew what they were doing? Yes. But we felt we helped that team get to the next level.”

After he was let go by the Mavericks, Johnson worked as a TV analyst for two seasons. Looking back, he thinks he needed “every minute” of the break, which allowed him to spend more time with his wife and two children. His friends, however, knew he’d grow antsy soon enough.

“I think the last year he was starting to go crazy,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Johnson’s mentor. “He was like, ‘Man, I got to get back in. It’s driving me crazy.’ He sees so much and he wants to compete and be out there.”

Johnson also interviewed for coaching jobs with his hometown New Orleans Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks. The Bulls quickly targeted Tom Thibodeau while the Hornets opted for Monty Williams and the Sixers hired Doug Collins. Johnson had multiple interviews with the Hawks, who had reached the playoffs three consecutive seasons, but starting over with the Nets appealed to him.

Johnson thought the Nets already had a couple of promising cornerstones in center Brook Lopez(notes) and point guard Devin Harris(notes). They also had the No. 3 pick in the draft, which they used to take forward Derrick Favors(notes). Harris, who played for Johnson in Dallas, also pushed for his old coach.

“He teaches the game with an emphasis on defense and, most importantly, he holds everybody accountable equally – whether it is the first guy on the roster or the last,” Harris said.

After working with Cuban, Johnson understood the value of having an owner who would be willing to spend to compete. The Nets’ new owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, fit that mold. The Nets also expect to move to Brooklyn in 2012, when a new arena will be waiting for them, after they spend the next two seasons in Newark, N.J.

“We’re going to be like the Spurs – the only show in town,” Johnson of the Nets’ move to Brooklyn. “We’re going to be like a soccer club with 18,500 fans going crazy every night. We’re returning where they haven’t had a team since the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“The Nets are doing everything on a first-, first-, first-, first-class basis. And we’ve just begun.”

Johnson’s first challenge with the Nets came when he tried to help the franchise recruit some of the summer’s biggest free agents, including LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes). The Nets also made an offer to Carlos Boozer(notes) and had interest in Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) and Joe Johnson(notes). They landed none of them, instead signing young players such as Anthony Morrow(notes), Jordan Farmar(notes), Travis Outlaw(notes) and Johan Petro(notes). They also traded for forward Troy Murphy(notes).

Still, Johnson says it was worthwhile to meet with the stars, and the Nets thought they had a legitimate chance to land one of them.

“I didn’t think it was a waste of time,” Johnson said. “We thought those guys were very sincere in wanting to hear what we had to say and our presentation. There were some parts about it that I didn’t like and I don’t want to get into it. But they made a decision that’s best for them, and we hope every time that we play their teams that we win.”

Johnson had the NBA’s highest career regular-season winning percentage for a coach (.735) when he took over the Nets. He’ll have a hard time keeping it as the team continues to rebuild. The Nets entered Sunday with a 6-14 record – half as many wins as they totaled all of last season.

Johnson always took losses hard when he was with the Mavericks. He’s now more realistic about the challenges he’s facing with the Nets.

“This is a totally different situation,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to develop them into starters. Starters – not stars. That’s the next round. We got role players. We got journeymen. You have starters, you have stars and then you have superstars. We’re trying to develop NBA starters first.”

Harris said Johnson is showing a lot more patience in New Jersey than he did in Dallas, recognizing the Nets have so many young players. Popovich also thinks the relationship with Johnson and the Nets will develop into a “good marriage.”

That said, Johnson can still be as fiery as ever.

“He has no time for nobody that doesn’t want to compete when they step on the court,” Popovich said. “It’s like hallowed ground to him. That’s how he coaches.”

Johnson knows the Nets won’t get better overnight. They tried to trade for Carmelo Anthony(notes) before the start of the season, but the Denver Nuggets decided to explore other options while still hoping to convince the All-Star forward to stay. Johnson can’t worry too much about what the future holds because he has too much to do in the present.

“Right now, we’re totally internally focused,” he said. “That’s it. We have tunnel vision and it’s only on ourselves.”