Antsy Nets Axe Avery Johnson
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Mikhail Prokhorov and the rest of Brooklyn Nets ownership fired Head Coach Avery Johnson early this morning on the heels of blowout losses to the Celtics on Christmas day and the Bucks last night. During his press conference this afternoon, General Manager Billy King said: “I just thought he [Avery Johnson] wasn’t able to get through to the players… somehow it just wasn’t translating to the players on the floor, for whatever reason.”
The Nets are a .500 team sitting at 14-14, 3rd in the Atlantic and 8th place in the East. One month after an 11-4 start and Coach of the Month Award, Avery Johnson saw his team go 3-10 with three games left in December.
On the one hand, six of those ten losses were decided in the final two minutes of the 4th quarter. On the other, they led many of those games by double digits. Johnson has taken a lot of the blame for a confused, stagnant and isolation-focused offense that has led to consistently poor 3rd quarter and 4th quarter scoring. Throughout this struggle-filled December, they dealt with injuries to starting center Brook Lopez and all-star point guard Deron Williams has been dealing with several nagging injuries, including a wrist that sidelined him for last night’s game at Milwaukee.
All of this resulted in many possessions where the Nets have looked confused, out of sync and sloppy with the ball. While they took excellent care of the ball during November, they averaged 15.3 turnovers per-game during this rut. This summer’s big acquisition all-star guard Joe Johnson has not seemed to click with Williams highlighted during this stretch; and both of their production levels are not meeting the expectations of ownership and fans. Critics point to Deron’s shooting percentage, a career low of 38.9% and Joe is shooting at just 42.1%.
Coaches and veterans of championship caliber teams during hard times rally together. The Nets have lacked intensity during key moments in this December losing streak and on the surface appear anything but united. Gerald Wallace criticized the rest of his team for “hanging [our] heads” and allowing uncertainties in the locker room to carry over into play on the court—something Avery Johnson has alluded to in several post-game press conferences. Last Monday, Williams remarked that he didn’t feel comfortable in Avery Johnson’s system stating: “And that system (in Utah) was a great system for my style of play. I'm a system player, and I loved Coach (Jerry) Sloan's system. I loved the offense there.” People jumped on the idea that Williams and Avery Johnson could not co-exist.
While the coach and the players were not on the same page, it seemed that Coach Johnson also did not have the complete support of ownership. After the 93-76 loss in Boston, CEO Brett Yormark tweeted: “Nets fans deserved better today. The entire organization needs to work harder to find the solution. We will get there.” What he failed to mention was that they would get there without Avery Johnson.
Since Prokhorov took ownership of the Nets the spring of 2010, the last two seasons have been focused on the move to Brooklyn in the fall of 2012. The construction of the Barclays Center, and the overhaul of the roster this summer, highlighted by the addition of Joe Johnson, made it clear that Nets aimed to make this a statement season—almost a NBA Finals or bust season. That mission of a deep-playoff run took priority over everything else this season, evidenced by the decision to make a coaching change 28 games into the season. It’s a point where the Nets are still in a position to make a strong push for those playoffs with 54 games remaining.
Coach Johnson was extremely composed and candid during his press conference this afternoon as he has been throughout his tenure with the Nets. For his part, Johnson was very aware of the situation which was brought into saying, “I signed up for this job knowing that we were going to get beat up the first two years…then I thought I would have the whole third year [ to get this organization where we wanted to go].” He read the situation correctly, just not the timetable. “We’ll get there” and “We’re not there yet” are two phrases that he’s said in just about every press conference. He saw this season as a marathon, 82 games where he could instill his system. 82 games with hot-streaks and cold-spells, an ice-cold December spell in this case. Bad puns aside, with all the hype and increased media attention, Avery Johnson has been cool, calm and consistent. He showed patience with his developing players like Andray Blatche, the former Washington Wizard castoff, now averaging 11.4 points and 6 boards. Johnson’s camp helped Brook Lopez to have one of the best months of this career. Even during the November hot-streak, Coach Johnson was very realistic about the weaknesses of his team, citing the poor field goal percentage and other issues in his press conferences.
While he may have lost the ear of the team right now, as GM Billy King asserts, he was confident that he could get it back in the next couple of weeks. The reason he was “blind-sided” by this decision was that he didn’t realize how short of a leash he had.
“Maybe ownership thought that when we were 11-4 [in November] that we would go 11-4 every month, the whole season…It’s a tough situation,” said Johnson this afternoon. He was right. That seems to be exactly what ownership expected of a roster with only five returning players from last year. It was surprising that Brooklyn was able to gel so quickly. But when some of the team’s weakness began to show, ownership panicked.
Avery Johnson found out firsthand the difference tbetween coaching in New Jersey and coaching in Brooklyn. Now Brooklyn’s own P.J. Carlesimo will be the interim coach and have the challenge of leading the Nets in their inaugural season.