Johnson a bad fit for revamped Nets, but problems run deeper than coach
By Rob Mahoney
Some thoughts on the Nets’ decision to fire coach Avery Johnson on Thursday:
• Brooklyn’s decision to dismiss Johnson after a 14-14 start seems to reflect a disconnect between the team’s expectations and the realities of its roster. A few talented pieces does not a championship contender make. Brooklyn has some star-level players with offensive games that can mesh, but it lacks the personnel to defend reliably. Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson do nice work on that end, but anchoring an entire team defense from the wing is pretty much impossible barring the inclusion of a singular player with a transcendent skill set (read: LeBron James).
That pins the team’s defensive fate on the slow gait of Brook Lopez, the poor awareness of Kris Humphries and the utter haphazardry of Reggie Evans — a combination that has fairly earned the Nets’ well-below-average defensive marks. Virtually the only thing that Brooklyn does well on D is avoid fouling, and for that we can only credit the fact that the space given by the Nets’ defense and the slow recovery therein decreases the incidence of personal fouls. With a style so conservative and defenders who are a step late or caught with their heads turned, it’s not all that surprising to see Brooklyn’s posting one of the best foul rates in the league.
Such is the lot of a team that attempted to rebuild a franchise on name recognition and cash in on boroughed appeal. General manager Billy King and owner Mikhail Prokhorov needed some kind of star power to get Deron Williams to recommit, and so last summer they quickly agreed to a four-year, $40 million contract with Wallace, acquired the wildly overpaid Joe Johnson (four years, $89.3 million left on his contract) and — soon after Williams landed his five-year, $98.8 million deal — made Lopez rich ($60.8 million over four years) beyond imagination in their efforts to cement a proven core. It was enough to intrigue Williams, but only at the cost of tying up the team’s finances while creating as many defensive questions as offensive answers. The Nets were constructed with obvious urgency, and unlike the Celtics or Heat or any other shotgun superteam, this franchise is marked by its haste through clear limitation.
All things considered, the run of offseason splurges bought Brooklyn a winner and nothing more. There was no 50-win guarantee inherent in this roster, nor any promise of being anything greater than a sure playoff team. There was also clearly going to be a learning curve with Avery Johnson (who has butted heads with every competent point guard he’s ever coached) and Williams (who is notoriously prickly) feeling out one another, not to mention the process of making order from an entirely new roster. These assumptions were written on the warning label when this team came together, and they remained pertinent even as Brooklyn won 11 of its first 15 games. The NBA season is a zig and zag of winning streaks and trying stretches, and the Nets’ strong start hardly made them any better than their roster would reasonably allow.
• I wonder if Johnson’s firing is in some way connected to the success of Brooklyn’s crosstown rivals, a team that the Nets associated themselves with by choice. The games between the Knicks and Nets this season have taken on a hyper-competitive air that seems completely organic, but those on the Brooklyn side have pretty clearly telegraphed their intentions of turning matchup sparks into a legitimate fire. Every media-induced prompt regarding the Knicks became a launchpad for comparison between the two franchises, and the Nets never once shied away in their attempts to claim reign of the city.
That all makes for some nice theatrics, but it also juxtaposed the performance of both teams in the most direct way possible. No matter what became of the Nets’ season, they would consistently be evaluated alongside the Knicks (and vice versa). As such, perhaps no team has suffered more from New York’s early-season salvo than Brooklyn — with Avery Johnson as the rivalry’s first casualty. Obviously, the Nets are an organization with agency all their own, but their rival’s success could only have contributed to the pressure that caused King’s patience to burst.
• The first half of this season has made it abundantly clear (as if there were any doubt) that coaches are viewed as replaceable and interchangeable commodities. The Nets and Lakers both spent their summers chasing big-name stars, and each had a well-compensated, established coach set to helm the next stage of its evolution. That didn’t stop either Johnson or Mike Brown from being discarded rather easily, as the threshold for dismissing an underachieving coach with a quality roster might be lower than ever before.
There’s also a discussion to be had about the dynamics of coaching job security in general, with Johnson as a convenient case study. It’s fairly clear that Johnson isn’t an ideal coach for this roster, as he has yet to show the schematic know-how to turn an out-of-its-league defense into something a bit more competent. If a resolution could be reached by merely manipulating matchups to create advantages for specific lineups (as was the key to his defensive achievement during his tenure in Dallas), then the Nets’ problems would be well within Johnson’s grasp. But the task at hand requires a far more severe adjustment, as some tactical wizardry would be in order to get all of these limited components in total working order. With the core players essentially cap-locked in Brooklyn, it’s the principles of the defensive system that must be adapted to fit the personnel — and that fundamental compromise has historically not be one that Johnson, a hard-liner to the core, has been willing to make.
Frankly, not all that many coaches who would be up to the task of making the Nets’ defense significantly better. But Johnson had the misfortune of having a team that didn’t quite fit the tenor of his coaching — a process that essentially highlighted the incompatibilities between Johnson and his players. Even with all of that working against him, Johnson has at the very least continued to tweak his approach in search of what might work. He’s flipped through several options within his rotation, trying out every combination of big men possible in hopes of finding the right fit. He’s integrated more continuity sets into the Nets’ offense since Williams aired his grievances. He still makes all kinds of mistakes, but I don’t know that he’s done a poor enough job to warrant dismissal.
But does that even matter? Does a team, strictly speaking, need an explicit reason to fire a coach aside from the fact that it sees a stylistic incongruency between players and system, or has eyes for an alternative on the market? With Johnson earning the same paycheck regardless of his job status, I do wonder if security should at all be assumed, or if the Nets as an organization have any implied right to give their employees the benefit of the doubt (or the luxury of even half a season to get things right).
Implicit somewhere in this dynamic, too, is the plodding pace of Johnson’s system, which creates the illusion of a poor offensive team (only 94.5 points per game!) while also strapping the Nets’ stars from greater creative freedom. Iso-heavy focus aside, Johnson’s preferred style grinds out opponents with execution — a choice that by design has the Nets as the slowest-paced team in the league. That limits opportunities in transition, precludes players from padding their stats with extra possessions and keeps a talented group within the rigid confines of the half court.
Never mind the fact that Brooklyn, through struggles and all, still has a top-10 offense in terms of points scored per possession; the Nets’ players (and perhaps managers?) only see low per-game numbers in team and individual contexts, a trick of the numbers that makes Brooklyn seem more impotent offensively and more effective defensively than it really is. Even setting aside the fact that most players categorically prefer the up-and-down style that allows everyone to get theirs, the Nets’ performance is done no justice by the fun-house mirror effect of traditional, per-game evaluations.