Moke Hamilton, SNYNets.com
NEW YORK — That Avery Johnson was fired was not much of a surprise; the timing of it was.
After essentially agreeing to inherit a roster full of marginal talent and biding time until the Nets moved to Brooklyn, Johnson was given 28 games to show what he could do with a roster that was admittedly better than it was in years past.
Privately, I’ve been told that an 18-10 record would have prolonged Johnson’s tenure as the head coach in Brooklyn. Apparently, 14-14 just wasn’t going to cut it.
Though it was easy to make the case that Johnson deserved more time—and it’s a case that I made because I believed that he did—it’s obvious that the Nets are a different team under its interim head coach, P.J. Carlesimo.
Since taking the helm of the struggling franchise, Carlesimo has led the Nets to a 5-1 record. Under Johnson, the team had a horrible December, winning just three of its 13 games.
It took Johnson 11 games to win just three in December. In January, Carlesimo’s Nets are three-for-three.
In all fairness, four of those five victories came against the likes of some of the NBA’s lowliest teams—the Charlotte Bobcats, Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings. Combined, those teams are 33-99 and each have much better odds of winning the NBA’s 2013 draft lottery than making the postseason.
But you know what? That’s doesn’t really matter.
In the NBA, few coaches have ever been fired because they lost to teams they were supposed to lose to. Johnson wasn’t fired because the Nets lost to the Miami Heat on Dec. 1 or Oklahoma City on Dec. 4. And he was not let go because his Nets could not beat the New York Knicks on Dec. 11.
Now, it’s become clear that Johnson was let go because his team tuned him out and stopped playing for him.
Unfortunately, in this league, it happens. Last season, Mike D’Antoni experienced that in New York and the year before, Jim O’Brien suffered the same fate as the head coach of the Indiana Pacers.
If any of the Nets players were unhappy with Johnson’s departure, they sure had a funny way of showing it. Back on Dec. 28—the day after Johnson was fired—the Nets hosted the Charlotte Bobcats. In the locker room before the game, the scene was uncharacteristically jovial, complete with guffaws, hand slaps and jokes.
It was light hearted, to say the least.
Collectively, the gang looked nothing like a team that was upset to have lost its head coach. And since then, the play has spoken for itself.
The “can’t quit, won’t quit” attitude this team showed in Oklahoma City on Jan. 2 and in Washington on Jan. 4 is proof, no matter what the members of the team say publicly. The spirited efforts in each of those games became a distant memory in December.
Perhaps Johnson could have gone 5-1 over these past six games, as well. But after going 3-10 in the month of December, did he earn that opportunity?
Fortunately, that decision is well beyond my pay grade, but as someone who covers this team, I can say that it’s difficult to argue with the results—both on the court and off of it. All around, lately, the Nets have been a different team.
In the five victories, the Nets are averaging 107.6 points per game. The Nets $50 million trio of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez have averaged a combined 64 points in those contests.
Regardless of the quality of competition, those results speak volumes and so does the fact that, against the Thunder (Jan. 2), Wizards (Jan. 4) and Kings (Jan. 5), the Nets have scored over 100 points in three consecutive games for the first time this season.
For whatever reason, the team has come alive since Johnson’s ouster and that’s something that many have noticed, including one of the players Johnson alienated, MarShon Brooks.
“We just wanna go out there and give everything to P.J. [Carlesimo],” he said after scoring 15 points against the Kings on Saturday night.
When asked if there was a different energy about the team under Carlesimo, Brooks thought about it for a moment and frankly asked a rhetorical question.
“Yea, it seems like it, right?”
When asked how, he continued. “We got back to it on the defensive end and we’ve been getting some fast break points,” he said.
Each of those, mind you, are representative of increased energy and fight. Things we didn’t see under Johnson.
That’s something that Williams agreed with, as well. “I think we woke up,” Williams said. “I think that was the eye opener when coach got let go, that we had to play better. We knew we were capable of playing better, just for some reason, we couldn’t get out of the rut we were in.”
He continued, “We realized we just gotta play basketball. I think we bounced back from the adversity pretty well. I think we responded well and fought back and that’s all we can ask for.”
For what it’s worth, Williams refused to mention challenging for the division title or making a deep playoff run when asked what the team’s realistic goals should be for the remainder of this season. “I just wanna play basketball, keep winning as many games as possible, get into the playoffs and see what happens from there,” he said.
And from here?
These Nets seem to be in pretty good hands, even if Carlesimo doesn’t remain at the helm for too long.
When Mikhail Prokhorov addressed the media back on Dec. 28, he said that the organization supports Carlesimo and that he would be given the opportunity to earn the job on the permanent basis and that the team would look to bring in a coach from the outside, consulting with “the usual suspects” only if it was “necessary.”
Though it’s still early in his tenure, Carlesimo has provided the Nets with a much needed jolt of energy, because missing out on the playoffs in its inaugural season in Brooklyn would have been a disaster for this franchise. And the way the team looked under Johnson, that seemed possible.
“If we play hard, we’re gonna win a lot of games,” Williams said before leaving Barclays Center on Saturday night. “We’re a talented team and and we know that. As long as we have the energy and the effort, we’re gonna win games.”
Thus far, they have and for Nets fans, hopefully, this six game sample is an omen of what lies ahead in the immediate future.