Michael Scotto, SNYNets.com
Avery Johnson used the phrase “Hello Brooklyn” as much as any member of the Brooklyn Nets organization, but unfortunately for him, he was the first member to say goodbye.
On Dec. 27, general manager Billy King announced that the Nets relieved Johnson of his coaching duties and named P.J. Carlesimo interim head coach. Johnson finished with a 60-116 record (.341 winning percentage) in two plus seasons with the Nets, a far cry from the 194-70 record (.735 winning percentage) he amassed as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks.
Johnson’s firing made NBA history, as the Nets became the first franchise to fire a coach one month after winning a Coach of the Month Award. After leading the Nets to an 11-4 start, Johnson was named the NBA’s Coach of the Month for November.
Johnson leaves the Nets with a poor record, but he was hired to coach a Nets organization that was in a transitional phase. When he took over in 2010, he was sold on the vision of moving to Brooklyn and building a championship caliber roster. Until then, he had to bide time for two years. During those two years, Johnson was coaching borderline NBA Developmental League rosters. The Nets landed high lottery picks and dangled them as trade assets and cleared cap space with the hope of landing marquee free agents upon moving to Brooklyn. Whereas in Dallas, Johnson coached a proven core of veterans including Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Jerry Stackhouse during his three plus seasons.
After two years of waiting for serviceable talent to mold, Johnson got an improved roster this past summer. The Nets brought in nine new players, re-signed their major free agents and, as a result, had heightened expectations.
With a healthy starting five of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez, Brooklyn began their new era with an 11-4 record. Brooklyn beat the Boston Celtics twice and defeated their inner-city rivals, the New York Knicks. The Nets also beat the team that currently has the best record in the NBA, the 24-6 Los Angeles Clippers.
Unfortunately for the franchise, Johnson’s Nets began to unravel in December and got away from the type of winning basketball they played in November.
In December, the Nets lost 10 of 13 games, including five of the six games they played without injured center Brook Lopez. Without Lopez, the Nets offense became stagnant and managed to score just 93.1 points per game. Making matters worse, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson continued to struggle shooting the ball and concerns about their ability to play together grew.
In Atlanta, Johnson dominated the ball as the primary playmaker, but in Brooklyn he’s been used off the ball or in post ups isolated on either wing.
Williams, on the other hand, is in the worst shooting slump of his career, shooting 40 percent on the season and 30 percent from beyond the arc.
A frustrated Williams spoke with the media about his struggles within the Nets offense this season in comparison to his peak years with the Utah Jazz under coach Jerry Sloan.
“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,” he famously said.
Once Williams took an indirect jab at coach Johnson’s offensive system, the hot seat began to get warmer in Brooklyn.
After falling to third place in the Atlantic Division with a 14-14 record, Avery Johnson was fired.
During a press conference, King stressed “a pattern that kept happening” under the watch of Johnson. Part of that pattern included blowing a number of double-digit leads throughout the season, which I outlined in my previous column.
Ironically, both King and Johnson had their own “pattern” during the press conference. Both made sure the blame was not placed on Williams for the firing of Johnson.
“To pinpoint all of this on Deron (Williams) is not fair,” King said. Johnson later echoed that sentiment. “I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to hang this on Deron,” Johnson echoed.
Williams told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith he had no conversations with King about any unhappiness with Johnson, but assumed he would be blamed for Johnson’s firing due to the similarities between the firing of coach Sloan in Utah.
“The last thing I would want to do is get Coach Johnson fired,” said Williams. “Any coach, for that matter.”
In fact, Williams called Johnson “a big reason” why he re-signed with the Nets as they moved to Brooklyn.
Williams also excluded Johnson from any blame for his poor play thus far.
“I also said that I had to figure out how to play with Joe Johnson, because in my heart I know that I’m the one playing like crap,” said Williams. “Is it Coach Johnson’s fault that I’m playing bad? Hell, no! I’m the first one to accept accountability for the way I’m playing. And my family, people who know me, know I would be the first to admit that.”
While Williams was at the center of controversy, he’s only one player on a 15-man roster.
With that in mind, Johnson had a significant affect on the growth and decline of several players this season, which must be taken into account.
Johnson revitalized the careers of Andray Blatche, Jerry Stackhouse, and Keith Bogans.
Johnson got the most out of Blatche by playing him at center. In doing so, Blatche showed his promising talent from Washington prior to the team amnestying him for being a locker room malcontent.
Blatche has turned into one of the steals of the offseason for Brooklyn.
Jerry Stackhouse was pigeonholed around the league as washed up and over-the-hill, but after coaching Stackhouse for four seasons in Dallas, Johnson knew the veteran in his 18th year had some pep in his step.
Stackhouse has been a lethal corner pocket three-point shooter for Brooklyn and a veteran leader in the locker room.
Johnson also values defense and was a big fan of Keith Bogans for his perimeter defense and ability to spread the floor with his three-point shooting, starting him in 10 of 24 games after the veteran appeared in only five games all of last season.
The rise of Blatche, Stackhouse, and Bogans has led to a decline and underwhelming start from MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, and Mirza Teletovic.
Brooks entered the season aiming for the Sixth Man of the Year Award, but has gotten more splinters than shot attempts under Johnson in his second year. Brooks has averaged only 11.2 minutes per game after starting 47 games last season and averaging 29.4 minutes per game.
Humphries has struggled alongside Brook Lopez since re-signing with Brooklyn. Humphries was demoted to the bench and recorded a DNP-CD before Johnson’s firing after averaging a double-double the past two seasons.
Teletovic came over heralded as the best European player on the market and a knockdown stretch power forward. A poor defender at best, Teletovic failed to grasp Johnson’s in-depth defensive schemes and saw limited action for most of the season.
As a result, Brooklyn made a calculated risk in firing Johnson 28 games into the season and replacing him with interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo.
In his last 122 games as a head coach, Carlesimo has had pitiful results. Carlesimo has a 27-95 record (.221 winning percentage) during that span.
Although he was an assistant under Gregg Popovich for three of the San Antonio Spurs title runs, Carlesimo is most notably known for being choked by Latrell Sprewell during their time together in Golden State.
Brooklyn sees Carlesimo as a temporary fill-in. With an inexperienced coaching staff in Doug Overton, Popeye Jones, and Mario Elie, Carlesimo got the job based on his experience.
King hopes he can persuade a high profile coach along the lines of Phil Jackson, Stan or Jeff Van Gundy, or Jerry Sloan to right the swerving Nets ship.
However, this remains to be seen and King is working against the odds of luring these high profile figures out of retirement.
Coincidence, or not, the fact that Deron Williams has been at the center of controversy for two coaches being fired will give any possible candidate pause for the job going forward.
Lastly, as Avery Johnson said, “This is not about the ‘fair’ game. A lot of times it’s about the blame game.”
With Johnson gone, the onus falls squarely on the players and general manager Billy King to make Prokhorov’s goal at the beginning of the year to contend for the Eastern Conference title a reality.
Michael Scotto is an Analyst for SNYNets.com. Follow him on Twitter for the latest news from Brooklyn and the NBA: @MikeAScotto