Avery Johnson Wasn’t The Problem In Brooklyn

Avery Johnson was fired as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets yesterday, less than one month after winning the NBA’s Coach of the Month award. Ownership, after spending $330 million in the offseason on roster upgrades, wasn’t happy with the team’s progress as they went from an 11-4 record to sitting at .500 with 14 wins and 14 losses. Unfortunately for Johnson, he was never going to see the finished product on this team, as he was in a no-win position as soon as he was hired. As Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote yesterday, the Nets hired Johnson after getting turned down by Tom Thibodeau and Jeff Van Gundy, and he wasn’t necessarily built to last in the long run.

Johnson was hired after the Nets won 12 games in 2009-10. They had just been bought by Mikhail Prokhorov and despite all the negative vibes of a 12-win season, they were talking of a new era with their brash new owner at the helm. Johnson took over a team that not only one 12 games the season before but was destined to spend the next two seasons in the basketball purgatory known as Newark. It was the final stopgap destination before the team made their long awaited arrival in Brooklyn. As soon as they first took the floor at the Prudential Center, it was obvious the team was playing a waiting game to get to Brooklyn. Their marketing, attention and strategy all centered around this season, the one when the Nets aimed to finally take their rightful share of the New York basketball landscape. But first they had to suffer through those two years in Newark, and Johnson was the shepherd leading the herd of uninspired sheep.

In his first offseason with the team, the Carmelo Anthony trade rumors had half of his team on the trade block before the season started and those rumors never quite stopped until the trade deadline – when the Nets acquired not Anthony, but Deron Williams. As I wrote in May, the Nets strategy always revolved around getting a star to be the centerpiece of their move to Brooklyn and they would do whatever it took to keep the star happy. In his second season at the helm (the lockout shortened ’11-12 campaign), trade rumors again made Johnson work with a roster capable of changing at any second, and he never had a chance in his first two years to really mold the team into his liking with the constant rumors and roster maneuvering.

Ultimately, the Nets ended their existence in New Jersey, and Johnson’s record in the team’s last two years there was 46-102. But those seasons really didn’t matter to ownership or Billy King. Ownership knew the team didn’t have the talent to win, but what they wanted was to prove they were committed enough to winning to keep Deron Williams around before the move to Brooklyn and that eventually happened when he re-signed with them this offseason. Along with Williams, the Nets brought in Joe Johnson, re-signed Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Brook Lopez, while also acquiring role players like Mirza Teletovic, Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche. Their total payroll expenditures numbered around $330 million and from that moment on, it was win now or else. Brooklyn was finally here and there would be no more time for losing. The Nets PR machine, led by Brett Yormark, had hyped up the move to Brooklyn so much and were expecting a grand entry into the borough. The expectations were enormous and not necessarily rational. The Nets were expected to contend for the second seed in the East behind Miami, and return to the winning ways of the Jason Kidd era. It was supposed to happen immediately, and for awhile it did.

The Nets started the season 11-4 with wins over the Knicks, Clippers and Celtics, and looked to be a formidable contender in the Eastern Conference. Then it all fell apart. There were blown leads, Deron Williams complaints, and a host of games where the Nets seemed to give in. The team seemed lifeless and when they arrived at 14-14, enough was enough for ownership, canning Johnson without giving him a chance to turn this around.

The Nets were too hyped for their own good. No team with this many new faces ever really gels in the first third of a season. The Heat and the Big Three took a long time to gel and then won a championship in their second year together. These things don’t happen overnight, especially not in 28 games, especially not when your stars don’t play like stars. “Brooklyn’s Backcourt” has been a massive disappointment, as Williams and Johnson have not played close to the All-Star levels they are capable of, and Brook Lopez has been tentative since returning from a foot injury earlier this month. How much of the team’s underachieving is on Johnson and how much is on the players, I’m not quite sure. But firing Johnson doesn’t fix the problems this team has.

It doesn’t fix the unrealistic expectations of ownership for a championship-level roster. It doesn’t fix the disconnect between the hype and the on-court product. And it certainly doesn’t fix a roster that – while high priced – is not really talented enough to be a title contender. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned about the NBA over time, it’s that the players can turn on and off like a light switch. They can play poorly when they want and excellent when they want, and ultimately, they have the power in this world. This was never more evident than when the Nets fired Byron Scott, who was 22-20 during the 2003-04 season. His team was massively underachieving. The Nets then had Lawrence Frank succeed Scott and the team promptly went on a 13-game winning streak.

Will these Nets do the same thing for interim coach P. J. Carlesimo? I don’t know the answer to that – only the players do at this point. But if they don’t start playing better, Johnson isn’t around to blame any longer. He was the first sacrificial lamb of the Brooklyn era, but surely won’t be the last.

Who are the biggest culprits in Brooklyn’s slow start?

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