By Steve Lichtenstein
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The end was no surprise, but I was a bit shocked by the timing.
I would have never guessed that Brooklyn coach Avery Johnson would fail to make it into the New Year, but I guess if I committed $330 million to turn around a franchise, as Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prohkorov did, I might have been just as quick with the trigger.
The Nets, in the midst of a dreadful 3-10 December swoon that knocked them down to .500, fired Johnson today. Assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo will take over as interim coach starting with tomorrow’s home game against Charlotte.
I believe it was the right move.
Johnson’s 60-116 record as Nets’ coach is a bit misleading once you take into account the franchise’s tank jobs in their final seasons in New Jersey. It was all to prepare for this season, the Nets’ first in their sparkling new building in New York City. Prohkorov opened his wallet for general manager Billy King to improve the team’s personnel and expected positive results.
After an 11-4 start, the Nets have slid in the standings and are on the fringes of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. That wasn’t part of Prohkorov’s Master Plan.
Contrary to his son’s tweets, Johnson’s demise was of his own making. Even during the Nets’ hot start, there were signs that the team was veering off track.
There were all those the blown second-half leads, with the team’s third quarter blues most disturbing, usually an indication that the coach has not caught up to his opponent’s adjustments. I can see Prohkorov, known to be a hyper-competitive soul, gnashing his teeth after that early loss to Minnesota and wondering why it kept occurring.
There was my biggest pet peeve, Johnson falling in love with the small-ball cult, in spite of not having a roster equipped to play that way. I wasted too many words on this in my last post, so let’s just agree that it was Johnson’s choice to change his team’s style and bears responsibility for the results.
And, maybe most significantly, once the losing started, Johnson managed to alienate his star, point guard Deron Williams. I’m sure there will be various thesis written about Williams’ involvement in today’s event, with the term “coach-killer” bandied about loosely. In Utah, coach Jerry Sloan acknowledged that his relationship with Williams was a factor in his decision to resign after 23 years.
Unfortunately, that’s life for all NBA coaches. It’s up to the coaches to design systems that maximize their stars’ production. When that doesn’t happen, it’s rarely the star that gets jettisoned. Then again, Williams was traded to New Jersey shortly after Sloan’s announcement.
Williams tried to be subtle in his infamous press conference, insinuating that his less-than-stellar statistics were partially related to his needing more time to adjust to Johnson’s offensive system. While the media ate that up for its shock value, there was some truth to it.
The Nets’ offense too often stagnates, with possession-after-possession of isolation plays. Guard Joe Johnson, who was the Nets’ most significant offseason acquisition, has not played consistently enough to warrant a heavy dose of such plays. And neither has center Brook Lopez since his return from the foot injury that cost him seven games. Williams was left to play Beat The Shot Clock.
Williams hasn’t helped matters by attempting to play through assorted injuries, finally taking a night off in the Nets’ last game in Milwaukee on Wednesday with a sprained wrist. Williams’ shooting numbers, both from the field and three-point range, are at career lows. It makes Williams an easy target.
Unfortunately for Avery Johnson, Williams was no longer alone in speaking out. After the Bucks’ debacle, forward Gerald Wallace lashed out at the team for the growing list of subpar performances.
This past week, with three of four games ending in garbage time, seemed to have pushed Prohkorov and general manager Billy King past their breaking point.
There was little question in my mind that a change was going to be needed. We’ll see if the Nets’ brass can now find someone to turn around the team’s woes.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.