EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
CAUGHT IN THE NETS
After years of anticipation, two months was all it took for “Hello Brooklyn!” to give way to “Goodbye Avery!” as the Nets fired head coach Avery Johnson on Thursday in the wake of a 14-14 start to the team’s debut season in Brooklyn.
The move was made hastily, but perhaps not surprisingly, by an impatient team — and, more particularly, an impetuous billionaire owner, Mikhail Prokhorov — desperate to recapture the nation’s attention after quickly relinquishing it with substandard play on the court over the last few weeks.
Fair or not, Johnson received the brunt of the blame for the Nets’ December flop, which saw them go from Eastern Conference contender to Atlantic Division punching bag. Johnson was made a scapegoat for the current 3-10 slide that has Brooklyn teetering on the edge of the draft lottery with one-third of the season complete.
“You never think when you’re a .500 team and you’re going into two more home games, that something like this will happen,” Johnson said Thursday at the team’s practice facility. “But this is ownership’s decision. … Maybe ownership thought when we were 11-4 that we were going to go 11-4 every month the whole season, and it just didn’t happen.”
Hard as it is to believe or remember, things actually started well this season for Johnson, who compiled a misleading 60-116 record in two-plus years at the helm of a Nets team that, before this year, was hapless by design as it cleared cap space and prepared for its much-anticipated move to New York.
Johnson earned NBA Coach of the Month honors for November after leading the Nets to the best 15-game start in franchise history. And the torrid November, which included wins over the Celtics, Clippers and Knicks, had some touting Johnson as an early candidate for his second Coach of the Year award.
But with the start of December came a ramped-up schedule, and losses to the Heat, Thunder, Warriors, Knicks, Bulls and Celtics, among others, exposed the Nets as a fraud — or at the very least, not the title contender we thought they were. So Avery, apparently, had to go, at Prokhorov’s behest.
“Watching us, we just didn’t have the same fire that we had when we were 11-4,” Nets general manager Billy King said. “I’ve been trying to talk to Avery, we’ve been trying to figure it out, but we haven’t been able to pinpoint what was missing. When you lose to the Celtics, you lose to the Knicks like we did, you lose to Milwaukee — these are teams that you talk about competing with. It was a pattern.”
The biggest reason for the Nets’ regression has been their defense. During the 11-4 start, Brooklyn held opponents to 44.9 percent shooting and 32.1 percent from 3-point range while allowing an NBA-best 90.9 points per game. But since the start of December, the Nets have allowed opponents to shoot 47.4 percent, second worst in the league, and a third-worst 40.4 percent from downtown while allowing 98.9 points a night.
The more visible issue, however, has been the offense. That has drawn the ire of some of Johnson’s best players, including point guard Deron Williams, who passed up on an opportunity to play with his hometown Dallas Mavericks to return to Brooklyn alongside Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace this summer.
There’s a case to be made that Johnson may be a casualty of Williams’ dissatisfaction with the Nets’ start and his role in it. In recent weeks, Williams, who is largely blamed for forcing Jerry Sloan’s retirement in Utah, has publicly voiced his displeasure at Brooklyn’s isolation-heavy offense.
But Johnson said his firing and Williams’ frustration weren’t directly related.
“I thought from Day 1 we had a really good relationship and I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to hang this on Deron,” Johnson said. “He’s one player, we had 15 players, and it’s up to the coach really to try to maximize the team.”
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Added King: “The one thing I value is the fact that I have a pretty good pulse of players, not just Deron but all our guys. And I just got a sense . . . that, for some reason, (Johnson) wasn’t reaching them anymore. It happens in sports, especially at the professional level, but to pinpoint this on Deron, it’s not fair.”
It’s unclear who will get the next permanent shot at turning this team around. For the moment, Nets assistant and longtime NBA head coach P.J. Carlesimo will serve in an interim role. But names like Stan Van Gundy, Phil Jackson and, in the twist of all twists, Williams’ former coach, Sloan, have been thrown around as possible replacements, though it’s not known how viable any of them are.
Whomever it does end up hiring, Brooklyn won’t be able to make that person a sacrificial lamb should the team’s downward spiral continue. As the Los Angeles Lakers have already shown this season, restoring order to a bumbling, free-spending franchise with high expectations is not always as simple as merely firing a coach on shaky ground — though the guy with the clipboard is almost always the first person to go.
“You’re not going to always get a fair shake,” Johnson said. “If I was owning the team, I wouldn’t have gotten fired today. I wouldn’t have fired myself, because I know what I’m dealing with and I know what the future can hold. But it just doesn’t work that way.
“This is not all about the fair game. A lot of time it’s about the blame game, because for the most part in this business, the coach always gets blamed. Whether that’s fair or not is not the point. That’s just the way it happens.”
And if the Nets don’t return to their winning ways from earlier this season, they’ll be forced to do some sincere reflection on what’s gone wrong, what really has to change, and why a knee-jerk firing of a loyal coach doing the best he could with a roster that didn’t quite fit together wasn’t the answer.
Johnson said he expected to meet with King on Jan. 15, when the team can begin to make trades, to discuss the franchise’s successes and failures so far and establish a direction going forward, perhaps adding and subtracting players as he saw fit. But he never got that chance. And that’s the shame in all this — that Johnson never got to see the project through.
This team spent like the league’s best with little thought given to how its expensive, new pieces would mesh together on the floor, and, predictably, the countless millions haven’t resulted in countless wins. There are a number of directions the Nets could have gone to help rectify the situation, but firing the coach shouldn’t have been one of them.
It’s a raw deal for Johnson, who willingly got crushed for two seasons in Newark, both on the court and by the media, for the sake of a team and its future. It’s an overreaction that will likely only pave the way for another overraction, when the team starts making trades to try to address its flaws.
“I’m not one to shy away from making a trade,” King said. “But it’s trying to figure out what trade to make. Once you start moving some pieces, you’re rearranging the whole thing, so before we do that, we wanted to (do) this, and see where we go from here.”