Avery Johnson may not have been the Nets’ first choice, but might turn out to be the best choice for what they need after one of the worst seasons in NBA history.
Injuries and bad breaks led to 18 consecutive losses to start the season. A lack of coaching, leadership and accountability was why they won just 12 of their remaining 64 games after they were mostly healthy.
They lost all those things when Lawrence Frank was fired, but now have it again in Johnson, the Nets new head coach and first of the Mikhail Prokhorov era.
As a player, there was no questioning Johnson’s leadership and desire. He bounced around for most of his 16 NBA seasons, but spent a good chunk in San Antonio where he played with David Robinson and Tim Duncan and helped the Spurs to the 1999 NBA championship.
As a coach with the Mavericks from 2004-08, Johnson compiled the best regular-season winning percentage in NBA history –- which undoubtedly will take a big hit. But 194-70 (.735) is eye-popping.
No, the Mavericks weren’t the Knicks or Heat of the 1990s, but at least they tried to guard, which is more than can be said for the Nets recently. Those Mavericks won at least 60 games in back-to-back seasons and won the Western Conference championship in 2006.
“I think if you look at Dallas, after Avery took over in the course of a month or so defensively they got better from the standpoint of field goal percentage went down,” Nets president Rod Thorn said today. “Not that they were known as a really tough team, but I think they got a little more physical. I think they were known as a team that was prepared and played hard.
“Those are the types of things we’re hoping to get here.”
But Johnson’s failings get more pub than his success. If you don’t know all of them, here’s a refresher:
The Mavericks were up 2-0 and led at halftime in Game 3 on the Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, but Johnson was outcoached by Pat Riley the rest of the way and Dallas lost the series. Dwyane Wade and the officiating had something to do with it.
The next year, Dallas won a league-high 67 games before being humbled by the eighth-seeded Warriors in the first round. The first of back-to-back first-round exits that eventually sent Johnson to ESPN as an analyst.
Johnson sometimes clashed with Devin Harris and flip-flopped a couple of times about whether he was in favor of the trade for Jason Kidd.
All of that is noted, but it’s part of the past and you have to believe Johnson learned from his experiences, learned from being out of the game, learned some humility from being passed over for the Hornets’ job in his home town of New Orleans and all of that will make him a better coach.
Know this, Harris is on board and happy that he’s reuniting with Johnson.
Additionally, regardless of what happens in free agency, this very young team needs to be taught. They need to be developed. They need to be held accountable. They need to be expected to play defense. They need to have plays called for them once in a while. They need a system. They need a voice. (Johnson has a great one). They need a leader.
They had none of that for the final 64 games.
Thorn made a mistake giving Kiki Vandeweghe the reins, but he had his reasons. Tom Barrise would have done a better job and the players would have respected him more.
Vandeweghe lost the players early because of his allegiance to Yi Jianlian –- everyone noticed plays were being run for him in the fourth quarter of blowouts –- and for favoring Harris. It’s still a mystery why Brook Lopez didn’t get more touches. You know he’s happy someone will be on the sidelines.
Other coaches, namely Mike Krzyzewski and Jeff Van Gundy would have been great choices, but neither wanted to leave their current jobs.
Tom Thibodeau probably would have been a good choice too. He doesn’t have head coaching experience and no one really knows his voice, but he has the respect of the Hall of Famers in Boston and of the opponents his defensive schemes are keeping in check.
The Nets ended up with Johnson, a no-nonsense player and no-nonsense coach who will put in the work to make sure the team is prepared, plays hard every night and is the kind of coach they need.
“Players are very astute about coaches,” Thorn said. “If they feel that a coach is not prepared or doesn’t know what he’s doing, players pick it up in an instant. Or if they feel that some guys are held accountable and some aren’t they also pick that up in a hurry. And I think if you’re firm, but fair and if you treat people with a modicum of respect that you tend to get respect.
“I think with Avery, I think our players will read about what his record is, what he’s done as a member of a championship team and will be very receptive to his message. I think from that aspect it will turn out very well.”
Follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/Al_Iannazzone.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)