Wednesday April 30th, 2008

Avery Johnson was not fired as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks because his relationship with owner Mark Cuban had soured. If Johnson were winning championships, he could have talked to Cuban the way Billy Walsh of Entourage talked to E and the Mavericks owner wouldn't have blinked.

Nor was Johnson shown the door because he clashed philosophically with point guard Jason Kidd. Not specifically, anyway. Johnson and Kidd could have engaged in WWE-style wrestling matches over strategy during timeouts -- just so long as the team was winning.

No, Johnson was fired for the reason most coaches are (or at least should be): He couldn't get the job done in the postseason.

For the second time in as many seasons, Cuban watched his $105.3 million investment exit the playoffs with barely a whimper. Last season it was the fast-breaking Golden State Warriors who sent Dallas packing, dismissing the top-seeded Mavs in six games. It only took five games this season for a young New Orleans Hornets team to bounce Dallas, leaving Cuban seething on the sidelines and in search of a fall guy.

Johnson was it.

Johnson certainly deserves credit for changing the culture in Big D. Under Don Nelson the Mavericks showed only a passing interest in playing defense. With Johnson on the sidelines, Dallas morphed into a stingy unit, ranking sixth in scoring defense this season (95.9 points per game).

That regular season success, however, did not transfer to the postseason. Much like the 2007 playoffs, Johnson couldn't devise schemes to stop the simplest of styles. Golden State ousted the Mavericks by pushing the tempo and playing a smaller defender on Dirk Nowitzki. The Hornets, who utilize the pick-and-roll as a staple, hammered Dallas over the head with it. And everything Johnson threw at Chris Paul, from traps to double-teams to different defenders, failed.

For that he was fired.

But he may not be the only one leaving Dallas.

His dismissal is likely the first in a wave of changes for the Mavericks, which Nowitzki hinted at in his postgame press conference Tuesday night. "I'm sure there are going to be some changes," said Nowitzki. "Once you don't win the championship, you always have to look at what you're going to do to make the franchise better."

Those changes could include Dirk. As disappointing as the loss to New Orleans is, Dallas won't panic and make a knee-jerk deal involving Nowitzki. But after years of steadfastly standing by his star, Cuban (who once refused to include Dirk in any deal with the Lakers for Shaquille O'Neal) may be willing to seriously entertain offers.

And Nowitzki could still fetch a nice price. At 29, he is a year removed from an MVP season and is still one of the league's elite scorers (23.6 points per game in the regular season). What if Miami lands one of the top-two picks? Could a package of Nowitzki and a future first-round pick for Shawn Marion and the Heat's choice entice Pat Riley? Could the Mavs throw in, say, Brandon Bass (the only player on Dallas who showed up for the first-round series) and get the deal done? What about Memphis? Would it package a Derrick Rose/Michael Beasley pick with Mike Miller and salary filler for Nowitzki?

Dallas will also have to explore its options at the center position. If the NBA gave out its version of the Razzie Awards for playoff series, Erick Dampier would sweep several categories. Cuban's $73 million investment contributed no points and no rebounds in Game 5 against New Orleans and was consistently outplayed by Tyson Chandler throughout the series. There is no telling how successful Dallas would have been had it suited up a young, energetic center like Chandler. Defensive rotations would have been quicker. More shots would have been blocked, or at least altered.

Finding that type of player should be one of the Mavericks' top priorities in the offseason. The free agent pickings are slim: Emeka Okafor and Nenad Krstic are out of Dallas's price range and Primoz Brezec and Rasho Nesterovic aren't options. The Mavericks also don't have a first-round pick, having surrendered it to New Jersey in the Kidd trade. If Dallas is looking to replace Dampier, it will have to get creative.

The Mavs may also get creative in replacing Johnson. This will ostensibly be Cuban's first independent hire: He inherited Don Nelson when he bought the team in 2000 and allowed Nelson to groom Johnson as his hand-picked successor. While names of the usual candidates (Rick Carlisle, Paul Silas, Jeff Van Gundy) will be bandied about, it wouldn't surprise me to see Cuban make a big-money bid for Duke's Mike Krzyzewski or Michigan State's Tom Izzo. Krzyzewski flirted with the Lakers in 2004 while Izzo said recently that he would be open to talking to NBA teams.

The Mavericks are in line for an overhaul. Just how big is the only question.

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