Johnson couldn't meet expectations -- and paid with his job
There are expectations that come with being in command of the Nets, expectations that were never there before. These are not your father's Nets, not the stumbling, bumbling bunch that played in front of sparse crowds in New Jersey, not the team that -- save for a few years with Jason Kidd -- could be content with making the playoffs, took pride in raising Atlantic Division banners. The rise of the $1 billion Barclays Center, the investment of $88 million in the payroll, the promise of billionaire owner Mikhael Prokhorov to win a championship by 2015 has upped the ante, setting a high bar that must be met, or heads were going to roll.
Head coach Avery Johnson became the first casualty of those expectations, fired after a disappointing 14-14 start. An 11-4 open to the season has been erased by losses in 10 of Brooklyn's last 13 games, bottoming out with a humiliating 93-76 loss to rival Boston on Christmas Day that made some around the league wonder if the players had quit. It was a decision made by Nets GM Billy King, sources say, without consulting anyone on the roster. Nets CEO Brett Yormark tweeted an apology to Nets fans after the blowout loss to the Celtics but Yormark -- who is a business and marketing man tasked with bringing events to the Barclays Center -- is not involved in basketball decisions and, with this regime, never will be.
Johnson got the axe and, in many ways, it was deserved. The Nets offense was as predictable as it was ineffective, averaging 94.5 points (21st in the league), shooting 43.8 percent from the floor (19th) and 34.4 percent from three (21st). Opposing scouts throw around words and phrases like "stagnant" and "too much one-on-one" when describing the Nets offense, while last week point guard Deron Williams went public with his dislike for Johnson's isolation-heavy system.
"Everything Deron said," said a Western Conference scout, "was 100 percent right. That offense isn't very creative."
In truth, Johnson was never King's guy. He was hired in 2010 by a team president (Rod Thorn) with one foot out the door. The two co-existed well enough but Johnson's lust for power, for personnel control always made the pairing a little uncomfortable. Johnson worked hard to cultivate a relationship with Prokhorov, occasionally mentioning to reporters the direct contact he has with the Russian billionaire. And when the ridiculous signing of Travis Outlaw to a five-year, $35 million contract comes up, team sources are quick to point out that was a Thorn/Johnson signing that happened before King came on board.
The Nets will likely conduct a national search for a new coach -- assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo is not expected to be a long term replacement -- and money, as you might expect, will be no object. They will kick the tires on Phil Jackson, Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Van Gundy, while a source said, for now, there was not much interest in Nate McMillan. Yormark has a soft spot for John Calipari -- he has made one trip to Lexington this season and would like to bring the Wildcats to the Barclays Center next season -- but for now, King is in control.
Plucking a big name this late in the season, however, will be difficult. Jackson, rival executives believe, is likely to pass on any potential offer, his interest in coaching limited to specific situations (read: Lakers, Clippers). Jeff Van Gundy has shown no interest in leaving the broadcast booth and in an email to SI.com Stan Van Gundy said he had "no interest at all" in the Nets vacancy.
Whoever holds the job -- King says Carlesimo has "our full support"--had better be good, because the Nets roster is locked in. King says he is not afraid to make a deal but the flurry of signings last summer has left the Nets with a roster full of big contracts and limited assets to trade. Williams is battling through a brutal start to the season, with his lowest scoring average (16.6 points per game) since his second season and his lowest field goal (39.8) and three-point (29.5) percentage ever. Johnson, too, has struggled, with his lowest scoring output (16.9 points per game) since his days in Phoenix.
Yes, the pressure is on in Brooklyn. For years the Nets waited for the day they could move to a new building, the day they could spend gobs of money, the day they could realistically expect to compete with the Knicks. Those days are here, now. And as Avery Johnson learned, there is a lot of pressure that comes with them.