New Jersey's 2009-10 season -- a miserable stretch of two winless summer leagues, a one-win preseason and a franchise-worst 12-win regular season (three shy of the NBA's all-time record for futility) -- was seconds away from a merciful conclusion, in Miami against the Heat. The score was tied after 48 minutes. And again after 53. Whatever basketball gods the Nets had offended seemed to want one last laugh. Ironically, on this night these were two teams with the same goal.
The Nets, at least in theory, were playing to win. Miami was playing to lose. Sort of. A win for the Heat meant a first-round meeting with the Celtics, who had swept Miami in the regular season and had taken the last 11 of 12 overall. A loss would give them a more favorable matchup with Atlanta. That's why Dwyane Wade, Jermaine O'Neal and Udonis Haslem were in street clothes, and Yakhouba Diawara was playing his first meaningful minutes since mid-December.
But Miami couldn't just give the lowly Nets a win. Going out to a team that dropped an NBA-record 18 straight games to open the season, that lost big (41 games by 10 points or more) and small (11 by four points or fewer), that didn't score (NBA-worst in points per 100 possessions and field-goal percentage) and didn't defend (25th in points allowed per 100 possessions and 27th in defensive field-goal percentage) just could be justified. But the Nets hardly seemed interested in preventing such an outcome. "We had guys on the bench who were like, 'can we get this over with?'" said Nets swingman Terrence Williams.
A couple of threes sealed a 94-86 victory for the Heat, but the finale to New Jersey's nightmare drew an encore. Hours later, as the Nets were boarding a flight home, their plane's engines idled. The equipment truck carrying the team's luggage was stuck under a bridge, delaying the flight for more than an hour.
"That right there," said Williams, "was kind of a fitting end to our season."
Rebuilding a franchise from scratch isn't easy, and it's unfamiliar territory for new coach Avery Johnson, who was hired over the summer in place of KikiVandeweghe. Winning? Johnson's used to that. As a player, Johnson spent 16 years in the league, eight of which were in San Antonio, where he helped the Spurs to 393 wins and the 1999 NBA championship as their starting point guard. It was Johnson who made the last shot of that season, coolly knocking down an 18-foot baseline jumper in the fourth quarter of Game 5 to beat the Knicks.
Swapping Reebok suits for Armani didn't change the results. Johnson took over as coach of the Dallas Mavericks following a brief apprenticeship under DonNelson midway through the 2004-'05 season. Johnson proceeded to win 16 out of 18 games and led the Mavericks to the second round of the playoffs. The following year, Dallas won 60 games under Johnson's leadership and came within two games of an NBA title, with Johnson earning NBA Coach of the Year honors.
Johnson's task with the Nets is a delicate one. And it is his task. He's developed a close relationship with new team owner Mikhail Prokhorov since the Russian billionaire hired him in June. When Nets president Rod Thorn stepped down in July, Billy King was brought in to oversee the basketball operations -- but only after King flew to Orlando to meet with Johnson and earn his seal of approval. King's contact with ownership is primarily through Prokhorov's partner, Dmitry Razumov, but Johnson speaks with Prokhorov several times a month.
Not many positives can come out of a 12-win season, so there is much to correct. Bad habits must be broken. Johnson's first instinct was to cut out the sloppiness, punish every bad pass and correct miscues with an assortment of sprints. On Day 3 of training camp two-a-days, Johnson asked his staff if they wanted one more grueling day.
"Come on coach," assistant Larry Krystowiak said, with a grin. "In our day we had two-a-days through October."
"Don't I know," said Johnson. "But they don't make them like us anymore."
Indeed, in his second coaching stint, Johnson has evolved. The tough love is still there and throughout camp, players received an earful of Johnson's high-pitched Southern twang. But for a team that has known nothing but negativity, running a boot camp can have an adverse effect, a point Johnson drilled home to his staff. "We have to be positive with these guys," Johnson told his coaches. "This team's psyche is fragile. If they get something right, you have to let them know they got it right."
Johnson's belief in his vision of how to start rebuilding this team is unwavering. And over the course of a week's worth of meetings, practices and video sessions, his vision became clear to anyone who witnessed the team's camp.
Hanging above the practice court at the PNY Center was a banner with three lines of bold, red letters:
TRUST YOUR TEAMMATES
TRUST THE SYSTEM
TRUST THE C'S
C's, in this case, referred to the coaches. Last year, the Nets didn't have a lot of faith in them. New Jersey burned through three in 2009-10: Lawrence Frank, Tom Barrise and Vandeweghe. Vandeweghe, the team's general manager, wasn't so much a coach -- in fact, he had never coached at any level before -- as he was a caretaker shoved down from the front office to guide the sinking ship.
As the coaches changed, so did the players' willingness to trust them. "We would come to work every day and it was like, 'here we go again,'" said DevinHarris. "And we got that feeling early. For most teams, you get that feeling in March. We had it in December. It was tough coming to work every day and knowing you weren't getting better."
For Johnson, getting the players to buy in has been a top priority. And to help him out, he assembled a highly experienced staff. Assistants Sam Mitchell and Krystowiak are former head coaches. John Loyer, considered one of the NBA's brightest young assistants, Doug Overton and Barrise are holdovers from the previous regime, while Popeye Jones was on Johnson's staff in Dallas. "Putting together this staff was strategic," said Johnson. "I wanted basketball coaches, coaches who could get out on the floor so I didn't feel like I had to do everything."
In Dallas, Johnson was known to rule with an iron fist. But in New Jersey, his meetings are conducted socratically. Opinions are solicited. Mitchell is usually the first to speak up. The 2006-07 Coach of the Year with Toronto, Mitchell didn't know Johnson beyond an occasional 'hello' before being hired as his lead assistant. But the two share similar defensive philosophies: Know where to be on defense and make sure you hustle over to be there.
In a serious group, Mitchell adds a little levity. On the second day of practice, Mitchell stopped in front of Andre Brown, who strained his hamstring on the opening day of camp. He poked at the tattoo on Brown's arm that reads BEWARE THE BEAST. "Beware the beast?" mocked Mitchell. "[You] got hurt on the first day of practice. Remind me not to take you down a dark alley. That's an whooping for me."
Brown was released three days later.
No one on the Nets staff is as familiar with the roster as Barrise. Sober-minded and a stickler for detail, Barrise was added to Lawrence Frank's staff in 2004 after spending the previous eight seasons as the Nets' advance scout. With Johnson still getting to know the roster, he relies on Barrise to fill in the missing details. At one of the early morning coaches meetings, the discussion turned to young center Brook Lopez.
"Can Lopez make that Tim Duncan bank shot?" asked Johnson, referring to Duncan 's patented elbow jumper. "Because if he can, that could be a big weapon for us down the road."
After pausing to consider the question, Barrise finally responded: "Yes. He can."
Most of the players are eager for the structure. Harris spent three and a half seasons with Johnson in Dallas. Though their relationship ended abruptly -- Harris was dealt to New Jersey in 2008, in part because Johnson wanted the more-experienced point guard Jason Kidd -- Harris lobbied the New Jersey front office to bring in Johnson last summer. Why? "His methods are proven," said Harris. "The stuff works."
During one meeting, Johnson was asked to name his ideal starting lineup. He rattled the names off quickly: Harris. Lopez. Travis Outlaw. Anthony Morrow. And Troy Murphy. Murphy had been limited in practices because of a strained groin, and was later sidelined for the remainder of the preseason with a back injury. "But if Murphy is hurt," Johnson added, "I have no problem starting the rook."
That rook is first-round pick Derrick Favors, the Nets' door prize for bottoming out last season. At 6-foot-10, 246 pounds, the sleepy-eyed power forward is a frightening blend of size and athleticism. But it's the 19-year-old's mental strength that has impressed Johnson the most. "This kid hasn't had one mental breakdown," Johnson said. "You just don't see him making those kind of mistakes."
Of course, there are plenty of physical mistakes Favors needs correcting. It was less than two years ago that he was dunking over future intramural players at South Atlanta High School. With only a year of college-level experience under his belt, the adjustment to the speed and physicality of the NBA has been difficult.
During one scrimmage at camp, Favors was matched up with 6-9, 235-pound Kris Humphries. On his first offensive touch, Favors turned into Humphries and was stripped. On the other end, Favors got caught on a switch and allowed Johan Petro to breeze by him for an easy dunk. "Petro walked through you like you were tissue paper, Favors," Johnson shouted from the sideline. "Play ball."
For every mistake he's made, Favors has offered a glimpse of his potential. During the same scrimmage, he was left open when the defense collapsed on Harris. Harris lofted a pass that appeared to be headed well over Favors' head. But in a sudden burst, Favors elevated, snatched the ball out of the air and stuffed it home.
An All-Star in 2009, Harris is unquestionably the Nets' most skilled player, but the strength and skill of Favors and Lopez are the foundation of the team. No player has sparked more debate among the coaches than Lopez. The 7-foot, 265-pound center established his credentials last season, averaging 18.8 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.
This year, Johnson has demanded more out of Lopez. In his perfect world, a transition play would end with Lopez sealing his man off under the basket and finishing with a quick move around the rim. "He gets pushed off the block too much," said Johnson. "He has to play stronger underneath."
Johnson would like to run most of the Nets' offense through Lopez, much the same way the Spurs did with Duncan. The potential is there, Johnson reasons, it's just a matter of coaxing it out. During one scrimmage, Johnson groaned in frustration when Lopez passed out of a soft double team.
"White team," he shouted into the rafters. "On the line."
Good decisions by Lopez elicit positive reinforcement. A few plays later, Lopez sealed off Petro on the right block and dropped in a nifty hook. "Nobody in the league can guard you one-on-one," Johnson bellowed from the sideline. "It's an insult to you if they try."
Defense was a popular topic in the coaches meetings during camp. Help defense. Pick-and-roll defense. Transition defense. It seemed everywhere the coaches turned, there were mistakes that needed fixing. "We can't skip a step," said Johnson. "With some teams, this stuff is common sense. Not with this team. We have to give them Basketball 101."
Good defense requires good conditioning, and not everyone came to camp in shape. Morrow looked heavy, and Outlaw and Lopez, who battled mono over the summer, appeared gassed during practice. One of Johnson's defensive drills is forcing a defender helping in the paint to sprint out to his man and force him baseline. Twice, Outlaw ran through the drill. And twice, he reacted slowly and allowed his man to beat him to the middle. An irate Johnson rushed over, squatted down in the paint and ran through the drill himself.
"I'm 45 years old," said Johnson. "Get back in there. Let's get it right."
For Johnson, success will be measured in baby steps. The Nets opened the preseason with wins over Maccabi Haifa and Philadelphia before dropping a narrow loss to Boston. A weeklong trip to China yielded back-to-back losses to Houston. The inconsistencies that will plague the team all season -- the defensive lapses, the sloppy technique -- are there, but in the locker room, Johnson pushes the positive: Favors' 14 points in his debut, Lopez's 23 points against Boston 's big frontline, Morrow's 19 off the bench against the Rockets.
After all the negativity of last season, Johnson's goal for himself is to stay as positive as possible. "We have to get rid of the losing mentality," says Johnson. "The 90-percent-negative responses don't work here. They need to hear something good. It's going to be a long process. And it begins now."