By Ben Golliver
The sequence of events that unfolded in recent days for the Brooklyn Nets has been seen so many times in the NBA that it begs an obvious conclusion.
The short version: Star guard Deron Williams, playing well below his capabilities on a mildly underachieving team, says he isn't as comfortable with Avery Johnson's system as he was with that of Jerry Sloan, his Hall of Fame former coach; the team continues to lose, dropping a showcase Christmas Day game against the Celtics in ugly fashion; and ownership abruptly fires the coach. Who gets the lion's share of the blame from the national media and other observers? All together now: the star guard who softly tossed his coach under the bus.
Williams, as you might expect, says the Nets' decision to fire Johnson isn't that simple, even though Sloan's coaching career came to a fast end with the Jazz after reports of disagreements with Williams.
In an interview with ESPN.com's Stephen A. Smith, Williams admitted that he has been "playing like crap" but insisted that the coaching change wasn't his doing and this his comments about his comfort level in Johnson's system were accompanied by other statements in which he took responsibility for his play.
"First of all, I have not had one conversation with [general manager Bill King] about not being happy with Avery, wanting him gone, etc.," Williams told me Thursday, just hours after Johnson was fired. "It's not my fault. But as soon as I heard the news, I knew what was coming. I knew folks would blame me, would assume that it's history repeating itself because of what was said about Coach Sloan and me after he resigned."
"The last thing I would try to do is get any coach fired," Williams said. "I already went through that situation once when people thought I got Coach Sloan fired. Why would I want to put myself through all of that? There's no way I'd do it, because there's certain situations you can never detach your name from once it's happened. But people already are going to believe what they believe. So what can I do now?"
The New York Times reported that Williams believed Johnson would still be coaching the Nets if he had played better and he denied having any role in the coaching change. The paper also reported that Williams and Johnson often weren't on the same page and that a "friend" of Johnson's said Williams "quit" on his former coach.
That was only a fraction of the heat sent Williams' way over the last 24 hours. On Thursday night's Inside the NBA, TNT commentators Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal pointed the finger at Williams, saying it was time now for him to play better and take more accountability for the Nets' 14-14 season. ESPNNY.com transcribed the comments.
"He's got the reputation of getting coaches fired," Barkley said. "Whatever happened in Utah [head coach Jerry Sloan resigned], it happened. Whatever happened in Brooklyn, it happened. This is all on Deron Williams right now. It's time to put up or shut up."
"Sometimes before great players point fingers, they should look in the mirror," O'Neal said. "This is the first time I've heard the guy with the ball at all times say that he doesn't like the offense. My advice is for him to look in the mirror and see if he's doing enough. At times, I think he's trying to do too much. There are only 24 seconds on the shot clock and he spends 10-12 seconds dribbling between his legs. He needs to get everyone else involved and himself involved. ... He's not really playing that well."
Plenty of other media outlets criticized Williams, who signed a five-year, $98 million extension with the Nets over the summer. Nets management attempted to defend Williams from that line of thinking during a news conference on Thursday. Nets GM Billy King said the decision to fire Johnson came from management, that it was motivated by Johnson's inability to reach his players and that assigning blame to Williams for the change was inappropriate.
“To pinpoint this on Deron, it’s not fair,” King told reporters. “He was not the deciding [person] in this decision. In talking with ownership, we felt like we didn’t like the direction that we were going.”
Johnson, for his part, also defended Williams from criticism, the New York Daily News reported, and noted that being in the final season of a three-year contract made his position more difficult.
“Well, I thought from Day 1 (Williams and I) had a really good relationship, and I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to hang this on Deron,” the coach said. “He’s one player, we had 15 players, and it’s up to the coach really to try to maximize the team. But at the end of the day, ownership, they’re the ones that own the team. . . . In this business you’ve got to have the power, in terms of the ability to coach and the respect. It would help if you do have a contract that the players respect. That’s the nature of our business, when you don’t have that, sometimes the things tend to go sideways; you just don’t have the full support and if you don’t have the full support of ownership in a lot of different areas.”
As The Point Forward's Rob Mahoney noted, the Nets' problems run deeper than just Johnson and that firing him doesn't fix the situation. Barkley and O'Neal hit on the easiest way for the Nets to improve: Williams, a headliner on The Point Forward's All-Disappointing team, must play better.
Regarded as one of the league's elite point guards coming into this season, Williams, who has been playing through ankle and wrist injuries, is averaging 16.6 points and eight assists. Those marks represent his lowest scoring output since 2006-2007 and his lowest distribution numbers since his 2005-06 rookie season. Meanwhile, he's shooting career lows of 39.8 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from three-point range. After ranking No. 4 among point guards in Player Efficiency Rating in 2010-11 and No. 7 in 2011-12, Williams currently ranks No. 21, well below what you would expect from a player who has made three consecutive All-Star Games.
Williams, 28, now finds himself stuck in a Catch-22. Fair or not, the malcontent, coach-killing label has been firmly applied. Going forward this season, he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. If he continues to struggle, his reputation as a perennial All-Star will take a beating. If he turns around his play, his character will take the lumps because the improvement will be seen as evidence that he was dogging it under Johnson.
The worst part for Williams, who made no secret of his frustrations during back-to-back lottery trips with the Nets over the last two seasons, is that there are no readily available magic solutions. Brooklyn's salary cap is logjammed and the assembled talent is, more or less, what he will have to work with over the next season or two, at the very least. He committed to the organization when he agreed to sign his extension and the coach whose system he didn't thrive in is now gone.