Avery Johnson firing is another example of high expectations, low patience

December 28, 2012

See that, Deron. That’s my job you cost me! (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Doc Rivers experienced some lean years in Boston, clashed with his star player and exhausted countless hours preparing underdeveloped talent to get thrashed on a nightly basis.

Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge stayed with him, turned aside catcalls for Rivers’s ouster, and finally gave his coach a championship contender when he traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007. Rivers quickly proved his worth as a coach, mended a once-testy relationship with Paul Pierce and won a championship in one dramatic turnaround season that brought banner No. 17 to the NBA‘s most storied franchise.

Five years later, a few NBA teams have followed a similar formula – hire a former coach of the year, let him suffer through a rough season or two, then acquire some all-stars and let the coach lead the next stage of the evolution – but they are quickly learning that success takes more than collecting a coach and players with established name brands.

Just because you build it, or buy it, a championship won’t come.

In 2012, three coaches have been dismissed – or forced out – because the names on paper and the bloated payroll don’t seem to match up with the mediocre records.

Avery Johnson became the latest victim of what he called the “microwave Twitter age” quest for instant gratification, as the Brooklyn Nets fired the little general less than a month after he earned Eastern Conference coach of the month honors.

Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov had little patience when he was shelling out $88 million for a 14-14 team that was sliding out of playoff contention and losing ground – in the standings and local affections – compared to its city rival, the New York Knicks.

Johnson was given less time than Mike D’Antoni, who helped get the Knicks through the pre-Carmelo Anthony transition period only to resign in March after going 32-42, including the playoffs, with an ill-conceived pairing of Anthony and Amaré Stoudemire, two all-star forwards who occupy the same spots on the floor. D’Antoni’s best run in New York came when the undrafted, twice-cut point guard Jeremy Lin was the primary focus; not the core of the supposed Super Team he was expected to guide back to respectability.

But Johnson got considerably more time than Mike Brown, who was canned by the Los Angeles Lakers after five games with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash (who only played 1½ games before breaking his leg). Now, D’Antoni has the responsibility of bringing all of that talent together; a task that has proven to be more difficult than many expected before training camp, when it appeared that the Lakers had assembled a powerhouse. 

Johnson, D’Antoni and Brown probably were the wrong fits for the Nets, Knicks and Lakers, respectively, but decision-makers didn’t want to waste any time after failing to get  results at the snap of a finger.

The Nets hired Johnson in the summer of 2010, using the same strategy as the Knicks did with D’Antoni. Johnson took his lumps with a sloppily assembled team that was coming off a 12-win season and finally got a respectable talent when the Nets traded a load of prospects and picks to Utah to land superstar point guard Deron Williams.

After two miserable seasons in Newark, the Nets moved into a sparkling new Barclays Center and General Manager Billy King gave him a high-priced lineup that included Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries.

While some saw a point guard and a reckless small forward on the back ends of their primes, an aging shooting guard in steep decline, and a promising but injury-prone center, the Nets promoted this team to a new city as a championship contender.

The disconnect between the roster and outsize expectations contributed greatly to Johnson getting the boot from Brooklyn. Johnson also was reportedly angling for a contract extension, believing that he carried less power and influence as a lame-duck coach.

Williams, whose reputation as a coach-killer was cemented when Jerry Sloan retired nearly two years ago, denied that he played in role in Johnson’s firing, but he certainly didn’t help him stick around. He went from a crotchety disciplinarian with a system that took Utah to two NBA Finals to another authoritarian coach with an NBA Finals trip on a less decorated resume.

But Williams never bought into Johnson’s system or appeared to mesh with him personally. Johnson has had a history of clashing with strong-minded point guards; Jason Kidd had similar struggles in Dallas. The Nets’ isolation-centric offense was efficient, but the limited possessions and Johnson’s aversion to running and pushing the tempo left Williams longing for offense he ran during his hey-day with the Jazz.

And unlike Pierce, who learned to respect and accept what Rivers had to say once the coach had more talent, Williams could never view Johnson as anything more than the same coach who led the Nets to back-to-back lottery appearances.

The Celtics proved that a championship team can come together like instant oatmeal. Now, copycats are seeking similar results even quicker than before. High expectations and low patience suddenly go hand-in-hand. 

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · December 28, 2012

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