Late last week, Avery Johnson was reminded of a painful fact of life for every NBA coach: they are hired to be fired. He’s the second one to lose his job this season, following Mike Brown, who was let go after the Los Angeles Lakers' 1-4 start. No one will compare either to Phil Jackson, but both have had tremendous success in their time in the NBA. They became scapegoats for their teams’ disappointing play, but the issues with the Lakers and Brooklyn Nets go far beyond the coaching staffs. NBA teams hold coaches to a stricter standard than they do GM’s, yet a coach can only be as good as the players his front office gives him.
Firing Brown certainly hasn’t fixed the Lakers. Neither Brown nor Mike D’Antoni can make Dwight Howard’s recovery from back surgery any quicker or ensure Steve Nash can stay in the starting line-up. And even if the Lakers' stars are 100% healthy in the playoffs, their supporting cast’s lack of speed and shooting ability will still haunt them. The Princeton offense Brown installed may not be any more suited for the Lakers stars than the uptempo style D’Antoni prefers, but every offensive system requires role players who can stretch the floor just as every defensive system requires players who can stay in front of their men.
Yet, for all their problems, the Lakers are still in much better shape than Brooklyn. The Nets have a $90 million payroll and championship expectations, but they don’t have a championship-level roster. After an 11-4 start to the season that netted Johnson the Coach of the Month Award in November, they fell back to Earth in December, culminating in two ugly 15+ point blowouts and a 14-14 record that cost Johnson his job. His rigid offensive sets may not be the best fit with Deron Williams’ skill-set, but he wasn’t the one who assembled a roster without any interior defense.
In an interview with the New York Times earlier in the season, Brooklyn GM Billy King said he built the team to compete with the Miami Heat. There is some superficial logic to his claim: the Nets have an All-Star caliber player at point guard (Williams) and center (Brook Lopez), the two weakest positions in the Heat’s starting lineup, while they have big, physical wings in Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace to match-up with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. However, it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny: no team with as little frontcourt defense as the Nets has ever defeated LeBron James in the playoffs.
The common theme in LeBron’s playoff exits has been a elite defensive center capable of preventing him from dominating the paint. Here are the centers who defeated LeBron from 2007-2011: Rasheed Wallace, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett (twice), Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler. Even before he developed a low-post game, there was no way for a team without an athletic big men to prevent the 6’9 270 LeBron from running a train at the front of the rim.
For all the concerns about the Brooklyn offense, its still rated much higher (10th) than their defense (18th). Lopez has many offensive gifts, but he is a finesse scorer who needs help defensively and on the glass. His career rebounding percentage (13.3) is one of the lowest of any center in the NBA. None of this is insurmountable, but it does mean he needs to be paired with a frontcourt partner who can make up for his weaknesses, someone like the hyper-athletic Derrick Favors, whom Brooklyn dealt to get Williams two years ago. Kris Humphries, who averages 0.7 blocks a game, isn’t that guy and neither is Wallace, a converted swingman on the wrong side of 30.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has said that anything less than a berth in the Conference Finals would be a disappointment, but it’s hard to see this core pulling that off, regardless of the coach. Even if they don’t wind up on the Heat’s side of the bracket, they’ve fallen way behind the pace of the Knicks, who have exactly the type of interior defensive presence (Tyson Chandler) Brooklyn so desperately needs next to Lopez. Atlanta, Joe Johnson’s old team, is currently in third place: how would the Nets match up with Al Horford and Joe Smith in a seven-game series?
To be fair to King, Brooklyn’s future would look a lot different with Dwight Howard, whom they nearly acquired this summer. King may also be a victim of Prokhorov’s mandate to contend immediately: it’s not as easy to buy a title in the NBA, with its byzantine system of salary cap and luxury tax restrictions designed to “ensure competitive balance” and protect the owners’ pocketbooks, as it is Europe’s more free-market sports leagues. The Nets would have a more promising future if they had kept the three lottery picks (Favors, Enes Kanter and Damian Lillard) they dealt for Williams and Wallace, but they wouldn’t be any closer to contending this season.
None of that changes the Nets second-round ceiling, which is clearly unacceptable to Prokhorov. However, as long as he keeps his checkbook open, things aren’t hopeless. They may still be able tobuy their way out of the hole King has dug by using expiring salaries to deal for interior defense in the same way the Mavs used Erick Dampier’s contract to acquire Chandler in 2011. In the end, King’s creativity will be what determines whether Brooklyn becomes a title contender, not whoever he ends up hiring to replace Johnson full-time.
That isn’t to diminish the impact a head coach can have. If a coach can’t command the respect of a locker room, no amount of tactical acumen will be able to save him. At the same time, elite teams can be compromised by their head coach’s inability to make tactical adjustments. Cleveland fans will always wonder what would have happened if Brown had played LeBron at the 4, while Scott Brooks’ refusal to make adjustments in a critical playoff series has cost Oklahoma City dearly in each of the last two seasons.
A coach can only play the cards his GM gives him. It’s different in college basketball, where the head coach doubles as the GM. In the NBA, most coaches end up taking the fall for mistakes their GM’s made. Randy Wittman (Wizards) and Keith Smart (Kings) are widely rumored to be next on the chopping block, but the problems with the Wizards and Kings go way beyond whatever poor soul is tasked to win games with their poorly constructed rosters.
Kings GM Geoff Petrie earned a lot of goodwill for the elite teams he built in the early 2000’s, but Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs in seven seasons. In that time, they’ve had six head coaches. Washington has had four head coaches since they last made the playoffs, yet GM Glen Grunwald actually got a contract extension in 2012. The most important personnel decision Prokhorov made in Brooklyn wasn’t re-signing Williams or replacing Johnson; it was letting someone with King’s checkered history as a GM run the show in the first place.
When a ship is sinking, instead of rearranging deck chairs, maybe we should start worrying about whose actually been piloting it.
is tough to coach. That's how it seems to me and GM's, fans need to be more patient. The Lake Show, Nets and Celtics stacked a team with veterans and wanted instant success but they need time to gel. Maybe Mike Brown and Avery said if I get this, this and this, I can win now and then didn't? IDK, but the hook came early for those guys and now a team is going to have to learn a new system on the fly.
I understand why GM's want to wait to the deadline to make trades intended to improve their team (someone could get hurt and it changes plans and may redirect assets or the direction of the team may change) but to me the earlier the better. It gives a team more time to gel and become acclimated with each other. I respected Sam Presti for the move he made and how quickly he made it. It should give Kevin Martin as much time as possible to gel with the team and coaching staff. The same may be true for coaching changes. If you know you are going to dump a coach, then just do it. You could be wrong though, I thought the Clips should dump Vinny early last year, but I turned out wrong. They have excelled although I still have a small sparkle of a feeling its been remarkable despite Vinny, not because of him.
King knew that he had to blame some one and blaming the guy who assembled to team wouldn't have got anybody fired except him. The Laker's only concern was keeping Kobe and Dwight happy. So Brown who admittedly knows nothing of offense was scapegoated.
San Antonio wasn't build in a day!
June 25, 1997
Tim Duncan drafted #1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs
The Nets are a brand new team with a new fan base, new players, and a new owner. They don't want to have patience, as you could tell by them nabbing an old Gerald Wallace to a long-term deal and Joe Johnson with a terrible contract. They thought it would be easy and as soon as they realized it wasn't and the Knicks are having so much success, they needed a change, for money's sake. They did not want to lose their newly acquired fan-base so they fire the coach.
Tough for a guy like Avery that I think could have actually done something nice with this team given the proper amount of time.
Is so true. Thats why I say firing coach Smart won't do a damn thing. You can be an average coach and still succeed in the nba. It starts in the front office. Some coaches have players pushed onto them that they would have never drafted.There's a lot more to it than just firing coaches to fix a problem.
Kissing owner's a$$ and firing the guy you hired, who still gets paid? That's the way GM's escape scrutiny. Just convince the owner he doesn't know jack about basketball and then hire only people loyal to you, that way you can keep your job long enough to turn it around, ala David Kahn. Jim Paxson even drafted Lebron and outside of a ownership change he would have kept his job despite being 1 for 15 on decisions of importance.
Nice win for the Nets at OKC last night.
Billy King probably isn't a good GM, but you also can't really say he did a bad job. Howard should have carved his own path and his own destiny and come to Brooklyn. The hype is real out here. Packed houses and celebrities at every game. And all this while the Knicks are having their best season in 20+ years. Imagine if this was last year pre-Linsanity when the Knicks were losing. Anyway, King did what he could and he built a playoff caliber team. Lopez is probably years away from his prime (assuming he doesn't get injured). And a big scoring center is as good a center piece as any to build on in the future. No one is winning a championship without a franchise level player and you generally don't get those easily. So championships aren't really realistic despite what the owner says.
Agree that coaching is not as important as the front office. But PJ is almost certainly an upgrade in coaching from Johnson. No disrespect to Johnson, but PJ has more than THIRTY years more experience coaching basketball (he started as an assistant in 1971 (when Avery Johnson was six) and has basically always been employed as a basketball coach since then).