Avery Johnson is a Victim of Unrealistic ExpectationsAvery Johnson won the Coach of the Month Award in November and the Brooklyn Nets fired him in December. Did Johnson suddenly forget how to coach? No, he is simply the latest in a long line of NBA coaches who are victims of unrealistic expectations held by owners and/or executives. It is not clear why so many people believe that the Nets as currently constructed should be a championship contender; I predicted that the Nets would finish seventh in the Eastern Conference and the 14-14 Nets are currently in eighth place in the East, right about where I expected them to be and right about where they probably will finish.
Maybe the Nets will throw a huge pile of money at Phil Jackson and perhaps the Zen Master can push the Nets up to the fifth or sixth seed--but, regardless of who is at the helm, this team lacks depth and is one injury away from possibly not even making the playoffs: the Nets went 2-5 when Brook Lopez sat out due to injury. Lopez is a good, solid big man but hardly a franchise player. What will happen to the Nets if Deron Williams or Joe Johnson miss a few games? Both former All-Stars are performing well below their usual standards but if either player is out of the lineup the Nets will be in serious trouble.
Williams is the person who looks the worst in this scenario; he talked his way out of Utah and convinced the Nets to build their franchise around him but he has regressed as a player, he publicly whined about his role (which may have contributed to Johnson being fired) and he has shown no indication that he is capable of being the best player on a championship contending team. The terms "franchise player" and "elite player" are very overused; at any given point in time, there are only a handful of legitimate franchise players in the NBA. In the past decade or so, franchise players who have led their teams to at least one NBA title include Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James. The 2004 Pistons did not have an All-NBA First Team player but they had an ensemble cast of four All-Star caliber players and the 2008 Celtics similarly split up franchise player responsibilities among Kevin Garnett (who made the All-NBA First Team that season), Paul Pierce (who won the Finals MVP) and Ray Allen. Dwyane Wade went nuts in the 2006 NBA Finals after the Dallas Mavericks focused their defense on Shaquille O'Neal, who made the All-NBA First Team that season (Wade made the Second Team). Wade displayed franchise player qualities during that title run but he also presided over Miami's collapse once injuries and age prevented O'Neal from being consistently dominant. I have never considered Wade, even at his best, to be quite equal to James and Bryant at their respective bests, though I know that other people hold Wade in higher regard than that--but a lot of those people ended up looking silly when they kept insisting that Miami was still Wade's team even after James led the Heat in just about every important statistical category.
Right now, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant are the only full fledged franchise players in the NBA; James is the best player in the league, Durant is right behind him and Bryant--who was the league's best player for several years until James surpassed him late in the 2008-09 season--is still playing at a high enough level to lead a team to a championship (assuming that the Lakers actually put a healthy team around him). A fully healthy Dwight Howard is a franchise player but Howard is not fully healthy. Chris Paul is a great player but there have been very few franchise players who were barely six feet tall (Bob Cousy, Nate Archibald and Isiah Thomas). Russell Westbrook could be a franchise player if he improved his shot selection. It is way too soon to anoint Carmelo Anthony as a franchise player--though that has not stopped many people from doing so, much like many people prematurely praised Gilbert Arenas (I'll take the current version of Anthony over the 2007 version of Arenas but I will not take either of those players over the current versions of James, Durant or Bryant). Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki used to be franchise players but age/injuries have knocked both players off of that pedestal (though Duncan is still very effective and Nowitzki will presumably return to All-Star or even All-NBA form once he is fully healthy again).
Anyone who understands the preceding analysis realizes that it is silly for the Nets to fire Johnson after 28 games; Williams is not a franchise player nor is he surrounded by a championship caliber supporting cast. Johnson's replacement, at least on an interim basis, is P.J. Carlesimo, a good college coach who has a .408 regular season winning percentage as an NBA head coach and has never won a playoff series. Carlesimo inexplicably played Kevin Durant out of position at shooting guard, a mistake that Scott Brooks immediately corrected after he replaced Carlesimo. If the Nets do not replace Carlesimo soon then their best case scenario is probably a first round loss as the eighth seed--and it is possible that they will miss the playoffs.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:28 AM