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Friday, December 28, 2012

Avery Johnson is a Victim of Unrealistic Expectations

Avery 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:28 AM

7 comments

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7 Comments:

At Sunday, December 30, 2012 7:17:00 PM, Anonymous Raj said...

"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)."

This seems like specious reasoning to me. How does height have anything to do with Chris Paul's performance this season or his ability to lead the team in the playoffs? And why shouldn't Chris Paul be considered as important as Cousy, Archibald, or Thomas?

 
At Monday, December 31, 2012 7:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Raj:

It is not "specious reasoning"; it is a statement of fact: the NBA has existed for more than 60 years and there have not been many franchise players who were barely six feet tall.

The "reasoning" that explains why this is the case can be found in this article: Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA.

Cousy, Archibald and Thomas are each among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history (as selected in 1996). Cousy and Archibald made the All-NBA Team while playing for a championship team and Thomas played at an All-NBA level for Detroit's championship teams. It remains to be seen if Paul can match those accomplishments.

 
At Thursday, January 03, 2013 6:00:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

With all respect to Cousy, the celtics had a monopoly on the nba and there were only 8 teams when he played. On athleticism alone, he probably would barely make the nba today, if that, and he certainly wouldn't be any franchise player. I'm not as high on Paul as most, but I think he's franchise player material, at least top 7-8 in the league this season probably. Well, he's probably next in line after Kobe, Durant, James, and Anthony this year so far. Melo is legit this year, but it's how they can incorporate Amare into the team which is huge. I'm glad you didn't mention Love. He's playing like garbage this year.

While I don't think firing Johnson was a good idea, at least wait til end of year, he's doing pretty poorly, and is in the weaker conference. He has 3 at least borderline AS plus some good role players. I guess it just takes some time.

 
At Friday, January 04, 2013 5:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Since there were only a handful of teams in Cousy's day, that means that the players who made it to the NBA were the elite of the elite; on the other hand, the league discriminated against black players and had yet to tap into the European, Asian and African talent pools.

The idea that Cousy would barely make the NBA today is ridiculous. Do you think that Stockton or Nash are more "athletic"--however you define that term--than Cousy was? Jason Kidd is still in the league based purely on savvy long after he lost most of his foot speed. Cousy was both quick and savvy and if he were playing today he would be one of the top five point guards in the NBA.

Maybe Paul is one of the top "7-8" players in the league but I am not convinced that there are seven or eight franchise players in the league at any given time, nor am I convinced that a 6-0 (if that) player can be the best player on a championship team when the best players on the other contenders are significantly bigger and at least as skilled, if not more skilled. I loved Mark Price; he is one of my all-time favorite players and he is vastly underrated by the casual fan: he was arguably the best point guard in the NBA for a brief time in the early 90s. What happened in the playoffs when the Cavs faced the Bulls? The Bulls put 6-8 Scottie Pippen or 6-6 Michael Jordan on Price. Price could not guard those guys nor could he consistently elude them. The Bulls rarely did that during the regular season but they regularly did that during the playoffs. If Paul gets the Clippers past the second round then he will face defenders and defensive schemes that are not used in the regular season and it will be interesting to see how he responds to that challenge.

 
At Friday, January 04, 2013 11:16:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

Jason Kidd is 6-5, can still play quality defense, can guard multiple positions, and shoots extremely well. All of these qualities don't pertain to Cousy.

I've seen video of Cousy, and it's nothing like today's players. It's pretty much in slow motion. He might make the nba, but to say he would be a top 5 PG today is utterly ridiculous, especially given how many great PGs we have today.

Nash is actually pretty athletic and is a larger PG. But, Nash's PG skills are phenomenal, maybe best we've ever seen. I'm not that high on Stockton, he's more of a career player who never was elite, but he's the all-time assists/steals leader, was a great defender, and was a ridiculously better shooter than Cousy. Given the lack of any kind of quality defense, playing with HOFers who came off the bench for his team, and an 18ppg career average for Cousy, I would think he'd be a great shooter, which is not the case, just .375. Even for his era, that is terrible.

 
At Friday, January 04, 2013 1:27:00 PM, Anonymous Abacus Reveals said...

I got two words for Mikhail Prohkorov (sp?).

Bill Laimbeer

 
At Friday, January 04, 2013 3:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Kidd is listed at 6-4, not 6-5, and since I have actually stood next to him I can assure you that it may be a bit of a stretch to even call him 6-4. In any case, this is not about height but about savvy. Cousy was both quick and savvy and he would thrive in today's wide open game that does not allow hand checking. You say that Cousy's field goal percentage was "terrible" but the reality is that, for a variety of reasons, few players shot better than .400 during Cousy's era; the reasons include playing conditions, travel conditions and different rules regarding contact. Also, I think that at least in some of those early seasons missed field goal attempts when a player was fouled counted toward the player's field goal percentage (I don't have the precise information handy about that rule). Cousy ranked in the top 10 in free throw percentage eight times, so he was a very good shooter.

Many of your comments (in this thread and others) betray a lack of knowledge about basketball's early eras. When one speaks of how a player might perform in a different era one has to consider the total context (rules, travel conditions, diet/conditioning, etc.). If one transplants Chris Paul back to the 1950s one has to make certain adjustments and the same goes for transplanting Bob Cousy into the 2000s. However, it is undeniable that Cousy was quick not only physically but also mentally, two traits that would have helped him to excel in any era. The great player from basketball's early days who might have had the most difficult time in later eras is George Mikan, who struggled after the introduction of the shot clock (and the widened lane) sped up the game and opened up the court.

 

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