TrueHoop: Avery Johnson

Nets core issues cost Johnson

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
5:24
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
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Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Avery Johnson, Deron Williams and the Nets were just .500 when Johnson was fired as head coach.
A promising November gave way to a disastrous December for the Brooklyn Nets, as not only did the team go 3-10, but its three wins all came against teams with losing records. The net result was Avery Johnson losing his job, but the underlying statistical reasons for the Nets disappointing start are many and encompass all facets of the game -- offense, defense and personnel.

The recent narrative for the Nets has been a lack of offensive execution, as both Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace have voiced concerns with the offense. The team does rank second-to-last in the NBA in pace but its true shooting percentage stayed consistent -- 52.5 percent in November, 52.6 percent in December.

The biggest change has come on the defensive end -- the team was ninth in opponents points per 100 possessions in November (100.0) and 28th in December (108.6).

The offense isn’t completely off the hook, though. Under Johnson, the Nets experienced the biggest drop-off in offensive efficiency, field goal percentage and rebound percentage between the first and second half of any team in the NBA this season. They've lost a league-leading six games this season in which they led by at least 13 points.

But the real issue with this team might not be coaching or offensive philosophy, but rather the personnel on the court. The Nets invested heavily in the Williams-Joe Johnson-Brook Lopez-Wallace core, and it simply has not lived up to its billing this season.

Williams, the franchise cornerstone, is putting up his lowest Player Efficiency Rating (17.1) and lowest assist-per-40-minutes marks (8.7) since his rookie season of 2005-06, and his field goal percentage (39.8) would be the lowest of his career.

Of the 151 players who are averaging at least 25 minutes per game this season, Williams (52nd), Lopez (74th), Johnson (83rd) and Wallace (87th) all rank outside the top 50 in Win Shares. Lopez has missed seven of the team’s 28 games, including six in December during which the Nets went 1-5. Meanwhile, Wallace has scored in single digits more times (10) than he’s scored 20 or more (2).

Is it possible this isn’t just a bad system fit or small sample size, but rather players in decline? Joe Johnson’s current PER of 13.6 is nearly five points lower than his mark last season and would be his lowest since 2002-03. Wallace’s PER is on a much more sustained nosedive, going from 18.6 to 18.3 to 16.2 to 15.9 to 14.6 since the 2008-09 season.

But perhaps most alarming of all is the multi-season shooting decline from Williams, who has seen his true shooting percentage drop from 59.5 in 2007-08 – which ranked tied for 29th in the NBA that season – to 51.6 this season, good for T-188th.

Thursday Bullets

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
4:52
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Avery Johnson and the expectations game

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
3:28
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Mike Ehrmann/NBAE/Getty ImagesIn 28 games this season, Avery Johnson couldn't point the Nets in the right direction.

The buzzards had been circling in Brooklyn over Avery Johnson for the better part of two weeks. After finishing November at 11-4, the team has dropped to 14-14 and sits at .500 in an Eastern Conference where any team worth its salt should be winning more than it's losing. Not satisfied with their level of saltiness and with the losses piling up, the Nets dismissed head coach Avery Johnson on Thursday, with P.J. Carlesimo serving as head coach in an interim capacity.

Public expressions of discontent are among the surest signs of trouble for a head coach, and those voices had grown increasingly audible in recent days. Less than half an hour after the Nets' dispiriting loss to Boston on Christmas Day, Brett Yormark tweeted, "Nets fans deserved better today. The entire organization needs to work harder to find the solution. We will get there."

Late Wednesday night in Milwaukee, where Brooklyn, without Deron Williams, looked terrible in a 108-93 loss to the Bucks, Gerald Wallace let loose: "It seems like guys are content with the situation that we are in, and I'm f------ pissed off about us losing, especially losing the way we are losing."

While Yormack's remarks were general, and Wallace's were targeted at teammates, point guard Deron Williams was more explicit 10 days ago when he cited what he saw as flaws in the Nets' offensive schemes as the major symptom. Williams waxed nostalgic for Jerry Sloan's flex system, praising the constant motion that facilitated an easy offensive flow, a direct jab at Johnson (and one laced with irony given Williams' grouchiness in Salt Lake City). Meanwhile, Knicks guard Jason Kidd -- not exactly Avery Johnson's biggest champion in Dallas -- challenged Williams' premise: "I don’t think it has anything to do with the coach ... I think it’s just a matter of getting comfortable making shots."

Almost every NBA team has a degree of internal rivalries and grumbling. But the Nets aren't your average NBA team in your average NBA market with an average set of expectations. In New York, the light bulbs flash brighter, the microphones are larger, the media pricklier and the fans are always restless.

That's all true whether or not a franchise is coasting or, in the case of the Nets, has drawn up some of the most aggressive designs for organizational renovation the NBA has ever seen. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has no qualms about the Nets sitting in tax territory for the immediate future. They handed both Deron Williams and Brook Lopez the max, absorbed Joe Johnson's enormous contract and shelled out big money for Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries.

Big payroll aside, the optics -- and Oculus -- loom large. The Nets play in the most ambitious arena built in North America in decades, a building into which Prokhorov invested heavily. And they also have a formidable measuring stick across the East River in Manhattan. Although the Nets weren't exactly looking to take a large bite of the Knicks' market share so much as expand the base of NBA fanhood in the city, the Knicks' rosy success so far has cast an imposing shadow. Had the Knicks fallen flat, both teams could've bunked together in New York Fan and Media Jail. Instead, the Nets have the entire joint to themselves (though they share a wall with New York's pro football teams).

How much of this is Avery Johnson's fault? That depends on how much you believe player performance is dependent on coaching. If you're Avery Johnson's son, an admittedly partial source, the onus falls on the players. Soon after the firing was announced Thursday, the younger Johnson tweeted, "I'm sorry are best players couldn't make open shots. Yeah that's my dads fault totally..."

The kid has a point. Is it Johnson's fault Deron Williams has missed 166 shots outside the paint this season for a ghastly effective field goal percentage of 41 percent from that range? Is it on Johnson that Williams, while not altogether wrong about the contours of the offense, couldn't do what max point guards do -- wield his exceptional individual talent to make the system work?

In recent days, Johnson has ripped several pages from the Utah playbook, installing some tried-and-true flex actions -- baseline screens for cutters who move directly into the next off-ball screen. The results were mixed, but for all the talk about an underachieving offense -- and the Nets have most certainly failed to maximize their assets on that end of the floor -- the team has lost a lot of basketball games in December because it fields the NBA's 10th-worst defense.

When Johnson was in Dallas coaching the elite Mavericks teams of the mid-2000s, "42" was one of his mantras, as in success for his team would be measured in large part by the defense's ability to hold the opposition to a field goal percentage of less than 42 percent. Only a handful of teams are able to accomplish that more times than not, but the Nets are rarely one of them.

It's difficult to assess to what extent Johnson's coverages are at fault. Lopez's skills as a pick-and-roll defender are remedial (his Synergy stats indicate proficiency, but they don't account for demands Lopez places on baseline and top-side rotators). Johnson's menu of options at power forward don't leave him much to work with. Wallace is active, while Johnson has size, but Williams has never demonstrated the instincts or commitment of a quality defender on the ball (though he'll body up in the post).

Schemes and strategies aside, the assignment of blame is one of the trickier exercises in pro sports, because everyone orders the list of NBA coaching responsibilities. Some NBA players want a guy who they can trust, others don't care so long as they get minutes, while others simply just want a friendly workplace where the boss isn't up in their face all day long.

For management and ownership, those aforementioned expectations are everything, especially this season in Brooklyn. Putting an inferior product on the floor, getting embarrassed on national television, crossfire in the tabloids -- it just can't happen. And from the perspective of most owners and managers, maintaining morale ranks just behind winning as the top deliverable for an NBA coach.

Intelligent people can disagree about whether the Nets spent their money well, or whether general manager Billy King has good taste in basketball players, or whether Williams is a coach-killer, or whether it's the coach's job to horse-whisper a temperamental floor general just as the player has the responsibility to do what he can with the coach's system.

But Prokhorov isn't going anywhere, and King has furnished the roster with enough paper tigers to deflect blame (for the time being) and the contracts on the team's books aren't very movable.

That left one remaining party, the guy sitting in the first chair on the bench -- the loneliest seat in basketball.

 

Brent Barry's report from Daryl Morey's conference

April, 7, 2010
4/07/10
9:41
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Brent Barry has been thinking about statistics.

"Statistics," he says, "are like bikinis. They're really nice to look at but they don't tell you the whole story."

Barry attended the recent MIT Sloan Sports Conference with an NBA camera crew, and captured meaningful insight from the likes of Bill Simmons, Daryl Morey, Adam Silver and Mark Cuban.

My favorite moment comes when Barry asks Johnson if stats have ever really helped him as a coach, and Johnson talks about when he coached the Mavericks in a playoff series against the Rockets.

The numbers showed that Dallas was getting killed whenever Brent's brother, Jon Barry, checked into the game.

Brent, at this point, accuses Johnson of lying.

Then Johnson goes on to explain how, with this insight, the Mavericks changed tactics and went small whenever Jon Barry checked into the game, and it turned things around for them.

When I saw that Mark Cuban had written a long blog post about the Mavericks, before I read it, I paused, and asked myself: What am I hoping for here? What could he say that would fill me with confidence about a brighter future in Dallas? For whatever reason, I thought it would be nice to have just a little talk about lessons learned. Some acknowledgement of a mistake or two. Some taking responsibility, and explaining how the hard knocks of this season will pay off in the future.

There's really not any of that.

There's also really not any discussion of Avery Johnson's departure. (There's a weird schedule thing, whereby this post has a date from May 2, but didn't appear that I'm aware -- nor get any comments -- until today. I suspect most of this was written before Johnson was fired.)

The most interesting part of the post, however, was Cuban's behind-the-scenes discussion of the Jason Kidd trade. He goes into some nice detail about the things happening on the basketball court that led to the decision, and the things happening with the salary cap after the deal.

One missed opportunity for a mea culpa: Cuban says the trade left Dallas with an improved financial picture. That assessment would hinge on there being some value in getting rid of Devin Harris's contract. What Cuban doesn't acknowledge is that the Harris contract was ripe for ditching only because of the five-year contract extension Cuban gave him just last September.

If you give a player a contract that is then great to get rid of -- even though you acknowledge the player is excellent -- don't you have to admit that you made a bad deal? (When his five-year extension was announced last summer, even a blogger who loves Devin Harris was a little worried about the length.)

In recent days, fired coach Avery Johnson has given the impression that he was opposed to trading his "son" Devin Harris for Jason Kidd -- a trade that in retrospect looks not to have achieved its goals.

Cuban says in this blog post that Cuban, Donn Nelson, and Avery Johnson each had veto power over the trade for Jason Kidd, and every trade.

The most interesting part of Cuban's post is a look at the process of actually making trades. Cuban descibes that at some length, and in so doing takes a little shot as practically every GM in the NBA:

GMs get on the phone and talk and talk and talk. But rarely is the GM actually empowered to make a trade. So they play the game of "having to go back to their owners."

I would tell Donnie all the time, "You have the authority to say yes, when they get to the point of commitment." When we thought things would get close, we would get the "Now I have to get my owners permission." It's almost comical how unable some GMs are to pull the trigger in the NBA. It's a game they all agree to play. They pretend they have authority, until it's go time.

I have never seen so much time wasted in my life. I feel sorry for Donnie having to deal with all that nonsense.

You can listen to Avery Johnson's first interview, post-firing, with Galloway and Company. He says that his son had an accident at school, and had to be taken off on a stretcher. That's the most pressing thing, no doubt, although Johnson says he'll be fine.

Most of all, he says that everything is amicable with Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban, and I believe him. He says he got great calls from Doc Rivers, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich ... it's nice to hear about people being civil to each other. He also says his agent has already gotten some calls from other teams. 

Johnson was asked what he thought about the Jason Kidd trade.

First of all, I think it would be an injustice to Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson, Keith Grant, and everybody in that organization  ... it would be an injustice to Jason Kidd, my son Devin Harris -- who is like a son to me -- I don't want to drag their names through any mudslinging. Whatever happened, it happened, and now we just all have to move forward.

That's very civil, and it's not saying much.

But it's not how you talk if you liked the trade. 

Later, when asked what he would have done differently, he says:

Maybe I should have given the ball to Devin Harris a little bit earlier. Maybe started developing him a little bit earlier. 

That's the only regret he could come up with. 

He also addresses Josh Howard, mainly by saying Howard has been good to him, and anything that happens is water under the bridge. 

My main thought, listening to this?

No chance this man is not employed next season.

(Thanks to Tim for the heads up about this interview.) 

Tim McMahon of the Dallas Morning News Mavericks blog writes:

The Mavs are trying not to use their small backcourt (Devin Harris and Jason Terry) too much this season. So I was a bit surprised to see that Harris and Jet are most effective when they're on the floor together.

Stats geek site 82games.com has the proof in their pairs plus-minus stats. The pair of Harris and Jet is plus-14 per 48 minutes. Harris is Jet's best plus-minus partner; Jet is tied with Dirk for Harris' best.

"It doesn't surprise me," Avery said when I ran the stats by him. "That is a pretty lethal combination. I think what happens though is, if that combination is on the floor for long minutes every game, then that combination or that plus-minus starts to change around mid-March."

Is that because Avery thinks the guards will get worn down?

"I don't think they'll get worn down," Avery said. "I have some pretty reliable information -- some past history."

Very interesting for a few reasons:

  • A clear example of the schedule keeping a team from playing its best on any given night.
  • Plus/minus is apparently informing Avery Johnson's substitution patterns (click and read the whole thing).
  • More evidence that the Mavericks are not sweating the regular season too much, planning insread to peak in the playoffs. This may be one of the only specific examples, I'm sure there could be many others that no one has found out about yet.

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