- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Avery Johnson never saw it coming.
But just 24 days after he was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for November, Johnson was fired by the Brooklyn Nets. Assistant P.J. Carlisemo was named interim head coach, and will retain the rest of Johnson's staff.
A search for a new head coach will begin immediately.
"I just got a sense, as I told Avery this morning, that he just wasn't reaching them anymore," general manager Billy King said at a news conference Thursday afternoon, adding that ownership had final say in the decision.
"The Nets' ownership would like to express thanks to Avery for his efforts and to wish him every success in the future," principal owner Mikhail Prokhorov said in a statement.
The Nets (14-14) won 11 of their first 15 games en route to their best start in franchise history, but have gone just 3-10 in December, which prompted Brooklyn's brass to make a change. They sit in eighth place in the East playoff standings.
"You never think when you're a .500 team and then you're going into two more home games at home that something like this would happen," Johnson, who was in the final year of a three-year, $12 million contract, said at the news conference. "But this is ownership's decision, and this is what we sign up for. This is part of our business. Fair or unfair, it doesn't matter. But again, it's time for a new voice, and hopefully they'll get back on track."
One NBA coaching source told ESPN.com the Nets will start a broad search for Johnson's replacement, including a call to gauge Phil Jackson's interest. Jackson was bypassed by the Lakers in November after Mike Brown was fired five games into the season.
A list of the top available coaching names includes: Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Nate McMillan, Mike Dunleavy, Brown, and ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy and Flip Saunders.
Former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said Thursday he has no interest in the job.
The prospect of a Sloan reunion with point guard Deron Williams seems highly unlikely, however, after the coach's abrupt resignation in Utah in February 2010, two weeks before the Jazz decided to deal Williams to the Nets. But the coaching source did not rule out the possibility that Brooklyn also will reach out to Southern Methodist University's Larry Brown about a possible NBA return given Brown's close association with King.
A source told ESPN the Nets have not yet placed an "official" call to gauge Jackson's interest. Jackson's agent told NBA.com that Jackson has "no interest" in coaching the Nets.
However, if Brooklyn does call, Jackson would entertain the idea in much the same way he did with the Lakers, spending the weekend analyzing the roster and visualizing how he would turn it into a championship team, according to a source.
King told reporters he wants Carlisemo to coach "like he's going to coach the team for the next 10 years," but added that the Nets will "evaluate things as we go."
The Nets' season took a turn for the worse when center Brook Lopez, who was playing the best basketball of his career, missed seven games because of a sprained right foot. The Nets went 2-5 in his absence and have gone just 2-5 since his return. They have not beaten a team with a winning record since Nov. 28.
During their 11-4 November, the Nets allowed just 90.4 points per game. But in December, they've regressed and are allowing 98.9 points per contest.
Ten days ago, Williams, having the worst season of his career shooting a career-low 39.8 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from 3-point range -- criticized Johnson's isolation-heavy offensive system, saying he felt uncomfortable. But both King and Johnson said blaming Williams for the coach's dismissal was "unfair." King added that the players were never consulted, and the GM supported ownership's decision.
"To pinpoint this all on Deron is not fair. He was not the deciding factor in this decision," King said. "It was something in talking with ownership we didn't like the direction we were going."
"I thought from Day 1 (Deron and I) had a really good relationship," Johnson said. "I don't think it's fair for anybody to hang this on Deron. He's one player. We have 15 players, and it's up to the coach to really maximize the team. But at the end of the day, ownership, they're the ones that own the team. We just went through a bad stretch, a bad spell, we couldn't make a shot. But I always thought we were gonna get it turned around, knowing full well that we weren't necessarily finished with (assembling) this roster."
Williams said he expected to be blamed for Johnson's dismissal.
"First of all, I have not had one conversation with (King) about not being happy with Avery, wanting him gone, etc. It's not my fault. But as soon as I heard the news, I knew what was coming," Williams said. "I knew folks would blame me, would assume that it's history repeating itself because of what was said about coach Sloan and me after he resigned. The last thing I would want to do is get coach Johnson fired. Any coach, for that matter.
"Coach Johnson is a big reason why I came back to the Nets this summer, along with Billy. I enjoyed playing for him last year. We never had a argument or a fight. We never got into it, on or off the court. I don't even know why people would assume that."
The Nets spent $330 million in the offseason to upgrade their roster as they moved into their first season at the $1 billion Barclays Center, but have certainly not lived up to lofty expectations. Prokhorov said before the start of the 2012-13 campaign that a successful season would be defined by a possible trip to the Eastern Conference finals. The Nets are currently in the third year of Prokhorov's five-year championship plan.
"That's our goal (a title)," King said. "We started off good, but now we've stumbled, so we've got to get back on track to try and reach that goal."
Johnson was named coach of the Nets on June 15, 2010. In two-plus seasons with the Nets, Johnson compiled a record of 60-116. Johnson arrived in New Jersey with a 194-70 record, a .735 winning percentage that was the highest in NBA history, but had little chance of success in his first two seasons while the Nets focused all their planning on the move to Brooklyn.
"I thought especially under the circumstances that I took this job -- knowing that the first two years we were gonna get beat up pretty bad -- then I thought the third year I'll have the whole third year and the fourth year to maybe really try to put together a championship team, but that didn't happen," Johnson said.
Johnson said it was difficult to coach the Nets without an extension.
"I think any coach, and I got a lot of guys that have called today, you gotta have in this business, you gotta have the power in terms of the ability to coach and the respect. It would help if you do have a contract that the players respect. That's the nature of our business," Johnson said. "And when you don't have that, then, sometimes when things tend to go sideways, you just don't have the full support. And if you don't have the full support of ownership in a lot of different areas, then for the most part it's just not gonna work."
Backup center Andray Blatche was among the first of the Nets players to react to the news, posting on Twitter: "Thanx coach Avery for everything."
Johnson's son, Avery Jr., voiced his displeasure over his father's dismissal with tweets of his own.
"The expectations were way to high for this team. We didn't even have a losing record... Didn't even give my dad a full season. #OUTRAGE" he tweeted. "I'm sorry are best players couldn't make open shots. Yeah that's my dads fault totally..."
King said he expects Williams (bruised right wrist) and power forward Kris Humphries (strained abdominal muscle) to play on Friday night against the Charlotte Bobcats in Carlesimo's Nets' head coaching debut. Humphries had recently fallen out of favor with Johnson and wasn't going to be part of the regular rotation. Johnson also was criticized for playing veterans Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Bogans ahead of MarShon Brooks, who he constantly chided for not playing enough defense. Johnson continued to change up the rotation, but it never stabilized.
Carlesimo has previous NBA head coaching experience in Portland, Golden State and Seattle/Oklahoma City. He owns a career coaching record of 204-296 in the regular season and 3-9 in the playoffs.
ESPN.com senior writer Marc Stein, ESPNLosAngeles.com's Ramona Shelburne and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
9dEthan Sherwood Strauss