Sources familiar with the Pistons' courting of Johnson told ESPN.com that Tuesday would be a decisive day, exactly one week removed from the dismissal of Michael Curry.
Pistons president Joe Dumars had his first face-to-face meeting with Johnson at the latter's Houston-area home Sunday night, which was followed by ongoing discussions between the sides Monday.
If they can't strike an agreement on financial terms and other job parameters by Tuesday, Dumars and Johnson both appear prepared to move on. NBA coaching sources say Dumars, in that scenario, would then turn to Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach John Kuester to replace Curry.
Johnson has been widely regarded as the leading candidate for the position since ex-Pistons coach and current TNT analyst Doug Collins withdrew from consideration last week. That status stems largely from Dumars' declarations after Curry's firing about moving forward "with a more experienced coach" and his intent to have that coach in place before the Pistons begin summer-league play in Las Vegas later this week.
Yet it's believed that Johnson, well aware that the Pistons are looking for their sixth coach as they enter Dumars' 10th season in charge, is seeking the security of a four-year contract. Such a deal could prove cost-prohibitive for the Pistons after they paid both Flip Saunders and Curry last season and still owe Curry an estimated $5 million over two years. Detroit, though, would share the financial burden in the first two years with the Dallas Mavericks, who still owe Johnson an estimated $8 million over the next two seasons.
(When a fired NBA coach is still owed money by his former team and is hired by another team for less than his previous contract, the former team pays the difference between the coach's previous salary and the new salary until the end of the original contract. If the new salary is more than the old salary, the former team is off the hook. And, in most cases, if the coach left his former team voluntarily, the former team is also off the hook.)
Sources familiar with the talks say Sunday's meeting was positive and that the sides made further progress Monday, but obstacles remain. Dumars dropped a hint to that effect Friday, even before the face-to-face negotiations began, telling the Detroit News that it is "not a given" that Johnson will be hired despite the perception that Collins' withdrawal opened up a clear path to the job for him.
ESPN.com reported Friday that the Pistons have also added Boston Celtics associate head coach Tom Thibodeau to an original list of candidates that featured Collins, Johnson and Kuester, but sources said Monday that Kuester's offensive expertise and history with the Pistons after working as an assistant under Larry Brown would land him the job if it doesn't go to Johnson. As for the experience factor, neither Kuester nor Thibodeau has been a head coach in the NBA, but both would indeed bring more experience to the job than Curry had.
Johnson has declined interview requests regarding the Pistons' search but indicated during the season that he would be more proactive in seeking jobs after completing a second season as a television analyst for ESPN. In coaching circles, there has been a feeling that Johnson intends to wait for what he deems an "ideal" opportunity given the money he still has forthcoming from the Mavericks. The 2008-09 season was Johnson's first in TV after Dallas fired him in May 2008 in the wake of a second successive first-round playoff ouster.
When he turned down a midseason offer to coach the Memphis Grizzlies, Johnson said that he was "enjoying my time at ESPN and with my family" but also that he was intent on returning to coaching "at the right time and in the right situation."
Is Detroit that job? Colleagues maintain that Johnson is intrigued by the opportunity to work for one of the league's signature franchises, even though the Pistons are in the midst of what Dumars openly describes as a "transition" period. The 44-year-old posted a 194-70 record in three-plus seasons with the Mavericks, taking Dallas to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history in 2006, earning NBA Coach of the Year honors that season and following that up with a 67-15 record in the 2006-07 season.
Johnson's tenure in Dallas then began to unravel with a first-round loss to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors (and former Dallas coach Don Nelson) in the 2007 playoffs, followed by a tension-filled final season in 2007-08 that could not be saved by the midseason acquisition of Jason Kidd.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.