HANGTIME SOUTHWEST — Avery Johnson keeps striking out with point guards, the position he loved to play and eventually thrived as a hard-nosed underdog.
The scorecard lists three point guards now that haven’t seen eye-to-eye with the Little General. One got traded away and the next two have played roles in him twice being fired.
On Thursday, the Brooklyn Nets did the deed, just 28 games into Johnson’s third season and little more than a week since struggling Deron Williams openly complained that Johnson’s system wasn’t doing him any favors. Williams pined for the old days in Utah with Jerry Sloan, the same coach with whom he became combative and drove into mid-season retirement two years ago.
Johnson’s trying times with point guards goes back to 2007. In July, three months after Johnson’s 67-win Dallas Mavericks were humiliated in the first round by the Golden State Warriors, Johnson elevated Devin Harris, the fifth overall pick in 2004, to starting point guard and shifted Jason Terry to shooting guard.
Johnson and Harris met up in Las Vegas, where the Mavs’ summer-league team was playing, for an intensive few days on the court, one-on-one. The two had already developed an interesting relationship, sort of like the demanding father and the son who can’t please him no matter what, or the hard-nosed college coach determined to ride his prized pupil until he emotionally cracks.
“Yes, he does push me. Yes, I don’t think that’s ever going to change. Yes, I probably get yelled at the most,” Harris said during a late-night interview back then in Vegas. “But I’ve learned to deal with it. I’ve learned to cope with it, and it’s good.”
Here’s how Johnson viewed their dynamic.
“The problem with him is he was born a point guard and he has a former point guard [as his coach] who has played at all levels and has won at all levels,” Johnson said. “That’s a big problem for him because I see plays before they happen. I see things develop and that’s a big problem for him, me being his coach and having played the position.”
Johnson then explained his shifting strategy with Harris. It’s not without irony.
“The experiment with me trying to make him Jason Kidd, that’s not his game,” Johnson said. “We have an idea now exactly who he is and I think we can maximize him being a certain type of point guard. He has a chance to be in that mold of a [Tony] Parker or even a Kevin Johnson.”
Seven months later, with Dirk Nowitzki weary of Harris’ inability to create open shots for him in Johnson’s iso-heavy offense, the Mavs traded Harris to the New Jersey Nets for Kidd.
Five games in and the Johnson-Kidd relationship went south. Down two points with 34 seconds left in San Antonio, Johnson called timeout and sat Kidd. A frenzied possession ensued and Dallas lost. Johnson said he leaned on players familiar with his system. Kidd would call getting yanked in the clutch “a first” and “maybe the biggest thing that stands out” during his short time with Johnson.
Less than three months later, Mavs owner Mark Cuban fired Johnson before the team plane had made it back from New Orleans where Dallas bowed out of the first round in five games. One reason for change was to bring in a coach and offense better suited for Kidd to orchestrate.
So Williams makes three. He complained of Johnson’s iso-heavy system and pined for Sloan’s pick-and-rolls and the kind of movement in the half court Williams said he grew up playing in high school and then at Illinois.
Some suggest that Williams’ criticisms of Johnson were meant more as praise for Sloan, driven by lingering guilt over his old coach’s surprising resignation (Williams was traded to the Nets two weeks later).
Williams’ comments come with some truth. Johnson is rigid and his offense can be unimaginative. He attempted to bend, saying that some 30 percent of the Nets’ offense was borrowed from what Williams ran under Sloan, yet it didn’t show up in Williams’ suffering shooting percentages.
Williams could have signed with his hometown Mavs and led coach Rick Carlisle‘s “flow” offense, the one Williams’ close friend Kidd captained to the 2011 championship.
But Williams said he liked what was going on in Brooklyn better. Out of excuses, Williams now shoulders the Nets’ burden.
It’s hard to say when Johnson will get his next opportunity. When he does, he’ll have to take a hard look at his offense and even deeper introspection into how he communicates with his point guard.
As Johnson knows, they can be a stubborn and hard-headed lot. But he can’t win without one being an extension of himself.