I was sad to hear about the firing of Avery Johnson from the Nets’ head coaching job. The November “NBA Coach of the Month” was canned as Brooklyn became mired in a slump for three quarters of December, losing 11 out of 13 games and becoming a sub-.500 team. Less than thirty days previously the Nets boasted of the Eastern Conference’s best record. “I just didn’t like the way things were headed…” said GM Billy King. Maybe not. But I don’t think the “way things were headed” should have been entirely placed on the shoulders of Avery Johnson.
Much has been made of the struggles of Deron Williams during this streak. But the reality is that D-Will is running an offensive scheme which is not designed to play to his strengths. Williams has not forgotten how to play basketball. He IS an elite point guard in this league. But when you look at the other elite PGs (Rondo, Paul, Nash), none are being forced to orchestrate an offense that doesn’t open up the floor to them. The Nets’ first option was to feed the low post. They were a plodding, defensive-oriented, half-court team. There was little to no transition offense. They walked the ball up the floor and attempted to pound it inside to their talented, but relatively unathletic front line led by Brook Lopez. This was not highest and best use of D-Will’s ability. This is why he (and ultimately, the team) has floundered and is the underlying source of his frustration. But firing Johnson was not the answer. Why? Because, AJ did not put this roster together.
When you look at the make-up of this team, there really is no other way Avery could have gone. There’s a certain incongruency that exists between D-Will’s demonstrated ability to push the ball in orchestration of an uptempo offense and the earthbound fours and fives he plays with. Obviously, Lopez is talented, Kris Humphries is consistently a force on the glass and Andre Blatche has performed far above expectations. Reggie Evans with his never-ceasing motor has been as effective as ever off the bench. But there’s no way this is a frontline that gets up-and-down the floor in uptempo fashion. So Johnson had no other choice but to slow the game down and feed the post.
The Nets performed well early in this style, but gradually, the league figured it out. In today’s NBA, you’ve got to be able to put points on the board. With teams going smaller and stressing athleticism in their personnel selections, it’s very difficult for a plodding, half-court team with no consistent perimeter shooters to sit on quicker, more athletic teams for 48 minutes and win 85-83 ball games night in and night out. Toward the end of his tenure, Johnson obviously realized this and sat Humphries for Keith Bogans, sliding Gerald Wallace down to become an undersized four. The move may have been more effective had he instead dropped Joe Johnson to the three and inserted Marshon Brooks at the two. That would have made the starting five far more potent offensively, but possibly more suspect from a rebounding and defensive perspective. And ultimately, they would suffer because there would be no athleticism and speed left to bring off the bench. The roster is simply bereft of that type of frontline player. But, again, Avery Johnson did not put this roster together.
If any coach is going to help this Nets team compete with the elite of the Eastern Conference, he is going to have to have more team speed and athleticism to employ. The responsibility for acquiring such attributes falls under the job description of the GM. I believe that the signing of Kris Humphries, in particular, was a bad move on the part of Billy King – not because Humphries isn’t a good ball player who is worthy of a fair contract – but because by the time Humphries was signed, it was pretty clear to me that the Nets needed some speed and shot-blocking added to the power-forward/center rotation in order to get the most bang from their showpiece backcourt. Stylistically (not skillwise), Lopez, Humphries, Blatche and Evans are similar, as opposed to… let’s say… a J. J. Hickson or Tyrus Thomas type. But Blatche and Evans were relatively inexpensive acquisitions. So it should have been Lopez or Humphries – but probably not both. But without Dwight Howard, King probably needed Lopez in order to retain D-Will. So that makes Humphries the man left out. Knowing I’d be going up tempo with D-Will, I probably would have kept the explosive Gerald Green instead.
But actually, even holding on to Humphries, if not for 6-11 Donte Green’s knee injury just as the Nets were about to sign him (again, cheaply) this summer, the Nets already would have on their roster one individual with size and agility enough to begin bridging the athleticism incongruency between their talented frontcourt and their star PG (D-Will) and creative wing players (Johnson, Wallace, Brooks). This needed insertion of athletic bigs doesn’t have to be of All-Pro quality. The Nets have enough talent. They need a better mix of physicality and agility so they can play at a faster tempo.
Because when D-Will is freed to push the ball, pick-and-roll and attack the defense, you will see him return to elite status. Every other Net – even Joe Johnson – will find that the game becomes so much easier. To paraphrase an old Funkadelic tune, “Free D-Will and your Nets will follow…”
So, this is Billy King’s mission – should he decide to accept it: to bring a little front line athleticism to this team, so that they can play faster and more creatively - and so the power of D-Will can be unleashed, bringing renewed excitement to Brooklyn’s Barclay Center.
May Your Point Guard Flow…