Brooklyn Nets Replace Coach Avery Johnson and Lower 2013 Expectations
ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton on the road ahead for the sub par Brooklyn Nets post Avery Johnson:
Via ESPN Insider: Every NBA coach operates with a clock hanging over his head that counts down to his eventual departure — usually not by choice. Such is the nature of a league where only one coach (San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich) has been with the same team for more than a decade. Some clocks tick faster than others, however, and whoever replaces Avery Johnson at the helm of the Brooklyn Nets doesn’t figure to have much time to spare.
There were justifications for making a change after the Nets followed their impressive 11-4 start with a 3-10 record in December. Deron Williams’ criticism of his coach’s offense surely didn’t help Johnson’s cause, and Johnson was never able to get his team’s defense playing at even an average level after building a reputation as a defensive specialist as coach of the Dallas Mavericks. Ultimately, Johnson’s demise was about expectations. Brooklyn ownership didn’t add more than $330 million in future payroll this past summer in order to go .500.
In the short term, Johnson’s successor can build goodwill by continuing to add the Jerry Sloan-style flex sets that coincidentally appeared in the Nets’ playbook after Williams complained to the media. There’s room for improvement in the team’s dismal pick-and-roll game (per MySynergySports.com; Brooklyn generates far and away the league’s fewest shots out of pick-and-rolls, and is also dead last in effectiveness on pick-and-roll plays). Even incremental improvement on defense could allow the Nets to move up in a conference where 2.5 games represent the difference between home-court advantage and missing the playoffs if the season ended today.
The problem is that this might be Brooklyn’s best team for the foreseeable future. At an average age weighted for playing time of nearly 30, the Nets are the league’s sixth-oldest squad. Williams and Gerald Wallace are in the tail end of their primes, and shooting guard Joe Johnson has already begun an inevitable descent because of age. Among the team’s top players, only 24-year-old center Brook Lopez can be expected to maintain his value going forward. Based on the development of similar players at the same age in terms of Wins Above Replacement Player, the core showing its age figures to cost Brooklyn a win or two next season and at least three by 2014-15.
Things don’t figure to change either, as all four players are locked up to exorbitant long-term contracts. Johnson’s deal is the most obviously problematic. At the same time his game is slipping, Johnson’s salary only continues to increase. He’s scheduled to make more than $20 million each of the next three seasons, including nearly $25 million in 2015-16, when he will be 34. Already, Johnson has seen his player efficiency rating slip below average this season because his scoring efficiency is down in a smaller role than the one he played in Atlanta.
Wallace, too, has shown more gradual signs of aging. His usage rate and his rebound percentage are both the second-lowest marks of his career. Though Wallace is only 30, the same aggressive style that earned him the nickname “Crash” and made him an All-Star has also resulted in more wear and tear than his age would indicate. He’s due at least $10 million the next three seasons.
Usually, superstar players are the NBA’s safest investments. Unfortunately, Williams no longer appears to fit into that category. He ranks 16th among point guards in WARP (2.3) and a distant 21th in PER (17.1) this season. The hope is that a new offense will revitalize Williams, who was more effective in Sloan’s system in Utah. The fear is that this represents the culmination of a gradual decline since the Nets acquired Williams nearly two years ago.
Williams’ shooting continues to be a struggle, likely because of lingering wrist issues. Once a dangerous threat beyond the arc, Williams has now gone three seasons without reaching league average on 3-pointers. This season’s 29.5 percent accuracy from 3 hasn’t stopped him from hoisting 149 attempts from downtown, far and away the most of any player making less than 30 percent. (Washington rookie Bradley Beal, at 102, is the only other player with more than 100 attempts and such poor shooting.)
Williams hasn’t been able to make up for the inaccurate shooting by getting to the basket, either; his free throw rate has slipped badly the past two seasons, a possible indicator of declining athleticism. These trends are all worrisome given that the Nets owe Williams more than $80 million over the next four seasons, making his play the first priority for whoever replaces Johnson.
But for better or worse, Brooklyn is locked into this roster for the future. The Nets have committed enough salary that they will likely remain over the luxury tax threshold through the summer of 2016, when Johnson, Lopez and Wallace are all scheduled to become free agents. Brooklyn will start feeling the effects next summer, when harsher provisions for taxpayers in the new collective bargaining agreement take effect. In addition to having only a smaller version of the mid-level exception to offer free agents, the Nets will no longer be able to make sign-and-trade deals like the one last summer that brought Reggie Evans, a valuable addition to their frontcourt.
Brooklyn can search the bargain bin for finds like Andray Blatche, who revitalized his career thanks to Johnson’s confidence. But such players are short-term answers, since the Nets will have to dip into their mid-level exception to keep Blatche if he gets an offer from another team for more than the minimum next summer.
More likely, finding solutions to problems like the other pieces in the frontcourt not fitting with Lopez will require Brooklyn to take on even longer bad contracts to chase a short-term upgrade. That should sound familiar to any New York fans who changed allegiances over the summer, since it’s the same position the Knicks were in under Isiah Thomas’ management. Eventually, the combination of high salaries and aging players becomes crushing and requires a painful rebuild like New York executed when Donnie Walsh took over.
Coaching a team heading in the wrong direction is bad enough. Coaching one that ownership expects to win a championship borders on career suicide. Stan Van Gundy had the right idea by quickly renouncing any interest in the Nets job to the Orlando Sentinel. Phil Jackson and other top free-agent coaches should do the same. Otherwise, their fate will be the same as Johnson’s.