|Avery Johnson didn't meet Brooklyn's standards. (colimdo.org)|
At 14-14, things were not exactly dire for the Brooklyn Nets. A .500 record is the very definition of "middling," and that is much, much better than the Nets have been in recent seasons. But with two verified All-Stars like point guard Deron Williams and shooting guard Joe Johnson, an average record is not acceptable — not when Brooklyn envisioned competing for the NBA title by systematically acquiring Williams then Gerald Wallace, fighting off temptations to sell high on young talent like MarShon Brooks and Brook Lopez, and buying Johnson's enormous contract over the summer. Someone had to go, and coach Avery Johnson's is the head that fell.
With so much talent, the argument goes, why wouldn't this roster win? Even Jerry Stackhouse and Andray Blatche — a 38-year-old journeyman and a career Knucklehead — have made positive contributions to the Nets' cause this season, and yet Johnson could not manage to put together a winning record after 28 games.
Go 24-58 in 2010-11? Travis Outlaw started 55 of those games and the front office was fully committed to making a deal for Carmelo Anthony to improve the front court. Anthony wound up across the Hudson River, but still determined to fly their flag on a high-caliber player, the Nets imported Williams to build around and bought Johnson some more time.
Pump the brakes on Johnson winning just one-third of the contests he coached in 2011-12. The lockout threw off everyone's game and Williams still was not fully acclimated with the system after appearing in 12 games as a Net before the lockout.
But with a roster containing talent both proven and rising, some pundits projected the Nets as a top-four team in the Eastern Conference, if not in the entire NBA this season. Johnson's firing was not due to a case of small sample size, a trend that is becoming more of a commonality in American professional sports.
The truth is, losing in New Jersey was okay. The franchise's last appearance in the playoffs was in 2006-07, and their Finals appearances were even further away in the rear-view mirror. Johnson immediately improved on the record of the final season of his predecessor, Lawrence Frank. Even though his team technically failed to improve on their season record during the lockout-shortened campaign, Johnson's winning percentage increased from .293 to .333.
A sub-.500 winning rate was fine, as long as there was progress. That was in New Jersey. Things work differently in Brooklyn.
The Nets' path to 14-14 this season was not smooth. Losses never came alone, but occurred two, three, five at a time. Williams became vocal about not liking the offense he was in charge of running, even going as far as to say he preferred the system Jerry Sloan championed with his former team, the Utah Jazz, before tension between the coach and the pointman ended with Sloan leaving NBA coaching ranks. Brooks, who looked so promising as a rookie, was confined to the end of the bench, averaging 11.2 minutes per game before being loosed by new head coach P.J. Carlesimo last night in a win over the Charlotte Bobcats. Nearly 20 minutes of playing time bumped Brooks' per-game average to 11.6, which still pales to the 29.4 minutes he logged routinely last season before falling out of Johnson's graces.
That is not the way to re-brand a franchise. The move to Brooklyn, the roster reconfiguration, Jay-Z's increasingly public ownership role, the concerts to inaugurate Barclays Center as a haven of new life in a borough devoid of professional sports since the Dodgers found a baseball home on the opposite coast — all is for naught if the product is less than top-quality. That's why names like Phil Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy are being bandied about now. Fans and management both have faith in those former coaches, and even Johnson's flight to the Finals with the Dallas Mavericks in 2006 cannot compare to faith.
For all of the build-up to New York having a second NBA team, to Manhattan no longer having the roundball monopoly, Johnson's gradual improvement of the Nets did not coincide with the expectations that skyrocketed after the franchise finally relocated.
In New Jersey, Johnson had the people's faith, but things are more dire in Brooklyn.
Follow @BeatsDimesDrive on Twitter