The body count is starting to make Quentin Tarantino jealous, each hit carried out with cold calculation. Deron Williams has squeezed the necks of more NBA coaches than NBA championship trophies, and uh oh, interim Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo just fainted at the thought.
Avery Johnson was the latest whack, following Jerry Sloan, each man presumed guilty of refusing to bow to D-Will, or not knowing how to. Sometimes it’s not so wrong to chase off a coach, as countless of franchise players have done before, often for the better. And maybe in the long run Brooklyn will thrive under new and possibly improved leadership, especially if Phil Jackson (who said he isn’t interested “at this time”) is bored with retirement.
But shouldn’t a player have done something in this league before pushing someone off a ledge? Like, win something?
The Nets spent Thursday in damage control, letting everyone know that Johnson’s firing came from ownership, that Mikhail Prokorov, deep into the luxury tax with this team, became impatient. And perhaps that’s true to an extent. But it doesn’t pass the smell test. That would spare Williams and prevent the Nets from having a public relations disaster on their hands, at a time when they need Brooklyn to embrace their star. Therefore, they have everything to gain by hanging this on an invisible owner and everything to lose by allowing Williams, who wasn’t a big Johnson fan, to walk this walk alone.
“For some reason,” said GM Billy King, speaking of Johnson, “he just wasn’t reaching them anymore.”
As opposed to a month ago, when all was good and glowing for Johnson and the Nets?
Please. Williams is a great player who’s also defined partly by his pouts, mood swings and now, coach’s scalps. Not division titles or conference titles or heaven knows, NBA titles. And he’s no closer to any right now, with the Nets suddenly sleepwalking through the season, led by their sulking and slumping star who just days ago expressed issues with Johnson’s offense.
That Williams would say he’s “a system” player who enjoyed the one belonging to Sloan -- who quit in a huff rather than coach Williams any longer -- was the height of hubris. But hey, Williams earned the right to speak out because of … well … his Olympic gold medal?
He’s the face of a new franchise, and if so, then Brooklyn suffers from poor body language. Williams was supposed to be a better player than a year ago, when he arrived after bleaching the blood of Sloan off his hands, and initially he was. He was cheerful, a solid ambassador, a good soldier and an All-Star. The Nets had money to spend last summer and while they couldn’t fetch him Dwight Howard, they did upgrade the roster from a year ago -- not drastically, but decently. And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the anticipation of playing in Brooklyn and the 24/7 hype that breathes in New York was too much for a team that smells like 45 wins and a first-round ouster, not a team built to take New York from the Knicks.
The way the Nets raised hope, in retrospect, looks mostly suspect. You might say King, coming off a failed GM run in Philly, did Johnson no huge favors. King upgraded the miserable New Jersey roster, but how much exactly?
The Nets surrendered a lottery pick, which became rookie of the year front-runner Damian Lillard, for Gerald Wallace, who’s past his prime but due $30 million the next three years.
They gave $60 million, or $3 million per rebound, to Brook Lopez.
They took on the final $87 million of Joe Johnson’s contract and instantly made the Hawks better.
They did all that to appease Williams who, by the way, was given max money and the keys to the franchise. Shouldn’t that come with a higher level of responsibility and accountability? Or does it just buy power for the player? Williams often joked in the preseason that he was the assistant general manager, but who do you suspect is pushing weight within the organization, him or King?
With all the incoming parts to put in place, Johnson did well to get the Nets, missing Lopez for a chunk, off to an 11-4 start, best in franchise history, and earn himself Coach of the Month honors. But that was 28 days ago, or 28 months in Nets Years. They have a splashy building they must continue to fill, and a city to win over, and a $90 million payroll to justify, and a new billionaire owner to keep happy (Prokorov says he wants a title in three years) and a star to pacify, which might be the toughest of all to pull off.
Williams’ performance began to go south at the start of the month when he was outplayed by a string of point guards, Rajon Rondo the latest in an embarrassing 17-point Christmas Day loss to the Celtics. His shooting percentage is down to 39.8, perhaps partly due to a bothersome wrist that underwent surgery a year ago, and in some games Williams wasn’t the Nets’ best player on the floor.
Williams chose New York over Dallas in his summer sweepstakes. And he will quickly discover how ruthless a place like New York can be if the Nets don’t turn it around soon enough. The city loves to out players who don’t pull their end of the bargain, and that particular body count is stacked high. Never an embraceable personality to begin with, Williams might find himself a target of scorn in what is unquestionably a tough place to please. Especially if you haven’t won anything.
Avery Johnson is somewhere in therapy with Mike Brown right now, and while Deron Williams should feel lower about that than his shooting percentage, most likely, he doesn’t. Most likely, he’ll just call it a crazy coincidence, just like when Sloan walked.
He’d better be careful. While his coaches are dying off, a star’s reputation, one he doesn’t want, is living and breathing.