Avery Johnson is enjoying his respite between NBA jobs, working as an ESPN analyst and preparing to watch his son, Avery Jr., enter his freshman season with the Texas A&M basketball team.
So Johnson is not in search of one of the five available coaching openings, although he has had great success in the past and wouldn’t count out coaching again. Johnson was fired as coach of the Brooklyn Nets in December 2012, after being named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for November.
The job security of television and the comfort of talking about the game with his lighthearted style fits right now in comparison to the rigors and uncertainty of the current coaching climate.
“I’ve had two different coaching stints,” he said of the Nets and Dallas Mavericks. “One where I took over a first-round playoff team in Dallas and we wanted to get a taste of what it felt like to go deep into the playoffs and the Finals and have a chance to win a championship. And that’s what we did with a young team and I was a young coach, recently retired, and we went on a nice run.”
Johnson took over the Mavericks during the 2004-05 season, led them to the Finals a year later, but two consecutive first-round eliminations, including a painful exit at the hands of the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in ’07, led to his dismissal.
In New Jersey, Johnson inherited a rebuilding project, did not reach the playoffs in the first two seasons, but heavy expectations in the team’s first season in Brooklyn, blended with a 14-14 start, led to his firing.
“Unfortunately, I went from Coach of the Month to getting fired,” he said. “That could be the nature of our business sometimes. I feel there was a margin of success in both of those stops, but right now I’m just really passionate about what I’m doing and we all know that could change. It could change tomorrow.”
Johnson described what would be a desirable atmosphere to return to coaching.
“If there’s a situation that makes a tremendous amount of sense,” he said, “something similar with what I had in Dallas, great ownership, a star player in Dirk Nowitzki that had a high level of integrity and was coachable, and stability in terms of a contractual situation that players can respect, then [yes], but other than that we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing.”
Watching his son’s freshman season unfold is very attractive to Johnson, like it has been for other coaches whose sons played college basketball. The process of watching Avery Jr. develop into a Division 1 player has been rewarding for his father.
“Everybody kind of knows my career as a player and coach. You’ve got to really walk lightly on the water because the season was all about him and he took care of his business on the court,” Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to going down to College Station [Texas] and even sometimes on the road with some of those other SEC schools.”
The time watching his son may serve as a recharge for Johnson’s coaching battery. And it has been a difficult journey in recent years for veteran coaches. Lionel Hollins was fired after leading the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals. George Karl was dismissed after being named NBA Coach of the Year.
Front offices are becoming increasingly impatient with rebuilding programs or coaches who don’t reach expectations.
“When we sign up as a coach for a team, we sign the dotted line knowing at some point we’re going to resign, get fired, or get reassigned within the organization,” Johnson said. “It’s the nature of the business. This idea of it’s not fair, fair is not a word when you’re talking about being in a coaching position. Everybody has different ways of getting to the top. Coach [Gregg] Popovich fired a coach in San Antonio [Bob Hill in 1996] and now he’s a legendary coach. The main thing is there’s only 30 jobs and you’ve got thousands of people probably that would love one of those 30 jobs.
“But until coaches start owning teams, then maybe they can keep themselves on a little longer.”
Or as Johnson pointed out, coaches can gain more power and control by becoming team presidents. Stan Van Gundy just signed on in Detroit for that dual role, and Doc Rivers also makes personnel decisions with the Los Angeles Clippers.
“They’ll have an opportunity to coach because players get disgruntled sometimes and they’ll want to go over a coach’s head,” Johnson said. “But in Stan Van Gundy’s case, if you go over his head, you’ll end up right back in his president’s chair. I think it’s good that these guys are getting the type of autonomy that college basketball coaches have, and I think it gives them a chance to maximize their potential as a coach but at the same time be held accountable at an even higher standard if things don’t go well.”
WATCHING A REPLAY
Cavaliers, Brown head separate ways — again
Just moments after being named permanent general manager, Cleveland’s David Griffin fired coach Mike Brown, the second time in four years Brown has been removed from the Cavaliers’ sideline.
Griffin replaced the deposed Chris Grant, who was fired after blowing an opportunity to attract major free agents with questionable draft decisions and trades since the departure of LeBron James. With the coaching job open, a prospect to watch is former NBA player Adrian Griffin, currently the top assistant for Tom Thibodeau in Chicago.
The question is whether the Cavaliers want to take a chance on another first-time coach, as they did when they hired Brown in 2005. David Griffin is from the Phoenix Suns’ tree and may want a coach who wants to run an up-tempo offense, but the No. 1 priority is finding a coach who will encourage former No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving to sign a maximum extension this offseason.
“Any insinuation that Kyrie Irving had anything to do with this decision is patently false,” Griffin said. “It’s unfair. He was not counseled on this decision nor was he counseled on the previous coaching decision.
“We’re not going to rule out any coach at any level,” Griffin continued. “I’ve had a primarily offensive-based focus with the people that I was raised by [in Phoenix] and I think it’s fair to say the Cavaliers have had a defensive focus. I believe you find the truth in the middle. We need to find a way to speak to the best of all parts of the offensive background that I know, and the defensive background that’s dyed in the wool of this franchise.”
The Cavaliers have juggled visions throughout the years but have seemingly been lost since James departed in 2010.
Griffin is trying to create a winning atmosphere in an environment that has been poisonous the past few years with Irving and shooting guard Dion Waiters bickering, the disappointment of 2013 first overall draft pick Anthony Bennett, and the unsuccessful coaching tenures of Byron Scott and Brown.
“My goal is we zig when everyone else zags,” Griffin said. “I’d like us to just get results. Nothing is all one person’s fault. There is accountability to be shared. This was a collective approach this season. We made progress collectively in some ways toward the end of the year. Our lack of results are not comfortable for any of us.”
Griffin is carrying a confidence into his new position. The Cavaliers have been essentially a train wreck since owner Dan Gilbert’s promise to fans that Cleveland would win a championship before James did. Now that is part of the Cavaliers’ painful past and Griffin is hoping to make astute decisions that will enable the franchise to return to contention. Some of the pieces are there with Irving, Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and even Bennett.
“This will be a collaborative effort,” Griffin said. “I will absolutely be leading this process. This bond is going to be very strong. I believe we have the right assets to have the right mix. There are certainly some pieces that don’t fit on this roster. This is not a complete roster. We’re going to be very attractive as a partner when we do look for certain particular targeted pieces.”
Gilbert did not comment on Brown’s firing.
“This is a sign that he has great confidence in us as a basketball operations team and me as a leader,” Griffin said. “I told them from the very beginning I intend to lead this process. I asked for their trust and faith in that and they have shown it.”
WORK IN PROGRESS
LaVine opens eyes at league’s draft combine
He is the definition of being drafted on pure potential. Zach LaVine attended the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago this past week despite having averaged just 9.4 points for UCLA during his freshman season. LaVine is a lanky 6-foot-5-inch swingman brimming with athleticism, but the consensus is it will take a few years for him to develop.
LaVine was supposed to be the cornerstone of the UCLA program entering the 2014-15 season, but after watching his playing time decrease two-thirds of the way into the season, he decided to enter the draft instead of another season playing for Steve Alford and the Bruins. So here he is, likely a mid- or late-first-round pick with a baby face and vast potential.
But hordes of general managers have been fired for banking on players with potential who never panned out, so LaVine will have to prove that he is perhaps closer to making an NBA impact than he is projected.
“I am just showing them they didn’t get to see me at the college level play point [guard], so I am just showing them I have a good feel for the ball, good court vision, good decision-making,” said LaVine. “I definitely have a lot of confidence in my talents and put a lot of hard work in. That’s definitely why at the beginning of the year, I had one of the hottest starts to a college career you could have.”
LaVine came off the bench for the Bruins and attracted scouts with his ability to score in bunches.
He scored in double figures in nine of his first 10 games but then watched his playing time and role decrease dramatically as Alford chose to play his son, Bryce, causing dissention between player and coach.
Asked if it was a tough decision to leave UCLA, LaVine said, “No, not really. You can’t [control] everything that happens on the court. You have to deal with it. The coach didn’t tell me specifically why [my playing time decreased]. The year was a little frustrating for me because I’m a competitive person and I just wanted to be on the floor to help my guys win. I feel like I didn’t have that right opportunity to help, but stuff like that happens sometimes. It teaches you life lessons.
“It was just a really frustrating year because we didn’t see eye to eye,” LaVine said of his relationship with Alford. “I wanted to be on the court competing with my guys and I felt like I could have helped out the team a lot more in different ways but I didn’t get the opportunity.
“We were so good, I thought we could have really won the championship. It was frustrating for me.”
LaVine played on a UCLA team with fellow draft prospects Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams but may be the best prospect of the trio. The consensus out of Chicago was that LaVine could become a star but will need to mature physically and mentally.
“Just being a pro in general, it’s your job and you’ve got to take it seriously,” he said. “I’m a 19-year-old playing with a grown man who’s 35 with two kids. So, it’s a professional business. You’ve got to mature quickly and go at it with full heart.”
LaVine’s stock continued to soar as he registered a 41.5-inch vertical at the combine, perhaps making himself a candidate for the Celtics with the 17th overall pick. LaVine did interview with the Celtics in Chicago.
Ainge, Celtics prepare for a busy draft night
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has tried to downplay the significance of this draft, one in which his team owns two of the first 17 picks and could be one of the more active teams on draft night.
The Celtics spent three days at the combine interviewing 15-plus prospects, likely two of whom will be holding up Boston jerseys next month.
But Ainge prides himself on knowing the entire league. One challenge for new Knicks president Phil Jackson is that he will have to become a tireless worker in scouting.
Ainge doesn’t have that issue. He zig-zags the country looking at prospects and appeared annoyed following the first day of the combine because he saw little to excite him. He’s watched these prospects numerous times, so some three-on-two drills did nothing to change his sentiments.
“We talk to 15 guys every year in Chicago and we don’t know which ones we’ll pick,” he said. “We don’t know where we’ll move around in the draft, if we’ll even change picks, so it’s our job to know everybody in this draft, whether we draft them now or not. We may want to trade for them later or sign them as free agents, so our work doesn’t really change.
“It’s my job to know everybody in the draft, 1 through 60, 1 through 100, actually. I’m not sure that really changes where my draft position is today because I don’t know what my draft position will be on draft night.”
This is Ainge’s second opportunity to build the Celtics back into a championship contender, and he relishes the opportunity with a bright-eyed coach and a roster filled with youngsters.
“We have had a chance at it before and we had some very good fortune and some not so great fortune,” he said. “I would say that draft day the juices are flowing because there’s a lot of action going on, a lot of communication and talking because it’s like you’re in a game.
“Listen, we’re a competitive organization with high expectations, and so I feel like we’re always working hard to get our team better. The good thing we have in Boston is we have a great deal of trust, from coaches to management to ownership, and I think we’ll be able to come to some decisions that we have this summer.”