Late last week, Avery Johnson was reminded of a painful fact of life for every NBA coach: they are hired to be fired. He’s the second one to lose his job this season, following Mike Brown, who was let go after the Los Angeles Lakers' 1-4 start. No one will compare either to Phil Jackson, but both have had tremendous success in their time in the NBA. They became scapegoats for their teams’ disappointing play, but the issues with the Lakers and Brooklyn Nets go far beyond the coaching staffs. NBA teams hold coaches to a stricter standard than they do GM’s, yet a coach can only be as good as the players his front office gives him.
Firing Brown certainly hasn’t fixed the Lakers. Neither Brown nor Mike D’Antoni can make Dwight Howard’s recovery from back surgery any quicker or ensure Steve Nash can stay in the starting line-up. And even if the Lakers' stars are 100% healthy in the playoffs, their supporting cast’s lack of speed and shooting ability will still haunt them. The Princeton offense Brown installed may not be any more suited for the Lakers stars than the uptempo style D’Antoni prefers, but every offensive system requires role players who can stretch the floor just as every defensive system requires players who can stay in front of their men.
Yet, for all their problems, the Lakers are still in much better shape than Brooklyn. The Nets have a $90 million payroll and championship expectations, but they don’t have a championship-level roster. After an 11-4 start to the season that netted Johnson the Coach of the Month Award in November, they fell back to Earth in December, culminating in two ugly 15+ point blowouts and a 14-14 record that cost Johnson his job. His rigid offensive sets may not be the best fit with Deron Williams’ skill-set, but he wasn’t the one who assembled a roster without any interior defense.
In an interview with the New York Times earlier in the season, Brooklyn GM Billy King said he built the team to compete with the Miami Heat. There is some superficial logic to his claim: the Nets have an All-Star caliber player at point guard (Williams) and center (Brook Lopez), the two weakest positions in the Heat’s starting lineup, while they have big, physical wings in Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace to match-up with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. However, it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny: no team with as little frontcourt defense as the Nets has ever defeated LeBron James in the playoffs.
The common theme in LeBron’s playoff exits has been a elite defensive center capable of preventing him from dominating the paint. Here are the centers who defeated LeBron from 2007-2011: Rasheed Wallace, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett (twice), Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler. Even before he developed a low-post game, there was no way for a team without an athletic big men to prevent the 6’9 270 LeBron from running a train at the front of the rim.
For all the concerns about the Brooklyn offense, its still rated much higher (10th) than their defense (18th). Lopez has many offensive gifts, but he is a finesse scorer who needs help defensively and on the glass. His career rebounding percentage (13.3) is one of the lowest of any center in the NBA. None of this is insurmountable, but it does mean he needs to be paired with a frontcourt partner who can make up for his weaknesses, someone like the hyper-athletic Derrick Favors, whom Brooklyn dealt to get Williams two years ago. Kris Humphries, who averages 0.7 blocks a game, isn’t that guy and neither is Wallace, a converted swingman on the wrong side of 30.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has said that anything less than a berth in the Conference Finals would be a disappointment, but it’s hard to see this core pulling that off, regardless of the coach. Even if they don’t wind up on the Heat’s side of the bracket, they’ve fallen way behind the pace of the Knicks, who have exactly the type of interior defensive presence (Tyson Chandler) Brooklyn so desperately needs next to Lopez. Atlanta, Joe Johnson’s old team, is currently in third place: how would the Nets match up with Al Horford and Joe Smith in a seven-game series?
To be fair to King, Brooklyn’s future would look a lot different with Dwight Howard, whom they nearly acquired this summer. King may also be a victim of Prokhorov’s mandate to contend immediately: it’s not as easy to buy a title in the NBA, with its byzantine system of salary cap and luxury tax restrictions designed to “ensure competitive balance” and protect the owners’ pocketbooks, as it is Europe’s more free-market sports leagues. The Nets would have a more promising future if they had kept the three lottery picks (Favors, Enes Kanter and Damian Lillard) they dealt for Williams and Wallace, but they wouldn’t be any closer to contending this season.
None of that changes the Nets second-round ceiling, which is clearly unacceptable to Prokhorov. However, as long as he keeps his checkbook open, things aren’t hopeless. They may still be able to buy their way out of the hole King has dug by using expiring salaries to deal for interior defense in the same way the Mavs used Erick Dampier’s contract to acquire Chandler in 2011. In the end, King’s creativity will be what determines whether Brooklyn becomes a title contender, not whoever he ends up hiring to replace Johnson full-time.
That isn’t to diminish the impact a head coach can have. If a coach can’t command the respect of a locker room, no amount of tactical acumen will be able to save him. At the same time, elite teams can be compromised by their head coach’s inability to make tactical adjustments. Cleveland fans will always wonder what would have happened if Brown had played LeBron at the 4, while Scott Brooks’ refusal to make adjustments in a critical playoff series has cost Oklahoma City dearly in each of the last two seasons.
A coach can only play the cards his GM gives him. It’s different in college basketball, where the head coach doubles as the GM. In the NBA, most coaches end up taking the fall for mistakes their GM’s made. Randy Wittman (Wizards) and Keith Smart (Kings) are widely rumored to be next on the chopping block, but the problems with the Wizards and Kings go way beyond whatever poor soul is tasked to win games with their poorly constructed rosters.
Kings GM Geoff Petrie earned a lot of goodwill for the elite teams he built in the early 2000’s, but Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs in seven seasons. In that time, they’ve had six head coaches. Washington has had four head coaches since they last made the playoffs, yet GM Glen Grunwald actually got a contract extension in 2012. The most important personnel decision Prokhorov made in Brooklyn wasn’t re-signing Williams or replacing Johnson; it was letting someone with King’s checkered history as a GM run the show in the first place.
When a ship is sinking, instead of rearranging deck chairs, maybe we should start worrying about whose actually been piloting it.