MILWAUKEE – Hours away from Avery Johnson’s firing, Deron Williams sat on the far end of the locker room late Wednesday night, wearing a suit and playing games on his electronic products. The Brooklyn Nets had just dropped to .500 with a punctuating 15-point loss to the Bucks, and Williams was at ease, disengaged with his teammates, and spent most of the night trying to beat a team family member in these little games.
There were players downright seething Wednesday night about the freefall that’s taking place right now. These are veterans openly questioning where the commitment has gone, the team’s fifth-leading scorer, Gerald Wallace, having to be the one to send messages to his teammates about their selfishness, about how they should hate losing too.
Johnson knew his message was wearing on his players. He understood that the locker room tuned him out, and still the coach begged everyone to give him and these Nets some time: We haven’t even reached the halfway point yet, Johnson would say.
In the end, Johnson never had full support from Nets ownership. General manager Billy King fought to keep Johnson and repay him for the two years of beatings they had to take in New Jersey, but ownership already had its decision set. Even so, Johnson’s biggest downfall didn’t come with ownership, but with the star players he expected to buy into the system and grow as leaders under the new Brooklyn spotlight.
It never happened, though. Williams has regressed badly and he’s looked more and more like just another NBA player this season – not a star who commands his locker room, much less the star the Nets gave a max contract. Joe Johnson has been a low end All-Star in his career, but his shooting comes and goes and the Atlanta Hawks knew they weren’t losing any leadership when they dealt him over the summer. And Brook Lopez is a talented big man, and yet he could assume such a higher role within the Nets’ offense rather than conceding at his locker Wednesday night: “When I get the ball, I want to be aggressive. We have a lot of different options and we have to run through each one before [me].”
The Nets invested hundreds of millions of dollars on this roster last offseason, and slowly they’re realizing how flawed it is. King admitted Thursday afternoon that he’s had discussions about personnel moves but will give the current players another chance under P.J. Carlesimo. While the Nets will undoubtedly go hard after Phil Jackson, it doesn’t appear likely that they can persuade him to come back, and that means Carlesimo will get a fair trial to turn the season around.
Despite Avery Johnson’s flaws – his different rotations recently that reeked of panic, his heavy isolation offense to better suit some players – he wasn’t the Nets’ overarching issue. Without him, the same problems persist for Brooklyn: A roster that was way overhyped by the organization to sell the fan base and supposed stars who have seemed to crack under the stress early in the season.
In a league where the superstar label gets thrown around a lot, there are players who maintain their command within a locker room no matter the coach. For the Kobe Bryants, the Chris Pauls, the accountability starts with them and carries on throughout the rest of the locker room. Yet here was Williams last week, criticizing Johnson’s one-on-one sets and yearning for his old offense with Jerry Sloan and the Utah Jazz, because he’s a “system player.”
Over the past two seasons under Johnson, there were no expectations for the Nets, and Williams never threw him under the bus. With his shooting percentage below 40 percent, Williams started publicly taking issue with the offense this season – a point guard many had perceived as top three at his position saying suddenly that he’s someone who thrives under a certain system.
“For some reason, [Johnson] just wasn’t reaching them anymore,” King said.
Ultimately, a coach needs to reach his stars first and allow that power to permeate around the entire team. Johnson never had the complete support of the Nets’ ownership and never had the respect that comes with a contract extension. Slowly, even after an 11-4 start and a Coach of the Month for Johnson, the Nets’ stars started tuning him out. Near the end of Johnson’s tenure with the Nets, the team’s role players began speaking up and wanted recommitment to selfless play.
All along, Johnson needed his supposed stars to be the ones to carry out his vision. He needed them to buy his message, one that he knew began to tire on them. Without Johnson, the bottom line will remain for these Nets: This is a team that has individual talent, but leadership and intangibles are severely lacking at the top.