‘Obviously something changed’: Avery Johnson has regrets, and questions

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Avery Johnson. (Howard Megdal)
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EAST RUTHERFORD—We'd gathered at a location that no longer makes sense to see a coach who was fired for reasons no one outside the Nets organization fully understands.

Avery Johnson's Nets had fallen off sharply after a brilliant start to the season, arriving at an apparently unacceptable 14-14. Every strategy and lineup adjustment he employed in November seemed to work perfectly; everything he did in December seemed to backfire. 

Apparently Avery Johnson's players didn't want to play for him anymore. Related, perhaps: Three of the team's worst four losses came in the past week.

So the coach in the final year of his contract got fired, rather than the players in whom the Nets' owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, invested well over $300 million in this summer.

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Even Billy King, the general manager who ultimately delivered the news to Johnson after the decision was made overseas by Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, acknowledged as much.

"I have a pretty good pulse of players, not just Deron, but all our guys," he said at a table set up in the corner of the team's practice court, with a few dozen reporters facing him in folding chairs set on the wooden floor. "And I just got a sense that, as I told Avery this morning, he just wasn't reaching them anymore. It happens in sports, particularly at the professional level, but to pinpoint this all on Deron, it's not fair."

The poor play of Williams, the point guard on whom the Nets based their entire team-building strategy, has certainly not been the only reason that Nets have struggled. 

But he has been bad on the court, and downright deadly off it: His comments about Johnson's offense last week, an offense that was tailored to suit him, marked the beginning of the end.

Johnson had asked to speak to reporters after King, the general manager.

When he did, he was somber and thoughtful, replaying what he might have done differently in each answer to the reporters' questions, and coming up empty each time.

Johnson, who was sometimes called "The Little General" during his playing days with the Spurs, spoke several times of his belief that with Jan. 15 right around the corner, the moment many of the just-signed Nets would be eligible to be traded, some moves would be made to further improve a team that he correctly noted would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

He also said, evenly, that when King asked to speak with him Thursday, he thought the conversation was  to be about reinforcements he'd be getting, rather than about why the team had decided to blame him for the mixed results to date.

"I share with him every day what I saw with the roster," Johnson said. "I really thought that's what we were gonna talk about. But when he started to lay out, kind of, his conversation with Dmitry [Razov, Prokhorov's right hand man] and Mikhail this morning, then I kind of"—his pitch elevated somewhat here to indicate a moment of realization—"saw where it was going ... disappointing?"

Then Johnson switched—staring down, he seemed to be addressing the team's owners, who fired him in his third year, after two miserable seasons in New Jersey, after he'd finally gotten to Brooklyn and things had begun to look promising.

"Especially after the start we had, you go through different stretches of the season. You're 11-4, then you lose a few games, then you think you can win ten out of you next, or eleven out of your next 15 games. And I really thought, especially under the circumstances under which I took this job, knowing that the first two years we were gonna get beat up pretty bad, then I thought, third year, I'll have the whole third year, and the fourth year maybe, to try and put together a championship team."

Then he looked up and finished his analysis: "But that didn't happen."

He said, of the slump, "Even though the players didn't have the same fire, sometimes that can be a product of the cycle of the season ... Seasons have a way of changing. And this was a bad patch, a bad spot in the season, and basically, ownership and management said that. So if that was the case, then I thought maybe we should just ride it out."

The team didn't see it that way.

"Obviously something changed, and ownership get a lot of feedback from players, maybe the players weren't happy with the direction we were going, and collectively they probably all decided there needed to be a change," Johnson said.

Johnson spent a few more minutes analyzing his predicament--one as personal as it was professional. Thursday was his wife's birthday, and his son, Avery Johnson Jr., had spent the afternoon criticizing the Nets players on Twitter, writing, with more than a grain of truth: "I'm sorry [our] best players couldn't make open shots. Yeah that's my dads fault totally..."

"It's my wife's birthday today," Johnson said, in response to a question about his future plans. "So I'm trying to figure out, what am I gonna tell her? We had a dinner planned. So I gotta figure out what's gonna happen with her when I get home. It's not a great birthday gift. And that's the human side of this. Even though we're basketball coaches, we still have families. My son's playing in a basketball tournament in Texas, and he's not happy. He's not happy right now. My daughter's not happy. So I have to manage that."

Elsewhere in New York sports:

KNICKS

Jason Kidd will be the primary point guard Friday night in Sacremento, with Raymond Felton out four-to-six weeks with a fractured pinky.

Iman Shumpert will start practicing this Sunday.

YANKEES

Hideki Matsui officially retired Thursday. Here's what I wrote about his career back in August.

METS

The Mets signed Aaron Laffey to a minor-league deal for starting pitching depth, despite his very low strikeout rate.