11:50 am Jan. 2, 2013
When the New York Knicks replaced head coach Mike D'Antoni with Mike Woodson last March, the results changed immediately.
D'Antoni had lost his final six games in charge. Woodson won his first five, including a debut that saw the Knicks thrash the Portland Trailblazers, 121-79. Carmelo Anthony had been chafing under D'Antoni, but his defensive effort picked up with Woodson, and he became one of the league's most valuable players over the duration of the season.
The Brooklyn Nets hoped the script would unfold after they fired their coach last week.
The star player Deron Williams had indicated that coach Avery Johnson wasn't the right fit. That the Brooklyn Nets had achieved a record of 14-14 under Johnson prior to his firing last Thursday wasn't surprising; the Nets are a relatively flawed team. But between Williams and Joe Johnson, the Nets had a pair of players who were playing well below their previous career levels.
But elevating P.J. Carlesimo from assistant coach to replace Johnson has not, at least so far, had the desired effect.
The Carlesimo Nets beat a terrible Charlotte Bobcats team, barely held on at home against a short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers team, and got embarrassed by the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night.
The manner of their loss to the Spurs was familiar: the Nets were competitive in the first half, but scored an absurd five points in a third quarter that sealed the game.
If differences with Johnson had been the only thing plaguing Williams, as some suspected, the Nets would be all set. Clearly, that's not the case.
Williams, whose shooting has dropped precipitously from the accuracy he'd achieved with the Utah Jazz prior to the February 2011 trade that brought him to the Nets, hasn't been much better since the coaching change. He's at 40.5 percent in the three games since, but that is misleadingly positive. He's been worse in each of the three games than the last, and managed just 3-for-11 against the Spurs, along with a single assist, in 28 minutes.
Carlesimo knows the only way he can stick around is by reviving Williams. One of his first acts as head coach was to sit down with Williams. His message, according to Carlesimo, was straightforward.
“I told him exactly what I needed him to be,” Carlesimo said Tuesday. “I needed him to be Deron Williams.”
The latest theories for Williams' decline, an unexpected one at 28 and in the first year of a five-year deal worth just under $100 million, stem from his work this summer for the U.S. olympic team (no rest), compounding his many injuries. But the truth is, no one knows what the problem is, precisely, or whether this is even something temporary.
The Nets have also been getting the same mediocre production from Joe Johnson, who is signed for a comparable amount of money to Williams over the next four years. He's put up three games with 16, 15 and 12 points, getting that on poor three-point shooting, some made jumpers, and almost no trips to the free throw line.
Last season, Carmelo Anthony's season-long offensive malaise did not magically lift when Woodson replaced D'Antoni. It took a bit of time. Anthony shot 40 percent under D'Antoni in 2011-12, down from his career mark of just under 46 percent. Multiple injuries that Anthony tried to play through were the suspected culprit. And in his first eight games under Woodson, he continued to slump, shooting 39.5 percent.
But over the final fifteen games of the season, he became arguably the finest offensive player in the Eastern Conference with the exception of LeBron James, shooting just under 50 percent overall, 44 percent from three-point range. And that elite play has continued into 2012-13, with Anthony at 47.8 percent this season, 43.5 percent from three. Perhaps Williams will rediscover his shooting touch shortly as well.
But clearly, the simple act of removing Avery Johnson hasn't fixed the Nets' problems. That five-point quarter was an embarrassing testament to that fact. This team, given its roster, had reason to expect potential problems stopping teams defensively. The offensive problems, much like the decline of Williams, were unforseeable, or at least unforeseen.
As constructed, and playing as they are now, the Nets can probably expect to continue to beat the awful teams, split with the mediocrities and get routed by the elite teams who know how to exploit their weaknesses. As of right now, that's still good enough to land them in the playoffs, though setting them up for a likely first-round exit against a superior opponent. (If the season ended today, that series would be against the New York Knicks.)
The Nets are reportedly chasing Phil Jackson to replace Carlesimo, though indications are if they cannot convince Jackson to leave retirement, they may just ride Carlesimo out for the season, then see who the best new coach they can hire will be this offseason.
With a roster filled with heavy, long-term commitments to currently underachieving players, this may be the only way the Nets have of changing their circumstances.