Perhaps Shark Tank saved us all. The Mavs’ number one off-season quest was to put Deron Williams’ pen to paper on what surely would have been a max contract in his hometown of Dallas. Hard to tell if a ghostly premonition influenced him, but with this week’s events, maybe Mark Cuban knew just enough to stay in L.A. on that fateful recruitment day.
After being tagged with the blame for the firing of former Mavericks and now former Nets head coach Avery Johnson, Williams quickly came out and said that it wasn’t his fault — but surely that is dependent on how you interpret that statement. Williams has had issues with a wrist injury all season after having surgery on the same wrist in April of 2011 and is putting up his lowest FG% and assist numbers since his rookie year. With an owner trying to make a big splash with his team moving into a new arena in a new city, the Nets organization needed to find some way to shake things up after dropping to the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. Johnson made for an a convenient scapegoat.
Williams wasn’t necessarily lobbying for Johnson’s dismissal when he endorsed his previous coach’s offense over Johnson’s; Jerry Sloan is, after all, a Hall of Fame basketball coach who had 15 consecutive winning seasons and coached the NBA’s all-time assist leader. It seems fair for Williams to hold Sloan in high regard when it comes to offensive schemes. But when your team acquires the seventh highest-salary player in the league at shooting guard, your expectations change. The same goes for when Deron Williams rounds out the top 15 on that list behind the Nets’ Joe Johnson. While Avery can’t be blamed for Williams’ injury issues or poor play compared to expectations, it’s easier to replace a coach leading a team to a .500 win percentage and pay out his contract than to manipulate such handsomely paid components.
The sting of 2006-2007 will probably never go away for me as a Mavs fan. Still, I’m not sure that the criticism Avery took in the first round loss to the Golden State Warriors was completely fair. Going into that offseason, Golden State had 16 of their last 21 games to make the playoffs and had a team full of shooters that were on fire. Couple that with the team being coached by Don Nelson who had built the Mavericks squad and knew all their strengths and weaknesses, Golden State having a good team and crowd presence for the first time in over a decade, and Don Nelson wanting to put it to Mark Cuban, it was a perfect storm. After the Mavericks opted to not play their starters in the final meeting with Golden State which could have knocked the Warriors out of the playoffs altogether, Avery also changed his line-up from the regular season to start that playoffs, which signaled in some sense that the Mavericks needed to adjust to the 8th seed Golden State. It was a vote of no-confidence that seemed to infiltrate the team as Don Nelson swarmed Dirk Nowitzki in just a fashion for which the former Mavericks’ coach knew Dirk would be unprepared.
As heart breaking as that first round exit was following the previous season’s Finals run, the regular season that led up to that first round loss was transcendental. That Mavericks team shares the 6th best NBA regular season record. I was recording games with the NBA League Pass and would come home wondering whether the win would be a blowout or a close game. It was almost comical how rarely they lost. Sure, there are five NBA regular season team records that are better, but of those the only ones that happened in my lifetime belonged to Jordan’s Bulls. For comparison, a third of the teams in the league have more losses as of today than the 2006-07 Mavs did in total. Unfortunately this year’s Mavericks are one of them.
Johnson had something to do with that daunting regular season and the Mavericks’ first run-in with Miami and the NBA Finals. Don Nelson had nurtured offense in Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, but it was Johnson who challenged the team to defend and take their game to the next level. Eventually that intensity wore thin on the Mavericks players, but it was what took the team to that level in the first place. Maybe Avery wasn’t the best fit for the New Jersey Nets or for their transition to Brooklyn. Like he did taking over for Don Nelson, I think Avery is better suited to taking over a veteran team on the cusp, a la Larry Brown stealing Rick Carlisle’s first championship. Could Avery’s force of will push a team like the Thunder over the edge? I, for one, wouldn’t be shocked. Avery Johnson could work as a TV analyst, end up as an assistant, or maybe as a head coach again in the future. Chances are he won’t be coming back to Dallas though, as Mark Cuban break-ups appear to be rough affairs.
Deron Williams opted not to come to Dallas. I wouldn’t be surprised if the LeBron James fiasco of a few years ago influenced Williams’ decision to stay in Brooklyn. Maybe he wanted to be able to leave town without a prerequisite jersey burning. Regardless, Williams is a Net, and in recent weeks his reputation as a “coach killer” has only grown. I’m not saying that Williams is some kind of coach head-hunter trying to get coaches fired — that would be an unfair assumption. But Williams has been vocal and precise in his comments about Johnson throughout the Nets’ current lull, in a way that articulates more about him than unsourced reports about locker room whispers ever could. Combine that with recurring, possible career-influencing injury (and factor in the wake of a night where Darren Collison dropped 30+), and the other Deron’s signing in Brooklyn isn’t looking so bad for the Mavericks.
Shay Christian Vance is a member of the Two Man Game family. Follow Shay on Twitter at @shayseph.