“It is your understanding I seek – and not your enmity!” – Galactus, Devourer of Worlds
Today starts the first of a three part series on management, ownership, and coaching. I’ve spent some time this season looking at the players, but I would like to write about the people off the court who are significant to the team’s overall and long term success.
Unlike some sports that require constant management and play calling, a good basketball team can mostly handle itself on the court. The exceptions might be in clock management situations, determining lineups, minutes played, and keeping players from embarrassing themselves. I remember a segment on 60 Minutes where Phil Jackson was sprinkling incense throughout the locker room. And to most people, I think this is the perception of what a coach does. They sprinkle magical “win” dust on the players and encourage them to do great things. Jackson had more “win” dust than others, but he also had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal. I would be curious to see how his magic would work on the Charlotte Bobcats or Washington Wizards.
Yes, coaches call plays. They run practice. They confer with the general manager and owner about the state of the team. They are the spokesperson for the team, before, during, and after each game. They manage the locker room. They are a teacher, a father figure, a savior, and a drill sergeant. And the expectations placed on coaches make them easy targets for being fired. If the roster is full of talented players, then it must be the coach’s fault. Right? Remember earlier this season when Mike Brown was fired from the Lakers after only five games? Harsh.
All that to ask, how do we know when a coach is good? Coaches with vastly different styles and approaches have each had success, depending on the situation they’re in. And some players, and some teams, are nearly uncoachable. Coaches have sometimes benefitted from the hard work of the prior coach. When the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA Championship, it was with Larry Brown as the coach. But with all due respect, that was Rick Carlisle’s team. Likewise, Dirk Nowitzki’s ascendency happened with Avery Johnson prodding him to become a more complete player—not with Rick Carlisle or Don Nelson.
No team with Dirk Nowitzki at its core will ever be wholly conventional, but the Dallas teams of the last half-decade have become strategically tamer than some of the outlandish groups pieced together under Don Nelson’s tenure. The Mavericks iterations of the last few seasons have all had their quirks, but Rick Carlisle has largely remained true to positional orthodoxy in his lineup machinations. Carlisle demonstrates a clear willingness to push buttons (as evidenced by masterful lineup control in last year’s playoffs), but the cogs in his machine were largely in line with positional expectation.
All of that is about to change, as the Mavs have revamped their roster by adding a ridiculous amount of versatility. Tyson Chandler is long gone, and while his departure may leave Dallas with few precious traditional centers, the Mavs have other, more ambitious plans in mind.
“We still have the prototypical starting center in Brendan [Haywood] that’s still the quote-unquote ‘aircraft carrier,’” Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. “But now we’ve got the flexibility to slide Dirk [Nowitzki] a little bit over there, slide Lamar [Odom] over there a little bit, which gives us a whole different wrinkle. These guys are three-point threats. It’s kind of a different way to attack a same problem.”
Michael Lee of the Washington Post: “But shortly before pregame introductions, Arenas was dribbling near half court when Dallas Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd walked up to embrace him. Shortly thereafter, Jason Terry wrapped his arms around Arenas, followed by former Wizards teammates DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood and finally Caron Butler, with Haywood needling Arenas for his unkempt beard. Arenas couldn’t help but smile. But asked after the game about what his emotions were, Arenas said, ‘I lost all feeling a long time ago.’”
Tom Ziller, in typical Ziller fashion, illustrating the difference between Rick Carlisle and Avery Johnson in amazing visual form. There’s a lot going on with Ziller’s diagrams, but feast your eyes. I’m not sure that the diagram tells us anything we didn’t know before (a point emphasized by Mark Cuban in the source material on which Ziller riffs), but they’re worth your time nonetheless.
Rick Carlisle on the “battle” for starting center honors (via Eddie Sefko): “I don’t see it as a battle. I see those guys as being a team. Brendan’s going to be the starter – for now. And Tyson’s going to give us energy and athleticism and he brings an exuberance to the game that’s really going to help us. It’s a tandem that we really like and we expect big things from them and they’re going to have to produce for us.”
Ryan Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting, on draft prospect Sherron Collins (via Jeff Caplan): “If Collins is down there, which he could be, he’s one of the better point guards in this draft, but it depends on how good you think he is. This is not a point-guard draft whatsoever, but the guy is tough, he’s quick and he’s proved it. He doesn’t have size, but you have [J.J.] Barea, who is very tough, comparatively, the same kind of guy.”
Caron Butler, through his Twitter account (@realtuffjuice): “Wherever I’m at next year I’m going to be a problem. (I love dallas)…I wanna win a chip in dallas and that a realistic goal luv holla in the am…I wanna win in dallas let’s get it(chip).” He also noted that he’s trying to drop about 14 pounds for next season.
J.J. Barea, with a declaration that if he weren’t a Maverick, he would want to be a Net. It’s implied that it’s out of respect for newly-hired coach Avery Johnson, who coached J.J. during his first two seasons in Dallas.
Mark Cuban is surprisingly receptive to the idea of Rodrigue Beaubois playing in the FIBA World Championships this summer, but his stance is a bit less surprising after considering his qualifier (via Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas): “I’m ok with it. I’ve always said that I would be fine with participation as long as there was a 23- or 25-year old age limit.” It actually makes a fair bit of sense; Dirk has never had serious injury issues during his career, but guys like Yao Ming, Manu Ginobili, and Pau Gasol have all had some kind of significant complication as a result of international play. There is a point where allowing players to play for their home country over the summer fails to make fiscal sense for the teams that employ them, and that’s a legitimate concern as players get older and older and need more and more rest.
Jason Kidd, on Avery Johnson becoming the next head coach for the New Jersey Nets (via Julian Garcia of the New York Daily News): “I think Avery is going to help give them structure and he’s going to be a big part of their success. He’s a good coach. He got the Mavs to the Finals. So it I think they’re going in the right direction…They’ve got a great coach, they’ve got a young team and they have a young owner who wants to win. So they have some of the pieces and now they just have to get some of the other pieces to be successful.”
During his introductory press conference this morning, Avery Johnson said that Devin Harris would likely be given more freedom to run the offense due to his familiarity with the system and his experience as a PG. If that actually ends up being the case, kudos to Avery for taking a step back to let the players run the show. If not, well, I can’t say I’d be all that surprised. This is the kind of thing Mavs fans have heard from Johnson before, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s doomed to fall into the same patterns, no one can blame an observer for thinking he might.
For those looking to really deck themselves out in official merch, MavGear.com (the Mavs’ online store) is selling all jerseys at 50% off. Consider it the perfect opportunity to grab that shiny, gold Josh Howard jersey you’ve had your eye on.
Avery Johnson is, in many cases, a victim of revisionist history. There is no doubt that the most successful seasons in Maverick history came under Avery’s watch, and yet his coaching tenure in Dallas is treated as something of a failure. Johnson’s Mavs never won the title, but to judge a team solely on that criterion ignores the improbability inherent in any title run. In all, the teams Avery coached won a ridiculous number of games in his four seasons with the Mavs, and try as we might, there’s no getting around that.
Still, there are three substantial blemishes on Avery’s coaching resume:
In 2006, the Mavs squandered a 2-0 lead in the Finals against the Miami Heat. The situation is admittedly a bit more complicated, but that doesn’t change the fact that Johnson’s team walked into the Finals as the best in the league, and left as a stuffed decoration for Dwyane Wade’s wall.
In 2007, the Mavs won 67 regular season games but failed to adapt against their foil, the Golden State Warriors, in the playoffs. The match-up clearly wasn’t a beneficial one for Dallas, but with Avery as the coach with the more talented players and the more successful team, the Mavs were expected to perform. They didn’t, and plenty of that can be blamed on the players themselves. Still, Johnson’s decision to alter the Mavs’ rotation to match the Warriors’ speed (by way of giving Devean George more minutes, of all things) is too easily picked apart in retrospect.
Unlike just about every other rookie coach, Avery was pretty much handed a contending roster. When Johnson took over for Don Nelson mid-season in 2004-2005, the Mavs were 42-22. Not too shabby, and even more impressive given that Dallas had traded for a new point guard prior to that season in Jason Terry, and liquidated Antawn Jamison for Jerry Stackhouse and the draft rights to Devin Harris. By the time Avery took control of the team, the life-after-Nash growing pains had mostly subsided, as evidenced by the team’s 16-2 sprint into the playoffs. All of this is to say that Avery has never really made a team successful. He’s either a talented coach or a hell of an opportunist, but without seeing him coach another team with a different roster, we’ll never really know for sure.
The first two will follow Johnson to his grave. No matter what he does to redeem his coaching reputation, the 2006 and 2007 seasons were two blown opportunities in a league that doesn’t afford many. The latter Avery would seem to have a chance to remedy in the 2010-2011 season, as he is set to become the new head coach of the New Jersey Nets.
New Jersey may have the most impressive young nucleus in the league aside from OKC, with Devin Harris and Brook Lopez flanked by Terrence Williams, Courtney Lee, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Yi Jianlian, and the #3 pick in this year’s draft (which will likely be used on either Derrick Favors or DeMarcus Cousins). That said, this is still a team that could only manage 12 wins last season, leaving them a safe distance away from the Mavs that Avery inherited. This is Johnson’s chance to really prove himself as a coach, and though he may never be able to erase the memory of those two painful playoff runs in ’06 and ’07, he can at least remove the asterisk that comes from only coaching the rich.
Avery is confident if not arrogant, resolved if not stubborn, but above all, talented. Even if Johnson’s tenure with the Nets is a disaster, he’s shown that when given a good team, he can push them to their competitive limits…even if his Mavs teams didn’t quite push through to the promised land.
In the same update, Eddie Sefko also notes that Nick Calathes, one of the Mavs’ second rounders last year, will play professionally in Greece again next season and thus is not allowed to compete with Dallas in summer league.
Kelly Dwyer assembled a list of the top playoff performers this season, with Dirk getting his due at #6: “Had the Mavericks played a little longer, with Dirk no doubt approximating his averages of 26.7 points per game on 55 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds and just 1.7 turnovers a contest, Nowitzki would probably be duking it out with Pau and Rondo at the top. As it is, the Mavs were out in the first round, and though Dirk had some chances to aid his Mavericks down the stretch of a few of their losses to San Antonio, the biggest reason they were in those losses to begin with was because of Nowitzki’s superb play.”
Tom Ziller and Bethlehem Shoals compiled a number of free agency outcomes, most of which involve Dirk staying a Mav, but two that involve Nowitzki signing with the Knicks (one alongside LeBron, the other alongside Joe Johnson). It’s more exploratory than predictive, but one line should stick out to Mavs fans: “LeBron’s not coming Dallas, no matter how catchy its Autotune-d siren song; it’s Dirk and little else.” The last phrase is something that most MFFLs have noted following Dallas’ loss in the first round of the playoffs, but the argument is somehow flipped when the topic of free agency comes up. I agree that Dallas has the most complete team for a star that wants to contend immediately (supposing they retain both Dirk and Brendan Haywood, of course), but the logical shift is still very interesting. Even LeBron wouldn’t solve all of the Mavs problems.
Steve Nash’s top 10 career assists, with #10 coming while he was in a Maverick uniform. Plenty of gems in the bunch, but disappointingly unrepresentative of Steve’s entire career. It’s not just a Mavs thing, either; Nash’s first few years with the Suns seem a tad neglected as well. Then again, all of the assists chosen are awesome, so what’s the use in complaining? (Link via Ball Don’t Lie)
Avery puts the Mavs as the third best team in the West, which is reasonable. The Lakers are clearly the class of the conference, and the 2-3 spots are Mavs and Nuggets, interchangeably.
He also says of Dirk: “…you can give him the MVP right now if you want to.” As of now, I couldn’t agree more. Things could look very different by the end of the regular season, but so far Dirk’s certainly earned it.
I’ve always found it funny that Charles Barkley can never get J.J. Barea’s name right. I realize he’s a back-up and that few people are as casual about their jobs as Chuck, but come on. If it was one, two, three times, hey, everyone makes mistakes. But Barkley consistently blows it, opting for “Barrera” instead. But after watching that Avery video, why should I expect precise pronunciation from Barkley when J.J.’s former coach can’t even remember his last name?