Mavs' Johnson is NBA coach of year
DALLAS -- During Avery Johnson's playing days, many executives and players thought the point guard would make a great NBA coach. Still, he had to be convinced it was time to make that transition.
Now, after his first full season leading the Dallas Mavericks, Johnson was honored Tuesday as the NBA coach of the year.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban remembers talking to Johnson nearly two years ago about retiring as a player and becoming the top assistant -- and eventual successor -- to Don Nelson.
Cuban told Johnson, "I know you can still play, but we want to start you on the path to being a Hall of Fame coach." Johnson's response then, "I don't know, I don't know."
There's no more doubt. Johnson is a coaching natural.
Johnson led the Mavericks to 60 victories this season, matching the team record for wins. That mark was first set three years ago, when Johnson was playing for Dallas.
"I think I'm gifted to do what I'm doing, that this is what I'm here for," Johnson said. "I felt like a coach when I was a player. ... In a lot of ways, I know some things are still new to me. But in other ways, I just feel like I've been doing this a lot of time, and a lot of it just comes naturally."
Johnson retired as a player and became a Mavericks assistant coach before the 2004-05 season. After replacing Nelson as head coach on March 19, 2005, he reached 50 wins faster than any other coach (62 games) and recorded the best start by a first-time coach in league history by winning 66 of his first 82 games -- the equivalent of a full season. He is 76-24 overall and coached the Western Conference All-Star team this season.
"Avery's making me look really smart," Cuban said.
Johnson got 63 first-place votes from the panel of 124 sports writers and broadcasters. He had 419 points, 172 more than Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni, last year's winner. D'Antoni had 27 first-place votes.
Dallas plays Game 2 of its first-round Western Conference series against Memphis on Wednesday night. The Mavericks won the first game 103-93.
Maybe more impressive than his record is how Johnson has transformed the Mavericks into a defensive squad.
While the 2002-03 team was known only for its scoring, this year's squad ranked in the league's top 10 in scoring and points allowed. The Mavericks ranked higher in the defensive category with a franchise-low 93.1 points per game allowed.
"Avery's done a great job with us, preparing us every single night, teaching all the little things over the whole season and really turned the franchise around into a defensive ballclub first," Dirk Nowitzki said Tuesday. "He's done a great job, so he deserves a lot of credit."
Nowitzki, an NBA MVP candidate this season, and Adrian Griffin are the only current Mavericks who were teammates of Johnson in 2002-03.
"He's a leader, he knows how to get the best out of us. He has a lot of energy," Griffin said. "When I played with him, he was still vocal, he was still a leader. ... Some people just have a knack and a gift for that sort of thing, and I think he has it."
After the Mavericks won 60 games in 2003, they didn't put Johnson on their playoff roster. Instead, he played the role of a player-coach during practices that postseason and sat with the coaching staff on the bench during games. Coach Don Nelson already had let Johnson run some practices and considered the "Little General" a possible successor.
The Mavericks traded Johnson to Golden State before the 2003-04 season, but he was back in Dallas a year later -- technically as a backup guard but realistically as a coach.
As a player, Johnson was undrafted and repeatedly released. He finally became the starting point guard on an NBA champion in San Antonio (1992-2001), and hit the title-clinching shot in 1999. He is the Spurs' career leader in assists.
Johnson played in 1,054 games over 16 NBA seasons, averaging 8.4 points and 5.5 assists a game.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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