Commentary

Seconds beckon for Nets, Johnson

Avery wasn't Nets' first choice and they weren't his, but he's exactly what N.J. needs

Updated: June 16, 2010, 2:03 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Avery Johnson was the right choice to coach the New Jersey Nets, but no, he was not the first choice. Rod Thorn harbored a slight preference for Tom Thibodeau, and several people close to the Boston assistant tried and failed to convince him the Nets were a better long-term fit than the Chicago Bulls.

Thibodeau picked the Bulls over the Nets for this singular reason: He'd waited so long to become a head coach that he wanted desperately to land in a win-now place.

"Thibodeau was like the prettiest girl at the dance," one NBA executive said. "He could've picked any job that was open."

He rejected the New Orleans Hornets and Nets, and Thorn was OK with that. He liked Avery Johnson. Liked him a lot. Joe Torre was George Steinbrenner's fourth choice -- the Boss preferred Tony La Russa, Sparky Anderson and Davey Johnson on the list handed him by his aide, Arthur Richman -- and Johnson's winning percentage (.735) is a hell of a lot better now than Torre's (.471 ) was then.

[+] EnlargeAvery Johnson
AP Photo/Seth WenigAfter his Nets news conference, Avery Johnson went to the Bronx for the Yankees game.

But here's the funny part: The Nets weren't Johnson's first choice, either. No matter how much the former Dallas Mavericks coach swore Tuesday that he was always a Jersey (and Brooklyn) guy at heart, NBA sources maintain Johnson preferred the job in his hometown, New Orleans, and was wounded when he didn't get it.

Johnson's party line on the subject goes like this: If the Hornets' ownership transfer had been complete, he would've received the offer. This much is fact: New Orleans went after Thibodeau and Monty Williams instead.

So Johnson and the Nets entered into a marriage of necessity, but one that should work out. Johnson can be a pain in the rump to deal with -- "When he doesn't get results he can be a bit of a dictator," Devin Harris confirmed -- and there's nothing a 12-70 team needs more than, well, a pain in the rump for a head coach.

Johnson isn't a Joe Torre as much as he's a Buck Showalter or a Billy Martin. Napoleonic by nature, a little man with a chip the size of Central Park on his shoulder, Johnson is the perfect dirty-work leader for a franchise forever leading the league in dirty work.

Ignore the cartoon-character voice and easy smile; Johnson's about as subtle as a blind pick. The very reasons some NBA teams stayed away from him -- he comes on too strong ... he wants to control everything ... he doesn't listen to anybody -- make him the perfect man to cleanse the Nets of their losing ways.

"You obviously have too many guys who are soft-type players when you win 12 games," Thorn said. "You need somebody who will hold people accountable, and Avery holds people accountable."

He gets it from a predictable source, Gregg Popovich, who won his first title in San Antonio with Johnson as his point guard. Popovich is another prickly personality, another last-place finisher in a Mr. Popularity contest who knows how to win games.

"Avery learned under him, and sometimes it's a little strong," said Johnson's wife, Cassandra. "But it does work. The kids coming out of college today, their minds are like sponges. If they follow what Avery's saying they'll be just fine."

The evidence says Mrs. Johnson is right. Her husband grabbed Don Nelson's entertaining but Charmin-soft Mavericks by the throat, throttled them until they played defense, and led them to a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals before the whistles started blowing Dwyane Wade's way.

Johnson won 67 games the following season, only to fall to Nelson's Golden State Warriors in the first round. Dallas traded Harris for Jason Kidd in February 2008, and Johnson lost another first-round series (to New Orleans) before losing his job.

"It's time for a change," Mark Cuban told him. "It's time for the players to have a new voice and for you to have a new audience."

Johnson's first post-firing audience was a crowd of one.

"Hang in there, honey, you're a great coach," Cassandra told him. "Go back and change a few things you may not want to change ... and adjust your temperament to the style of younger players coming into the NBA."

Johnson pledged to make a few tweaks to his style this second time around, though he said the specifics of those tweaks "are a private matter." He did say his time as an analyst with ESPN gave him a better understanding of how the news media works.

Only Johnson wasn't hired to deliver good quotes. He was hired to make the Nets a winner by the time they arrive in Brooklyn in 2012 or 2013. The franchise already had the requisite salary cap space, draft picks and engaged zillionaire owner to make it happen, and now it has a coach who will demand excellence from players not inclined to reach for it.

A coach who won't be afraid to be a jerk when his team's effort requires him to be a jerk.

"We've had our quarrels in the past," said Harris, who emphasized he felt Johnson's discipline was precisely what the Nets needed.

Mikhail Prokhorov wasn't around Tuesday to explain why he notarized Thorn's choice of candidates; he did enough talking in Boston, where he sat with Johnson for Game 5, and during his tour of the Prudential Center in Newark. But Prokhorov's absence supported Johnson's claim the owner will be the anti-Cuban, a boss who rules quietly and from a distance.

It also hardened the notion that Prokhorov isn't afraid of leaving his team in the hands of ambitious and stubborn employees.

"We feel we can go from worst to first," Johnson said.

When Thorn offered him the Nets' job, Johnson knew Atlanta was about to offer him the Hawks' job. Undersized and underappreciated as an NBA player, undrafted out of college, Johnson chose the biggest challenge available.

He picked the 12-70 team over the second-round playoff team, then conceded he'd make a few changes in his approach.

Avery Johnson shouldn't change too much, just in case one of his Nets meets a 20-point loss with a whoop-de-damn-do.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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