By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The supportive mid-season shirt: "Avery's Team."
The distressed post-season edict: "Avery's Time."
It's time. Time for Dallas Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson to deliver. Time for his precious system and his hand-picked players to win a championship, a series or, at this point, a couple of playoff road games. Time for him to cease the bumbling late-game execution and the inexplicable strategies. Time for him to silence us critics who think he should be fired if the Mavs lose another first-round series.
For the time being, we're in full throat.
It's impossible not to recognize—and admire—owner Mark Cuban's passionate loyalty to Johnson. Friction be damned, the owner has been flawless in setting up his coach to win.
Bucking his own business philosophy aimed at avoiding lethargic contentment, Cuban rewarded Johnson with a new contract before the old deal expired. When his coach bemoaned his team's void of veteran leadership, the owner acquired players like Devean George and Eddie Jones. When Johnson dreamed of a Hall-of-Fame point guard, Cuban absorbed a financial kick to the crotch for the right to trade half the team and all the future for Jason Kidd. When his coach engaged him in a post-game shouting match over reserve Brandon Bass' playing time, the owner showed up the next day wearing the "Avery's Team" T-shirt. And during an underachieving regular season, the owner has backed his coach by publicly side-stepping the dreaded "vote of confidence."
But now, if and when Johnson oversees another painfully disappointing playoff failure, Cuban must fire him. I know I would. You?
With Games 3 and 4 against the New Orleans Hornets heading to American Airlines Center this weekend, the Mavericks could still win their first-round playoff series. But the downward spiral—nearing its two-year anniversary—isn't promising.
Hard to believe that just 22 months ago Johnson was the NBA's Coach of the Year, willing the Mavs within four and a half quarters of a championship. These days, his career is closer to cremation than coronation.
After taking over for Don Nelson in March 2005, Johnson racked up 100 wins faster than Red Auerbach or Pat Riley or Phil Jackson or anyone. He boasted a hard-line system founded upon defense and discipline, and exuded a soft Southern charm when preaching about "baskit-bawwwwwwl." For the first time in their history, the Mavericks were as mentally focused as they were physically gifted, and they led the Miami Heat 2-0 in the 2006 NBA Finals and by 13 points with six minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
He was our Li'l General. And he could do nothing wrong.
Cue the implosion.
Out of nowhere, his team stopped attacking the basket, stopped guarding Dwyane Wade and stopped making clutch free throws. After a Game 4 blowout loss that evened The Finals, Johnson panicked and moved his team's hotel from Miami to Fort Lauderdale. The epic collapse, however, was only commencing. In a ploy more confusing than Miguel Tejada's age, Johnson refused to trap Wade until it was too late—until the Heat guard had channeled Michael Jordan and the Mavs had become the first team in 30 years to blow a 2-0 lead.
Johnson's honeymoon was over, but not his nightmare.
He royally screwed up last year's record-setting 67-win season when, before Game 1 of the first-round series against eighth-seeded Golden State, he altered his lineup to match the smaller, quicker Warriors. Everyone, except Johnson, knows that lesser opponents adapt to 67-win teams, not vice-versa. The confounding move gave Golden State hope, and the Mavs again made history—as the only No. 1 seed to lose a seven-game series to a No. 8.
Which, on the heels of those soul-sapping flops, brings us to 2008. Off to a sluggish start, Johnson gave up on point guard Devin Harris in favor of Kidd. But during late-game inbounds situations, Johnson had Josh Howard—instead of arguably the sport's all-time greatest passer—throwing the ball in. And, of course, the coach benched his new prized acquisition for the final 34 seconds of a head-scratching, gut-wrenching loss in San Antonio. That mush-minded move prompted critics to launch www.fireavery.com and suddenly, seriously consider Johnson as nothing more than a mediocre X's and O's coach whose motivational ploys were running dry.
"I wouldn't say this season has been taxing or challenging. There's been some turbulence," Johnson told reporters in New Orleans before Game 1. "But I love adversity. I like to hit adversity right in the face. I think when you love adversity, you have a lot of courage under fire. Even though it appears to be challenging, and it has been, I think a lot of great things have come out of this season."
Maybe, but those minuscule positives have been engulfed by the reality of a deteriorating, flawed team that, honestly, isn't fun to watch. (Nellie's Mavs never won a title either, but in 2003 I witnessed them score 83 points in a playoff game's first half.) The Mavs won only 51 games. After last Saturday's 12-point defeat, they had lost nine of their last 11 playoff games including seven consecutive on the road. They are a team whose only identity is the head coach's irritating habits of burning ridiculously early timeouts, calling plays on almost every offensive possession and criticizing his team ad nauseam for settling for jump shots.
At some point—this point—you blame the coach and his message as much as the players. Johnson, the cagey ol' point guard-turned-control freak, couldn't develop Harris, can't coach Kidd and is supervising a sad regression in Howard from do-it-all Scottie Pippen to set-shot Michael Finley.
Again, the season is still salvageable, but if the Mavs don't beat the Hornets, they'll end the season as a franchise that hasn't re-invigorated its fans, doesn't develop young players and is led by a coach who's crashed from high throne to hot seat.
If you watched Game 1, the prognosis can't be good.
As they did in getting torched by Wade and Golden State's Baron Davis, the Mavs refused to aggressively trap the ball away from the Hornets' best player, Chris Paul. Where was the half-court pressure that flustered Paul in last week's regular-season finale? They played without competitive fire and didn't try enough zone. They again relied on an offensive scheme based on isolations instead of allowing Kidd to freelance on the fast break. Where were the post-ups for Kidd to make Paul expend energy on defense? I sometimes get the feeling that Johnson coaching Kidd is like Bobby Knight put in charge of the Harlem Globetrotters.
In retrospect, Dallas' best moment of the season might have come when Dirk Nowitzki nailed a scintillating, game-winning 3-pointer that beat the Utah Jazz and clinched the playoffs. The play came on a possession when Johnson had no timeouts. Go figure.
Avery Johnson is a great person. He sends players' wives Christmas gifts, baby-sits Jerry Stackhouse's son and his Aspire Higher self-help tome is a best-seller.
But now it's time—past time—for Avery Johnson to be a great coach.