It was Don Nelson who set the table and prepared the food for your Dallas Mavericks. But it's been Avery Johnson who's taught them how to eat. Johnson, known as the Little General for his short stature and stern disposition, will receive the NBA's Coach of the Year award before Wednesday night's Game 2 against the Memphis Grizzlies at the American Airlines Center.
Nelson, a three-time Coach of the Year, was the chef that prepared Dallas' rise from the depths of the NBA cellar to the Western Conference Finals. But his laid-back, wide-open style flopped more than not in defensive, half-court playoff basketball. During his tenure, Nellie tabbed his son Donnie and even former NBA All-Star Sidney Moncrief as his successors. But during Johnson's playing stint with Dallas in 2003-'04, it became immediately obvious he was the right fit because of a personality that related to players and a philosophy that would finally bring balance to Dallas' talented but untapped roster.
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Johnson, who won a championship as a 5-foot-10 point guard with the San Antonio Spurs, took over for Nellie last March and performed the improbable. Without changing players, he altered a personality. Nellie would often bemoan the fact that his players were just naturally terrible defenders. But under Johnson's tenacity and accountability, those same players were the NBA's seventh-best defense this season and won a bulk of their franchise record-tying 60 games by holding opponents to fewer than 90 points. Johnson is the first winner of the award in Mavs' history and only the fifth local coach to garner such hardware, joining the Cowboys' Tom Landry (1966) and Jimmy Johnson (1990) and the Rangers' Johnny Oates (1996) and Buck Showalter (2004). Johnson even started the season by helping Hurricane Katrina victims. See, karma can be a bitch--or your best buddy. --Richie Whitt