The Understudy

Del Harris wasn't up for talking about Avery Johnson, not at first. In general, the Mavericks' assistant coach is a kind man, amenable to just about anything and happy to help. Harris is the type who, if you asked him for a quarter, would happily hand you a dollar and insist you keep the change.

For some reason, this topic was different, at least in the beginning. Harris was asked about Avery Johnson becoming the interim Mavericks head coach now that Don Nelson is on the injured reserve list because of his rotator cuff surgery. (No word on whether he'll be able to pitch the final game of the Indians series, but more on that odd circumstance/excuse to come.) When the topic was broached, Harris agreed to talk, but his answers were unusually curt, as if he knew the line of questioning was coming, and the fact that it was so predictable took any enjoyment out of it. Lots of questions about how Johnson's style will be different from Nelson's, met with answers that were less than thrilling. But, after a little while, Harris warmed to the discussion, setting up this exchange:

Media pack: How will things be different with Avery coaching?

Harris: Oh, I don't think things will be much different at all.

MP: Well, they do have different styles, right? How will Avery ever get tossed out of a game if he doesn't curse? (Johnson, for those who don't know, fears God and such; Nelson, on the other hand, has a love for cursing that would make Vice President Dick Cheney blush.)

Harris: Oh, I don't know about that. I think you can get a tech without cursing. I did it the other night. See, Nellie thinks he has to swear to get a tech, because he's never tried it any other way.

And with that, a collective laugh went up from the congress and everyone scurried to file their stories on the great Avery Johnson audition. Of course, this all began earlier in the season when Johnson, who is being openly groomed to become a head coach, was allowed to substitute for Nelson and assume his responsibilities in three games (a loss to San Antonio, wins against Atlanta and Milwaukee). In another game, Nellie got "accidentally" ejected for mouthing the ref, forcing Johnson to once again take over. That ejection took 90 seconds. Oops. Happens to the best of us.

So while everyone else is busy fawning over Johnson--I like him, but I can't figure out why the organization keeps pushing him on us--the conspiracy theorists among us (read: me and the meth addicts who compose my readers) wonder what's really going on here. That is, not to be distrustful, but it occurred to me that these "accidental" situations that keep handing the reins to Johnson might actually be unfolding "accidentally on purpose."

Taking a page from the Cowboys' policy, the Mavs sent out a short little e-mail about Nellie's operation and said very little thereafter. The message read:

"The Dallas Mavericks announce that Head Coach/General Manager Don Nelson will have shoulder surgery to repair his right rotator cuff on Thursday, January 20. Dr. Richard Levy at Texas Sports Medicine will perform the day surgery procedure.

"Nelson is anticipated to be out 2-3 weeks. Avery Johnson will assume the head coaching responsibilities until Nelson's return."

What the e-mail did not say, unfortunately, was why he had to have the surgery now, in the middle of the season. It also did not say why it will take him two to three weeks to recover, because it seems weird to me, and others, that he couldn't pop a Vicodin (like the rest of us) and get back to the bench after a few days, not a few weeks. But what do we know? We at the Dallas Observer are not, contrary to public opinion and our love for prescription drugs, qualified to answer medical questions. Still, it's a bit odd, no? Kinda like, I dunno, getting tossed from a game after 90 seconds?

"Yeah, it's odd," one NBA writer agreed. "The Nuggets are looking for a coach, some other teams, too. Maybe this is the organization's way of asking Avery to stick around without actually asking him to stick around."

Could be. Or it could be that they don't want to rush Nellie back from the IR and risk losing his nasty curveball. (Really, I could make these cracks all day.) Despite the peculiar timing and lame excuses, the Mavs clearly value Johnson on the bench and see him as head coaching material. (He started 3-0 while filling in for Nellie.) They're willing to let him be the main man while the main man is out. They're OK with that even though Del Harris, who actually has head coaching experience in the NBA, is also available for coaching duties--which really underscores how much they believe in Johnson.

All of which is fine. They like him? Fine. They want him to be their next head coach if/when Nellie decides to retire? Fine. But why now? Why find ways to get him experience in the middle of a season when every game is so important? (The Mavs have teetered between the fourth and fifth playoff seed in the West; the fourth spot gets home-court in the first round, while the fifth doesn't.)

"I think I'm more ready to do it now," Johnson says. "The first game, I think I wanted to prove to the team that I'm a good coach. I gave them so many things to think about, they were walking around like zombies. Nellie told me I froze their brain. I'll keep asking him for suggestions now. I just hope he's not too drugged-up."

Johnson does run practices for Nelson, and he's frequently heard during timeouts at games. In that respect, there shouldn't be too much concern about the transition. Nor did the players anticipate any sort of hiccup now that the former point guard--who is one of only two players in NBA history under 6 feet tall to play 1,000 games--is in charge. But, again, despite Johnson's hot start as the team's new leader, Nellie is a Hall of Fame coach, and Johnson isn't. Don't you lose something there?

"As a player, it's easier to correct your mistakes," Michael Finley says. "If you miss a shot or don't make the right pass, you fix it yourself. As a coach, it might be more frustrating for him, because he can tell us what to do, but we have to do it. But he's always had the intelligence to be a head coach. I don't think the transition will be hard for him or us, and I don't think we'll lose anything."

All of which, from this end, is way too nice and neat. Someone has to be worried or suspicious, right? Doesn't anyone wonder if it's a good idea to hand the team over in the middle of the season to a guy who has never had his own NBA team to command?

"There are no concerns for me as far as that goes," Johnson says. "I've been in and out of this league. I've been cut on Christmas Day before. This--I'm ready for this."

Apparently the Mavs are ready for this, too, but I think the rest of us would feel a whole lot better if the experiment was cut short. If only Nellie's doctors could help us out and get him back sooner than expected. If only medical science could devise something to aid his recovery. Something radical.

Like, say, a sling.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez