Continuing the series on head coaching candidates for the Denver Nuggets, let's take a look at the coaching career of Avery Johnson and provide opinion of how he'd fit with the team here in Denver.
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As a head coach, Johnson’s career has been a unique mixture of surprise successes and unexpected disappointments. His head coaching career began with the Dallas Mavericks toward the end of the regular season in 2005. After being groomed by his mentor and former coach Don Nelson for the first five months of the season, Johnson took over the head coaching role and led the team to a 16-2 finish to the regular season and a first round playoff win over the Houston Rockets.
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In Johnson’s second season with the Mavericks he led them all the way to the NBA finals where they lost to the Miami Heat in six games after holding a 2-0 series lead. The following season was equally bittersweet as the Mavericks finished with the NBA’s best record only to lose in the first round to the eighth seeded Warriors who were coached by Nelson, Johnson’s mentor. The Mavericks lost another first round series the following year, this time to the New Orleans Hornets, and Johnson was fired the very next day.
In 2010, Johnson became head coach of the New Jersey Nets. The team gutted the roster to pursue several high profile players in free agency, but after striking out with LeBron James and several others, there was little Johnson could do to help the team contend. In 2012, the team moved to Brooklyn and assembled an expensive roster built around Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. Avery led the team to a hot start and earned Eastern Conference coach of the month for November before being fired in December during a stretch where the team lost 10 of 13 games.
Johnson is, by all accounts, a very principled person with strongly held personal beliefs and the same can be said about his coaching style. He’s earned the nickname "Little General" for his small stature, his relationship with former teammate David (the Admiral) Robinson and his reputation of something of a disciplinarian and a taskmaster. Dallas players credited him for helping the team stay motivated and focused during their 2006 run to the NBA Finals. His energy and intensity kept the team driven and the veteran led team responded very positively to his no nonsense approach.
Although he led the Mavericks to the league’s best offense in his first full season as coach, Johnson’s style is a fairly old-school, isolation heavy offense. Dirk Nowitzki won the MVP award under Johnson, partially because of how impressively Dirk scored in isolation. Dirk also seemed to toughen up under Johnson, who would stick with him for extended stretches, play him heavy minutes and force him to step up and take shots under pressure. On the other hand, Deron Williams criticized Avery publicly just a week before the coach was fired. Williams had posted career lows in almost every statistical category at the start of the 2012-13 season and felt that Avery had set him up for failure.
Johnson has a hard time trusting rookies and even tends to rely heavily on his star or established players. Devon Harris is a good example of how hard it is for a player to earn Johnson’s trust. Johnson was remarkably hard on Harris during his rookie and sophomore seasons with the Mavs, despite the team needing his stellar point guard play. Johnson himself admitted that he wished he had trusted Harris sooner.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Avery’s coaching, but I’m probably bringing my own baggage to this. As a player, I hated coaches that were harsh, pointed, my-way-or-the-highway types. Not just for personal, personality reasons, but because I think that style of leadership goes against what the game of basketball is at its core. I see the game as a harmony of independent minds and talents playing a game that is simultaneously individual and communal. Avery’s style of leadership is slightly more along the lines of a dictatorship or like building a model airplane. Here are the instructions, stick to them closely.
I also fear that he would stunt the growth of our most promising young players, namely Jusuf Nurkic and Will Barton. Shaw famously distrusted Nurkic early in the season despite the fact that according to every advanced statistic, the team was much better with him on the court. Johnson’s history suggests that he would be the same way. And while the veteran Mavericks team was fairly positive about their tough coach, the Nets locker room, led by Williams, was extremely critical. The current Nuggets locker room is probably more similar to the 2012 Nets rather than the 2006 Mavericks, and not mentally tough enough for Avery’s no nonsense approach.
Avery’s record is actually remarkably impressive overall. There was a noticeable change in the Mavericks’ team when he took over and hidden behind their epic collapses are a few extremely impressive wins, including a Game 7 win against the Spurs in San Antonio in 2006. Avery is also a relatively intense, yet usually calm and collected guy, his players often teasing him that he tries hard not to let anybody see him sweat. He can be a great motivator and somebody that will work tirelessly to make a team work.
Ultimately, I’m just not sold on his style. I don’t think he is a good fit for the Nuggets as currently constructed, and I think there are much better candidates out there.