Johnson Fired, D’Antoni On Hot Seat

By Bryan Jeon

After first-round exits by the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns, one coach is out and another is rumored to be next. Sadly, neither coach deserves unemployment despite the absence of a title. But that’s the problem these days; coaches’ statuses for their job solely depends on whether they win the championship and obviously, many coaches are wrongly “relieved of their duties.”

Avery Johnson: 3+ seasons as head of the Dallas Mavericks – 194-70 (.735) in the regular season, 23-24 (.489) in the playoffs

Record Playoffs
2004-05 16-2   Lost, West semis
2005-06 60-22 Lost, NBA Finals
2006-07 67-15 Lost, 1st round
2007-08 51-31 Lost, 1st round

Noteworthy: A.J really solidified this ball club as one to be reckoned with during his brief tenure with the Mavs. He led Dallas to a club-record 67 wins last season and their first NBA Finals two years ago while winning Coach of the Year that year but after two consecutive first-round exits, Mark Cuban and company led Johnson to the door.

Argument: Look at Johnson’s playoff record. He has under a .500 winning percentage.

Rebuff: Numbers don’t lie, but stats can be skewed, and this is definitely one of them. Just look at his four playoff appearances – an NBA Finals and 2nd-round showing among four straight playoff appearances. If you want to criticize the two first-round exits, I’m pointing the finger at Dirk Nowitzki in last year’s upset by Golden State and the unbelievably stacked Western Conference in this year’s spanking from the Hornets, where a first-round loss by any team (except for the Lakers who were matched up with the horrid Nuggets) wouldn’t be too much of a disappointment to go into panic mode. If it’s just to terminate a coach because he didn’t take home the top prize, shouldn’t 28 other coaches be fired every year as well?

Argument: Johnson blew it with the Jason Kidd trade, as they were 35-18 with Devin Harris but 17-17 with Kidd, including the playoffs. And he’s 35 with a player option for $21 million next season!

Rebuff: I guess Johnson knew he was going all in when he anted up for Kidd, as D’Antoni did with Shaquille O’Neal. Obviously, had it worked out, Johnson, and similarly D’Antoni, would have been hailed for winning that one championship despite the aging Kidd and Harris (or the aging O’Neal and Marion) both being gone in the near future, buying some years with no worries on the hot seat. Historically, it’s doubtful a Harris-led team could have taken out the Hornets or another year of the Marion-led Suns could defeat the Spurs. Bottom line, it was just something that had to be tried.

Forecast: I guess what matters is Johnson doesn’t seem bitter at all about the decision, which is good but surprising given what he’s accomplished during his brief time in Dallas. Possible suitors: New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls.

Mike D’Antoni: 4+ seasons as head of the Phoenix Suns – 253-136 (.650) in the regular season, 26-25 (.509) in the playoffs

Record Playoffs

2003-04 21-40 DNQ
2004-05 62-20 Lost, West finals
2005-06 54-28 Lost, West finals
2006-07 61-21 Lost, West semis
2007-08 55-27 Lost, 1st round

Noteworthy: D’Antoni took over a roughly .500 ball club in 2003 and in his first full season, engineered the then-third largest turnaround in NBA history with a 33-game improvement and tied the club record with 62 wins, earning him Coach of the Year honors. His immediate impact took Phoenix deep into the playoffs but never reached the NBA Finals, stopped by the San Antonio Spurs three out of the past four years. General manager Steve Kerr has denied reports that D’Antoni is going to be shown the door, but time will tell.

Argument: Even worse than Johnson, who has at least been to the NBA Finals, D’Antoni isn’t successful in the playoffs.

Rebuff: True but his only kryptonite is the problem of running into the defending champions almost every year. Forget his playoff record; it should be noted that in playoff series during D’Antoni’s reign,  the Suns are 0-3 against the Spurs but 5-1 against all else. Besides that one glitch, that’s pretty successful to me.

Argument: The Suns gave up a versatile player and noteworthy defender in Shawn Marion for an over-the-hill O’Neal.

Rebuff: You’ve got to address the fact that you’re losing to a particular team year in and year out so what else is there to do but to shake up the roster? One can be conservative and not make any moves to save his job, but these coaches should be praised for their bold and unpopular trades that if unsuccessful, is a very good reason that could remove them from their positions. D’Antoni went straight after Tim Duncan and the Spurs by acquiring O’Neal but was criticized because Shaq is 36 and Marion is a valuable role player who actually plays defense against the Spurs. Heck, five games might seem like an easy series, but it was far from it. O’Neal averaged a solid 15 and 9 with 2.6 blocks per game. His dagger? Going 32-of-64 from the free throw line, his 8th playoff series that he missed over 30 free throws (believe me, no one comes close). The Spurs adjusted their game plan to the Hack-a-Shaq method and the 5-point series-clinching Game 5 win saw Shaq go 9-for-20 from the line. Who would have guessed that that would have been their downfall? Marion ain’t no cheap commodity either, raking in over $16 million this season. Phoenix just has to concede that they won’t be able to win during the Tim Duncan reign (and consequently, Steve Nash) much like oh, all of the big names during Michael Jordan‘s title run with the Bulls.

Forecast: It’s been fun watching the Suns’ high-octane offense led by Nash but if D’Antoni is let go, he might not make that far of a move with that vacant spot in Dallas. Possible suitors: Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks.

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2 responses to “Johnson Fired, D’Antoni On Hot Seat

  1. Awesome article, BJ. First, I’ll say that it was a fair and justifiable decision to fire Avery Johnson (though I wasn’t rooting for it) and D’Antoni probably deserves one more year integrating Shaq and reworking their system.

    But allow me to play devil’s advocate.

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that all coaches are judged by the number of rings they accrue on their fingers, but that Johnson and D’Antoni are because of the enormous expectations they built for themselves. In one of the past four seasons, the Mavs or Suns have held the best record in the NBA and subsequently were the favorite to make it out of the West, if not win the whole shebang. And in those respective years, both failed to even make the Finals, with the Mavs being the more egregious offender, losing to the Warriors in the first round. They were perennial contenders for the title, and in some years, expected to win the title. But they failed each time.

    One can argue that the West has always been stacked–this year in particular–but I’m pretty sure there were more people picking the Suns and Mavs to win (this postseason or in years past) than the Spurs, Hornets, or Warriors.

    And a team’s talent usually carries them through the regular season, but coaching comes to the forefront in the playoffs. At times this year, the Mavs and Suns appeared to lack heart, focus and failed to execute even the most basic of game plans—this is as much the coach’s fault as it is the players. The general’s job is to have his troops prepared and alert.

    In the end, I think both organizations realized they reached their plateau with Johnson and D’Antoni. Given both teams’ personnel and Johnson and D’Antoni’s philosophies, they just weren’t a championship mix. With the right group of players, however, I think they are championship caliber coaches, and they’ll get job offers faster the Raiders can ruin a career.

  2. I guess I can pose the question: does it matter if you go out in the conference semis, conference finals or NBA Finals? A loss is a loss, right? Or does how far you advance in the playoffs (beyond the first round, sorry T-Mac) matter too?

    Did you hear Johnson ripping his players in the series against the Hornets? “Down 2-0, he said to blame him, but his remarks came off as sarcastic because he added it was his fault the players were missing layups, free throws and defensive assignments.”

    Poor McFadden.

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