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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

NBA REPORT

Nets taking real risk by hiring combative Johnson


NEW YORK — Given more time and fewer resources, Rod Thorn probably could have made a worse coaching choice than Avery Johnson . . . but damned if I can imagine who that micro-managing, playoff-pressure-leaking megalomaniac might be.

Avery's such high maintenance; he scares the heck out of Naomi Campbell.

As an NBA columnist you hear horror stories all the time about those carried away with their self-perceived importance. And then there are those unpleasant scenes that unfold right before your disbelieving eyes and ears that reverse your opinion forever about someone you greatly admired and respected as a player and a person.

On, June 18, 2006, the Mavericks lost 101-100 to the Heat in Miami, dropping their third straight after winning the first two games of the Finals in Dallas.

Afterward, at the largely attended news conference and shown live on NBA-TV, Avery, for no reason, became confrontational with veteran writer Eddie Sefko, who covered the team for the Dallas Morning News at the time, and before that for the Houston Chronicle.

In such situations, I often empathize with players and coaches who are obligated to answer dumb questions and then asked to expound on even dumber followups. This was not vaguely one of those situations.

Sefko happens to be one of the nicest guys around, the kind of beat writer every coach would love to have on a regular basis. On this occasion, standing in the back of the room in front of the microphone, he asked Avery's impression of controversial free throws awarded Dwyane Wade.

"You tell me, what was your impression?" Sefko said.

"Nobody cares about my . . . , " Johnson replied.

"No, you tell everyone . . . you tell . . . my impression is that he got two free throws out of it," Johnson added.

"That's a political answer . . . we're waiting . . . , " Sefko retorted.

Each time Avery refused to reply his belittling tone became more abrasive.

Sefko finally got flustered, tried to ask another question but had trouble finding words.

"Stop stuttering," Avery mocked.

Offended writers and embarrassed league officials, who had seen it all during decades on the front line agreed they had never seen a coach unravel like that.

Actually, Avery's meltdown began several days and one loss before. Believing his players had come to South Beach to party (Jerry Stackhouse had rented a yacht for him and his family) instead of play, The Little General redeployed the team to a Marriott 35 km away, and ordered 30-year-olds locked down. No one was permitted to leave the premises without his express permission.

I keep reading how hard Avery works, and how well he can teach and coach. To an extent, that's all true. But how he conducted himself when he was feeling the "Heat" revealed the fragility of his personality.

His strategy also leaves a lot to be desired. Let's not forget how he cut back his starters' minutes, or didn't play them at all the last 10 games of the 2006-07 season when they won a league-best 67.

Consequently, the Mavs didn't go after the opportunity to eliminate Don Nelson's Warriors from playoff contention.

Nobody knew Dallas better than Nellie, whose title-contending team Avery had inherited with 18 games left in 2004-05. Nelson exploited every mismatch and pulled off one of the league's all-time first-round upsets.

The following season the heavily favored Mavs again were erased in Round One. Avery authored his second book soon after, something about instructions on how to live life.

This from a guy who alienated his players, coaching staff, office workers and even owner Mark Cuban (talked to him like you can't believe) during that final season. Only one voice was allowed to speak at practice or in games and that was his.

"A.J. worked his ass off. He put more film time in then anyone I have seen," said a leftover Maverick. "His problem was that he worked so hard, he thought he could do it all by himself."

"This is very difficult to say," countered another employee, "but Avery treated people who worked for him like slaves."

Sources say he had no patience if the least little thing went wrong. And he would berate underlings in front of the players long and loud.

Of course, none of the above is to suggest Avery shouldn't win coaching honors next season when the exceedingly well-positioned — in terms of cap room and draft picks — Nets improve from 12-70 to, say, 42-42.

There's no denying Avery has a knack for coaching. But it's equally undeniable he needs to let go of some of the control.

He may begin games wanting his point to run the show and the team to get out on the break. But, at the first sign of trouble, he pulls back and starts calling every play.

And calling people names.

"The first thing Avery better figure out is not to yell at (Brook) Lopez," underlined a Nets staffer. "If he abuses him Brook is going to do one of two things, smack him or go into a shell. Brook has a helluva temper, but he's more likely to go into a funk."

So, what's in store for Thorn, who decided to bring in this sky-maintenance egotist?

He got a prelude when Avery issued a press release to AP that he had taken the job before the Nets had a chance to do it.

"I think Avery has learned from the Dallas experience and will be much better this time around," a few people want us to believe. "He definitely has a huge ego, but that was just a hassle, not a deal breaker."

So how come the Hornets (Avery's from Louisiana), Hawks and 76ers were reluctant to offer him a job over the last few weeks?

Red flags must still be bursting in air.

Peter Vecsey cover the NBAfor the New York Post.


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