The Los Angeles Lakers fired coach Mike Brown last month, just five games into the season, even though the starting point guard was injured and the starting center still was recovering from back surgery. The Brooklyn Nets fired coach Avery Johnson on Thursday, with a 14-14 record, even though he won Coach of the Month in November with a totally revamped team and players still learning each other.
"This isn't about the fair game," Johnson told reporters during his farewell news conference. "A lot of time, it's about the blame game. Because for the most part in this business, the coach always gets blamed. Whether it's fair or not isn't the point. It's just the way it happens."
Johnson and Brown deserved more time, but they worked in the biggest markets for impatient owners with high expectations in a microwave culture. That was a bad combination, especially for Johnson, in the final year of his contract with no extension in sight. The fact that Brown was jettisoned with nearly three full seasons left on his deal just shows that owners with deep pockets can be extremely impulsive.
But here's where Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov can show much better instincts than the Lakers' ownership duo of Jerry and Jimmy Buss.
The father-son brain trust had Phil Jackson lathered up for an encore before it spurned him for Mike D'Antoni. The Busses had visions of the Lakers' old "Showtime" in their heads, when the current roster is more suited for "Slowtime." Regardless, Jackson's 11 NBA championship rings as a coach — five with the Lakers — should have given him the edge against D'Antoni, who in his 11th season as a coach has yet to reach the NBA Finals.
Prokhorov won't make the same mistake. He won't pass on a shot to hire the NBA's biggest celebrity coach, not after spending so much money and so much time trying to make an inroad in New York. Prokhorov is smart enough to make Jackson the Nets' first, second and third choice, refusing to accept 'no' on the first, second or third offer.
Resurfacing on the Lakers' bench seemed to be the perfect scenario for Jackson. But returning to the city where he began his playing career and won two titles with the Knicks would be a close second.
A different sort of homecoming, it would allow Jackson to reconnect with New York, where he maintains a cultlike following for his on-court performance and his devotion to former Knicks coach Red Holzman. The city has more than enough attributes to satisfy Jackson's zest for culture and learning. And coaching in Brooklyn, opposed to Manhattan, would address his counter-culture tendencies and bohemian leanings.
There's another potential benefit from Jackson's point-of-view: tweaking the Knicks by joining forces with the cross-town Nets. The Knicks' hierarchy has never shown Jackson the appropriate levels of respect and courtesy when it could've put him on the bench or in the front office. He didn't warrant even cursory consideration after his former team and D'Antoni parted ways last season.
Now the Nets have a chance.
The first public comment on Jackson and the Brooklyn opening was totally noncommittal. TNT's David Aldridge, quoting agent Todd Musburger on Thursday, said "Phil has no interest in the Nets job at this time." But Musburger's text message was outdated the moment he hit the send button. Interest regarding a given subject can change in the span from this time to this time, from morning to night.
Later on Thursday, CBS Sports' Ken Berger quoted a source who claimed that coaching in New York "would intrigue [Jackson]. He has a lot of history with that place."
He also has a lot of history with all-time greats and championship-caliber teams, of which Brooklyn has neither. There's no Jordan, no Kobe and no stellar supporting cast. Money won't be an object for Prokhorov, and he'd probably cede power and a slice of ownership, but the Nets' talent level could be a problem for Jackson.
Spending $330 million in future contracts last offseason left Prokhorov with an inflated opinion of his team. The Eastern Conference race continues to look like Miami and everyone else (with the Knicks leading that pack), which could bode well for the Nets' postseason chances. But they're far from certain to advance past the first round if they make the playoffs, although that would be a marked improvement on the .333 winning percentage they posted last season.
But Prokhorov sees the Nets as a top seed in the East. "We have a very talented team," he told reporters Friday. "We have baskets of talent."
Jackson might not agree. But it would look a whole lot better if he was orchestrating.
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