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The Coaching Two-Step

If you’ve read the news today you know that there are reports of two coaches moving on. Avery Johnson has been officially let go by the Mavericks and Jack McCallum of is reporting that Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni will suffer the same fate. 

Obviously we have no access to the inner workings of either team.  We don’t know the whole story here.  But from a layman’s point of view it looks like both coaches received the axe for the early playoff exits, which leads this layman at least to ask, “What the heck is going on in this league?”

Avery Johnson has compiled a 194-70 record with the Mavericks.  If you’re counting, that’s a 73.5% winning clip.  Seventy-three-point-five percent!  Any doctoral-level theoretical mathematician worth his spectacles could tell you that’s nearly three out of every four games this guy won.  Before he took over Dallas was an exciting-yet-underachieving group…a team that couldn’t get its act together or play defense to save its soul.  Johnson taught that team the difference between scoring and winning.  He led them to the best record in the league last season.  He had the misfortune of catching Superman’s kryptonite in the Warriors last year and hitting one of the hottest teams of the year this season in the Hornets.  Could Dallas have played better in both series?  Probably.  Could Dallas have gone deep into the playoffs with another, presumably better, coach?  There’s no evidence of that.  How much better can they get, especially having traded for Kidd now?

That story doubles for D’Antoni as well.  His record is a comparatively modest 276-172, 61.6%.  Then again, how many teams have had that kind of run the last few years?  D’Antoni gift-wrapped that Phoenix offense for his team.  Yes he has some great players but he also instituted a system to maximize the talents of those players.  He helped make Steve Nash a perpetual M.V.P. candidate.  He had the courage to play Amare Stoudemire at the center position.  His system is the archetype for a half-dozen competitors and his success has still never been duplicated.  Where are the Suns without him?  Good…sure.  But they were one questionable suspension away from toppling the Spurs and having a great chance at the World Championship one year ago.  Is it D’Antoni’s fault that they keep running into the team of the decade year after year?  Is it his fault that Shaq is a $20 million paperweight?  If losing to the Spurs in the playoffs were a crime half the coaches in the West should be fired.  How do you let go the guy who made you?

A bigger question:  unless they simply exchange coaches where are these teams going to find an upgrade or even someone equal?  These are squads heading over the apex of their winning parabola.  You’re not going to turn over the reins to a rookie.  You need guaranteed winning now.  Who is out there?  Are you going to pluck Pat Riley out of Miami’s front office?  Is Jeff Van Gundy really a step up?  Do you want Don Nelson back?  Larry Brown has already been hired but I bet he’ll be willing to break his contract by the second week of Summer League.  More power to him too, when things like this happen.  He gets labeled a fickle mercenary and a quitter.  What about when the shoe is on the other foot?

If I were a Mavs or Suns fan I’m pretty sure I’d be screaming loudly about these developments.  I know it’s easy to get myopic, especially when you’re wishing for rings and get an early vacation instead.  But come on…doesn’t ANY franchise want a long-term, signature coach at the helm anymore?  Are they all disposable?  And if they are, what does that say about the importance of the position? 

Bottom line:  these two guys didn’t get all stupid overnight.  Maybe their front offices did though.  Have fun on the spiral downward.  Too bad for the guys you’ll blame for that.  If experience is any guide, in another three years you’ll be pining to have this caliber of coach back.  But at that point you won't be able to hire one.

--Dave (