NBA Playoffs: Cuban Dumps Johnson in Dallas

by Hayden Alfano*
Special to iVoryTowerz

Coaching a National Basketball Association (NBA) team isn’t easy. In addition to the tactical chops it takes to teach basketball at its highest level, NBA coaches have to motivate their players through a regular season that lasts five and a half months and 82 games, leading up to a postseason that extends for an additional two months. When those players are grown men making several million dollars a year, that’s not an easy task. As a result, there are relatively few people who executives feel are up to it, and the roster of coaches remains roughly the same from year to year.

Given that most of the coaches capable of succeeding in the NBA already have steady jobs, you’d think that a man who led his team to the NBA Finals in his first year as head coach and 67 wins in his second year would have earned himself a little leeway in his third season.

But Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban fired that man — Avery Johnson — on Wednesday, the day after his team exited the playoffs rather meekly, losing its first-round series to the New Orleans Hornets four games to one.

Johnson was done in because he failed to get out of the first round for the second straight season. Last year’s loss is hard to defend; in losing to the Golden State Warriors, those 67-win Mavericks became the first top seed to lose to a #8 in a best-of-seven series. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, those Warriors were coached by former Mavericks coach Don Nelson, who handpicked Johnson — his former point guard — to be his successor on the bench in Dallas).

The blame for this season’s postseason failures, however, rests as much with the Dallas front office as it does with Johnson. In an apparent attempt to keep pace with Western Conference rivals’ firepower, the Mavericks traded for New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd. Admittedly, Kidd is one of the best to ever play the position, but he didn’t come cheaply; the Mavs gave up point guard Devin Harris and center DeSagana Diop in the deal.

It was a curious trade from the moment it was made. Jettisoning Diop left the team without a quality backup center, a major problem in a Western Conference that had just added Shaquille O’Neal (Phoenix Suns) and Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers). Kidd is certainly superior to Harris with the ball in his hands on the offensive end, but at this stage in his career, is a liability defensively. A move to the West, where the league’s best young point guards play, would seem to exacerbate those deficiencies.

No one — Devin Harris included — has been terribly successful this season trying to guard New Orleans’ Chris Paul, a legit Most Valuable Player candidate, but it took just one playoff game to see that Kidd wasn’t up to the task. Paul torched the Mavs for 35 points and 10 assists in the series opener — his first playoff game ever — and went for 35 and 17 in Game 2. His numbers were a bit less gaudy the rest of the way, but he controlled the action in Games 4 and 5 in a series-long performance that may have represented the passing of the torch from the 35-year-old Kidd to the 22-year-old Paul (he’ll be 23 on May 6).

So where does this leave Dallas? Trading for Kidd put them in terrible shape relative to the league’s salary cap, giving them limited flexibility to improve an aging roster. Their championship window is closing rapidly, if it hasn’t been slammed shut already.

And now they need to find a coach capable of putting them in contention. One possibility is Mike D’Antoni, rumored to be on his way out in Phoenix. If he does leave the Suns, his resume will look similar to Johnson’s: four years of at times spectacular regular season success, followed by disappointing postseason performances that left the team wanting for a championship. Even at 35, Kidd would thrive in D’Antoni’s preferred up-tempo offense, though the rest of the roster isn’t necessarily built to do so.

Avery Johnson will undoubtedly find another job coaching in the NBA. Whether the Mavericks find another Avery Johnson remains to be seen. Sixty-seven win coaches don’t grow on trees.

Television viewing guide

The NBA playoffs resume tonight, May 2, with three games: Cleveland at Washington (7 p.m. EDT on ESPN2); Boston at Atlanta (8 p.m. EDT on ESPN); and Houston at Utah (10:30 p.m. EDT on ESPN).

*Hayden Alfano is the author of the blog 19'9" which is mostly about college basketball.

(The photo of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was taken in 2005; the photo is by kk+ of Vancouver, Canada via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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