Multiple stories reporting Avery Johnson‘s firing on Thursday described Brooklyn Nets players as “blindsided” by the news. By any normal standards, this should have been a shocking development: the reigning NBA coach of the month, who was given a thrown-together roster, getting the boot after a rough stretch in the schedule.
Nothing is shocking given the situation, however — not when the team in question employs both Billy King and Deron Williams.
Williams is known, fairly or not, to be bad news for coaches. When Jerry Sloan, the most entrenched coach in professional sports, announced his retirement during Williams’ final season with the Utah Jazz, the point guard earned a reputation as something of a coach-killer. Until now, that reputation was more than a little exaggerated. One unemployed coach does not a coach-killer make. Two fired coaches, on the other hand, may warrant such talk.
Yet few people associated with professional basketball have had a more toxic touch with coaches than King. In King’s nine-year tenure as general manager of the Sixers, he presided over five coaches and four coaching changes. Certainly, not all of the turnover was his fault, and he did make some solid hires that did not work out — I would still hire Jim O’Brien to coach my team any day — but that amount of turnover in such a short period of time is still shocking for a franchise that made the playoffs six times in those nine years. Sixers fans will never forgive King for giving them Eddie Jordan and Randy Ayers.
Johnson’s fate therefore demonstrates the beauty of being a star player or a lead executive, rather than a head coach. Players can play poorly, as Williams, Joe Johnson and others did in December. Executives can build flawed teams, as King did with this Nets roster. When those inherent faults predictably lead to breakdowns and the losses pile up, however, the coach gets the ax. The only penalty for the players and front office people is a hit to their reputations.
Williams and King might not enjoy the things that will be said about them in the coming days, but at least they still have their jobs. That is more than can be said for Johnson.