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Johnson Debuts, Offers 'Discipline, Details and Determination'

June 15, 2010

Avery Johnson

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.Avery Johnson entered Tuesday’s press conference with a reputation for X’s and O’s, but showed mastery of the C’s and D’s during his debut as coach of the Nets. While delivering an open statement that effusively ran more than six minutes long, Johnson noted that turning around the team would require “discipline, details and determination” – qualities he feels Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and Nets President Rod Thorn share.

Johnson plans to do his part by imbuing the Nets with accountability, a defensive mindset and an offense that should energize the team’s temporary home at Newark’s Prudential Center. The “Little General” comes to the Nets with a reputation for expecting (and producing) results, and clarified his coaching philosophy with a cavalcade of keywords.

Care is one of my ‘C’ words, (part of) what I think coaching is all about,” Johnson explained. “I think also a coach also has to have strong character. He has to be an effective communicator, and in communicating there are different voices: you’ve got your teaching voice, your loving voice, your intense voice. A coach has to have a lot of class and respect. A coach has to be very competitive. But he also has to do a good job of keeping his composure. There are times I didn’t do a good job of that.”

It was an honest admission from the coach, whose 3 ½-year run with the Mavericks ended after back-to-back first-round playoff exits followed a 2006 Finals flameout, despite a regular-season record of 194-70 that includes reaching 50, 100 and 150 victories quicker than any coach in history. After 20 consecutive years in the league – the first 16 as a player – Johnson needed time off to evaluate himself and his time in Dallas, spending the interim period as an NBA analyst for ESPN.

Ready to re-enter the coaching ranks this offseason, Johnson realized the Nets’ opening would be available midway through the year, and his budding curiosity in an East Coast adventure had been piqued after spending most of his life in Lousiana and Texas. Johnson said his time with ESPN helped him realize that he could afford to be less concerned with the perception of his team and focus more on its internal realities, like the closeness of a relationship with point guard Devin Harris that has been oft characterized as a clash.

Johnson oversaw Harris’ development from rookie to trade centerpiece, and perspective has mellowed the younger point guard’s view toward demands he once felt too constrictive.

“He was hard on me when I came in, from the point of what calls we should make,” Harris said. “I thought I should be given more responsibility, he thought I wasn’t ready. It’s nothing like we didn’t like each other. We butted heads, we’ll still butt heads going forward. But it’s all about winning, and that’s something we both respect.”

Harris seems enthused about Johnson’s hire, encouraged by the leadership he expects Johnson to provide. He also quelled thoughts of discomfort by affably chiming in with a question during the press conference, on behalf of (Harris wanted to know how Johnson’s experience playing alongside Tim Duncan and David Robinson in San Antonio will affect his coaching of Brook Lopez; Johnson said he learned some things that he’ll impart as he attempts to develop Lopez into a perennial All-Star.)

With Harris having earned his first All-Star nod as a Net, Johnson believes Harris has become a better point guard, which means dictating will be less necessary than it was during the years when Johnson was balancing minutes between a young Harris and a non-traditional point in Jason Terry. Johnson drew a football comparison, shouting out his hometown Saints by pointing out while Drew Brees is a “man’s man” at quarterback, Sean Payton dictates most of the plays, and complaints are few because they’re the Super Bowl champions.

Johnson’s preparation makes it easier for players to accept his more overbearing moments; it was this quality that most impressed Thorn when he interviewed Johnson, who had plans for every aspect of his coaching responsibilities, from training camp to shootarounds. Beyond that, Thorn acknowledged wanting a coach who would keep players feeling responsible, and was reassured by Johnson’s reputation for doing so as firmly with stars as he does with those further down the bench.

“We’re going to put in a system where there won’t be any gray area,” Johnson said. “There’s not going to be any excuses. One of my players is not going to say, ‘Coach, I didn’t know.’ You’re going to know.”

Johnson leavened those thoughts by joking that Lopez shouldn’t listen to any of the stories Harris has been telling him, smiling wide and coyly asking if Lopez didn’t think he seemed nice. The Nets’ center, down to 240 pounds after a bout with mononucleosis, welcomed Johnson and his success.

“(Avery) knows what it takes, it’s that simple,” Lopez said. “He just knows what it takes to win – he’s won on multiple levels. He’s keeping it a secret so far, until he makes me run.”

Though he’s only pieced together some of the coach’s post strategy through conversations with Harris, Lopez knows Johnson positioned power forward Dirk Nowitzki to earn the 2006-07 Most Valuable Player Award. Johnson said that wielding a post presence with Lopez’s scoring prowess is a luxury he’s never previously had, and feels comfortable running his offense inside-out, though a focus on ball- and player-movement will remain.

But Johnson believes that an attacking offense begins with stops and defensive rebounding, two areas that were among the Nets’ biggest weaknesses last season. Johnson said that while the Nets were more talented than their 12-70 record indicated, a team wins 12 games for a reason, and in the Nets’ case, that meant individuals not taking on the challenge of one-on-one defense.

While Johnson plans to begin reworking the team’s mentality as soon as July, he’ll first have to bring in several draft picks – the Nets hold Nos. 3, 27 and 31 in the June 24 Draft – and figure out how to best utilize their cap space, which trails only the Knicks. But Johnson reiterated that the Nets won’t overspend if their ideal scenario doesn’t develop, instead retaining their flexibility for either a trade or a signing the following season.

“We have a strategic plan, but the worst-case scenario is only 50 percent in my mind; the best-case scenario is the other 50 percent,” Johnson said. “We’ll see. We’re moving into the Prudential Center, which we think is a significant upgrade in terms of where the team has played in the past. We feel we’re going to have more fans, so all you New Jersey Nets fans around this area, call and buy you’re season tickets – it’s going to be exciting.

“The best-case scenario, you can get onboard now and say, ‘I was there from the beginning.’ And that’s what I wanted to do (when I joined), say, ‘I was there the year after we won 12 games, but look where we are.’”

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