If Deron Williams was able to squeeze out a tenured, Hall of Fame coach from a small-market squad, then surely, he can (and probably will) dictate the future of another coach, who's already been fired once before, with a newly rebranded franchise in the NBA's biggest market.
Williams recently blasted the isolation-heavy offense run by Avery Johnson, his current coach with the Brooklyn Nets. He pined for the days of running a motion-heavy flex offense under Jerry Sloan with the Utah Jazz, even going so far as to label himself a "system player" (via Howard Beck of The New York Times).
A label about which almost any player in any professional sport would shudder to think.
Williams may be correct in his claims, though. As Bleacher Report's Ethan Sherwood Strauss pointed out, the precipitous decline in Deron's scoring numbers and shooting percentages since leaving Salt Lake City seems to have everything to do with where Williams is getting his shots rather than how he's taking them.
Fewer pick-and-rolls, less movement overall and more pounding of the ball at the top of the arc—all prominent parts of the Little General's schemes—naturally lead to more long-range attempts and fewer high-percentage looks for a scoring point guard like D-Will.
Williams, it appears, is none too happy with this shift in distribution. The Nets' move from New Jersey to Brooklyn and the uptick in talent and expectations that it precipitated were supposed to put Williams back among the league's elite point guards. Instead, he's posting his worst numbers across the board since at least 2006-07, his second season as a pro.
Worse still, the Nets have lost eight of their last 10 games, including a 100-86 loss to the rival New York Knicks on Dec. 19.
After Deron's complaints were made public, both he and Avery Johnson admitted that the issues were nothing new—the 2012-13 season is still young and they'll continue to work to iron out the wrinkles. Said Johnson (via Mike Mazzeo of ESPNNewYork.com):
We have great communication. So the comments aren't surprising. And really and truly guys, I'm 47 now, turning 48, I don't take anything personally. I communicate with all my players.
Whether it comes out publicly or whether the guys talk to me about stuff privately, I got really thick skin, and it doesn't irritate me one bit. So a lot of his concerns, we've talked about it privately. You guys just found out about it publicly.
Williams, ever the diplomat, acknowledged that the offense has worked at times, and that Brooklyn's use of isos and post-ups has everything to do with making sure the team's other stars—Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez—are comfortable as well (via Mike Mazzeo):
We have great plays. We've had instances where we've had great offense, so it's not a problem. It's a problem with consistently executing. And we do run a lot of ISO plays, which benefits a lot of other people, so we're gonna continue to run those plays, because that's Joe (Johnson)'s game, that's what he's most successful at, and then Brook on the block as well.
The supposed drama between Williams and his coach may well be overblown, though the circumstances suggest that the apparent rift isn't a media fabrication, at least not entirely.
For one, Johnson fell out of favor in similar fashion with the Dallas Mavericks prior to his firing in April of 2008.
His players, particularly his star point guard (Jason Kidd), grated under his apparent inability to organize a consistently competent offense. Johnson's defensive acumen came in handy for a club that had long been averse to stopping the ball, but his taskmaster-like approach to practices and games didn't make him many friends in Mavs uniforms.
The same pattern seems to be emerging in Brooklyn, and the fact that Johnson is in the last year of his contract makes him something of a lame duck.
Williams, meanwhile, is in the first year of a $100 million deal he signed over the summer. The Nets paid a king's ransom in players and draft picks to land D-Will in February 2011 and pulled out all the stops to keep him from fleeing.
General manager Billy King snatched Joe Johnson (and his albatross of a contract) from the Atlanta Hawks for assorted flotsam in July and tried desperately to convince other teams to take MarShon Brooks, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries as part of a convoluted plot to land Dwight Howard.
Clearly, the Nets' brass, including King and owner/part-time-James Bond-villain Mikhail Prokhorov, was committed to keeping Williams happy and likely remain so, now that he takes up so much of the payroll.
That may well have been the case with the Jazz in the weeks and months leading up to D-Will's sudden departure to the Garden State, when Jerry Sloan was supposedly deposed to please the superstar. The company line was (and probably still is) that Sloan resigned because he'd simply grown tired of coaching.
As Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote at the time, Jerry's stunning step into retirement might've just been a case of an old, stubborn coach failing to adapt to—and eventually being consumed by—the changing times.
Williams was discouraged by the ongoing exodus of talent from Salt Lake City, by the inability of coach and management to retain the team's top players and adequately replace those who left. In Woj's estimation, such complaints were largely justified. After all, Williams, though hard-headed at times, wanted nothing more than to win, and often challenged Sloan out of his desire to succeed. The two clashed because they were so good at their respective jobs.
Still, to insist, as the Jazz did, that Williams played no part in Sloan's resignation seems disingenuous, to say the least. Greg Miller, the son of late owner Larry Miller, told Jonathan Abrams (then with The New York Times):
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Nobody pushed Jerry or Phil out. No players pushed him out. Kevin didn’t push him out, an aspiring head coach didn’t push him out and I certainly didn’t push him out.
Even though Sloan and Williams admitted that confrontations occurred, albeit while brushing them aside as little more than routine. In any case, whatever occurred behind closed doors was enough to convince Sloan not only that a 24th year in Salt Lake City wasn't in the cards, but also that he'd be better off not finishing the 23rd.
A year later, Karl Malone, who spent most of his NBA career under Sloan's auspices, expressed serious doubts about Utah's tale regarding the end of the Jerry Sloan Era. As he told Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune:
I know for a fact that [Sloan] was overridden on practices sometime on the road because Deron was calling our G.M. at that time. You give a guy that much power, and he's the kind of player you think he played hard all the time, but if he wanted to sulk he could sulk. I never went to Larry [Miller] to talk about Coach Sloan. It's not one time, in my gut and heart, that I would go over his head...
That defining moment when [management and ownership] should have stood up for Jerry Sloan, they chose Deron Williams. And Coach Sloan, being the coach I know and love, said, 'You know what? We should part ways.' And he said what he said. And once Coach Sloan says something, it's history.
Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor vehemently denied that Malone knew anything about what went on:
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Karl wasn't in the room, I was in the room and the only thing I can tell you is, I'd like you guys to go ask Jerry. Greg was in there. He did everything possible with Jerry to make him stay, to have him finish off the season. [Sloan] had complete autonomy to do anything he wanted to do, as far as any kind of punishment.
The next morning, we'd asked him to sleep on it, and Gail [Miller] came in and both Greg and Gail asked him. So, I can honestly say that there's nothing farther from the truth than those kinds of comments.
The minute [Sloan] said [he was quitting], we said, 'Don't do it.' What I know is, I was in every meeting. I heard every sentence, every word, and I can tell you what transpired. I would love for you to go speak to Jerry and to Phil Johnson and ask them these questions.
Sloan and Phil Johnson, his longtime assistant in Salt Lake City, both refused to comment when Monson approached them. According to Monson's source, though, Malone's criticisms rang true. Williams allegedly circumvented Sloan to voice his concerns about the coach and his way of doing things to O'Connor and Miller.
By all accounts, those two didn't force Sloan out by any means, nor did Williams tell them to. Rather, they may have refused to discipline Williams in a manner Sloan saw fit in response to the point guard's insurrection during and after a game against the Chicago Bulls.
That proved to be Jerry's last with the Jazz. Apparently, he was none too pleased with the lack of backing and took such as a sign that it was time to step aside, however abruptly.
Should the Nets fire Avery Johnson?
Less than two weeks later, Utah shipped D-Will to the Nets, with whom he now finds himself embroiled in yet another proto-coaching controversy.
And he's in a situation in which Williams' opinion is held in even higher regard compared to that of the coach involved. Prokhorov and King spent more than 16 months appealing to Deron, convincing him that Brooklyn was the place to be.
They went to great lengths to keep Williams from bolting to his hometown Dallas Mavericks. They gave up valuable draft picks and oodles of cap space to turn a perennial loser into an instant winner, partly at Deron's behest.
What's to suggest that they wouldn't still capitulate to D-Will's desires? Or that Williams would exercise any more restraint in making them known now that he's tethered to the Barclays Center?
Deron Williams may not be a "coach killer" quite like woulda-been-teammate Dwight Howard, but that doesn't mean the ax is any further from his grasp.
Or that Avery Johnson isn't aware. According to Howard Beck of The New York Times, Johnson has installed a number of movement-oriented sets specifically designed to satiate Williams' appetite for more fluid play.
Which, in reality, shows just how many strings D-Will has at his disposal. Jerry Sloan's untimely exit from Utah probably resulted, in part, from his unwillingness to kowtow to Williams' demands.
Johnson, on the other hand, seems more amenable to making Deron happy. Though, that probably won't matter unless Williams and the Nets return to playing winning basketball.
Because, more than anything, Deron Williams wants to win.