Friday, February 29, 2008

As before, it’s Personnel

ESPN.com correctly crucified Avery Johnson this morning for absurdly pulling Kidd out of the game with 34.5 seconds left in last night’s loss to the Spurs.

Anyone who has watched the Mavericks over the past few years is surely aware of a few important facts about the team:
  • Dirk can’t get, and make, his own shot in the closing seconds of a game.
  • Jason Terry, with the game on the line, can hit a big shot if he’s set up properly, but he get a lot of turnovers when he’s the one handling the ball.
  • Jerry Stackhouse can get hit game-winners if he’s set up with an open look.
  • And above all: Dallas, before the Kidd trade, didn’t have what it takes to get good shots at the end of games.

The Kidd trade was a clear admission that what the Mavericks lacked was not the right training, but the right personnel, to fix these problems. Avery Johnson has been such a successful coach in so many ways that Mavericks fans have tended to brush aside suggestions that Avery should be held responsible for those late-game failings. After all, if Dirk misses good looks (and he usually gets pretty decent looks at the end of games, especially considering his speciality is the fall-away jumper), Avery can’t be held responsible if he just keeps missing them.

True enough. But when a head coach can’t recognize (or refuses to acknowledge) that his star player is unable to make the big play at the end, that’s an entirely different problem.

Before the trade, you couldn’t blame Avery for going with Dirk anyway, because Dirk was still the Mavericks’ best chance in those situations. Dallas traded for Kidd because they realized that having a certain amount of talent isn't enough. You have to have enough of the right kind of talent. And they lacked players who had a sense of how to close out tight games. Kidd, as everyone except Avery seems to be convinced, will make the Mavericks better in those situations.

But players aren’t the only ones who have to be able to make good decisions in the heat of the moment. The coach has to be able to do it too. What we now know of Avery, as of last night, is that he can’t. In the past, this shortcoming has been masked by the players’ own problems, but with Kidd there’s no longer any excuse. Granted, Avery probably won’t make this particular mistake again (lest he lose his job), but then the Mavericks have found all kinds of ways to lose big games at the end, and Avery is showing that he knows all kinds of ways to contribute to those losses.

Uh-Oh

I have to admit, rather sheepishly, that I actually didn’t notice Kidd was out of the game at the end. I’ll blame this partly on my distracted efforts to explain NBA jargon to my girlfriend while the game was going (she knows football, but has just never gotten into basketball much...), but mostly I think I’m just so used to the Mavericks’ end-game script that I forgot we have Kidd now. I just expect Dirk to fumble the ball away, or miss the jump-shot (or get it blocked, like at the end of the all-star game this year), or for Terry to dribble the ball off his foot. In other words, when the game is on the line, I’m used to the Mavericks looking like they don’t really know what they’re doing.

But here’s something I did notice last night: A long time before those last 34.5 seconds, back near the end of the third quarter, Kidd faked a behind-the-pack pass before missing a lay-up on one possession, and then the next possession he miss-guessed which way Jerry Stackhouse would break, and threw the ball out of bounds.

Avery Johnson immediately pulled Kidd from the game and put in Jason Terry for the last 2 minutes of the third quarter. And here’s what was really scary: Avery looked angry as Terry ran by him to get into the game. Now granted, Avery always looks a little angry during the game, but I had the distinct impression that he put Terry into the game because he was frustrated with Kidd’s turnover.

This was a manifestly stupid substitution in the first place, because Kidd is a veteran superstar who should rightfully expect not to pulled because of a mistake. Avery could get away with that with Devin Harris, but he simply cannot do the same thing to Kidd. He just can’t, if he wants Kidd to thrive in Dallas, and the fact that he doesn’t realize that he can’t treat Kidd that way is terrifying to witness as a fan.

Perhaps more to the point, this was an obvious example of Johnson making a tactical decision based on emotion. Let me put that another way: the Mavericks have a head coach who makes personnel decisions based on how he feels. Granted, players need to be emotionally involved enough that they can succeed, and the coach needs to show enough emotion to motivate the players. But what happens on the court should not be about Avery, unless he makes it that way. If Johnson doesn’t have the self-control to stick with the appropriate game-plan even when his anger makes him want to do something petty, then he has no business coaching a contender.

One of the most counter-productive parenting strategies is to punish kids out of anger. The reason is, discipline and punishment should reflect what’s best for the kid, and angry punishments typically line up primarily with what the parent wants, not with what’s best for their child. Take that onto a professional basketball team, and you end up with a situation that is decidedly unprofessional.

Off With His Head

So here’s the only logical conclusion that I can see: there is no reason to think the Mavericks can win a championship with Avery as coach. A coach who allows his emotions to dictate his tactical decisions will never allow his team to play at their best in stressful situations, and it is obvious that things will only get more stressful in the playoffs.

Eleven years ago, the Mavericks allowed their head coach, Jim Cleamons, to push through a trade that sent Jason Kidd to Phoenix for Sam Cassell, Michael Finley, and A.C. Green. The coach and the player apparently had irreconcilable differences in style, and while the team was probably right to conclude that a personnel change was the only solution to the problem, they sent away the wrong person -- a conclusion that was confirmed when they fired Cleamons only a couple of weeks later. The Mavericks made that mistake once, and it will be difficult for the franchise to ever win back its fans if it makes the same mistake again.

As I said, this year‘s Kidd trade was the Mavericks’ admission that the team’s ultimate problem was one of personnel. I submit that Avery’s coaching performance last night was proof that it still is.

9 comments:

Jennifer said...

Ironically, you're calling for Avery's head because you're pissed. Unless you can show me a pattern of bad decisions that led to losses, I'm not buying that the coach is the problem.

JKnott said...

Scott,

I think your point may be correct, but as Jennifer says, you don't really demonstrate it. There are plenty more examples of Avery's bad coaching in certain situations (late last reg. season and into the playoffs being a good place to start) other than last night, though as with you, with many this may be the watershed event.

scoots said...

@jennifer. Is this Jeremy? (You sound just like my brother, and his wife’s name is Jennifer.) I think the last three years’ playoff defeats make a pretty good case -- not just that they lost, but the way the team lost its composure while losing.

Jennifer said...

You haven't shown how Avery's emotions dictated his tactical decisions during the past two playoffs and how that led to the Mavs losing their composure.

-JEREMY

scoots said...

I’ll agree that my first point was better supported than my second. The thing about Avery making decisions based on emotion is just something my gut tells me, having witnessed how he handled Kidd last night. Maybe he can learn to do a better job, so in that case it’s still probably better to stick with the coach you have than to take the bigger risk of hiring (or promoting) a new coach mid-season and hoping he can get his act together for a championship this year.

However, the emotion isn’t the whole argument. The real problem is not that Avery benched Kidd at the end of the game Thursday, but that he still thinks it was the right decision.

I think we can all agree that it was the wrong decision in that it alienated both Kidd and the fans. Plus it hurt the team’s chances of winning.

But in addition to that, this means that Avery doesn’t recognize how inept his team really is at the conclusions of games. He’s stuck on this idea that Dirk should usually get the last shot, unless someone else gets wide open and Dirk finds them. That made sense when Dirk was the best passer on the team. But just because that was the best the Mavericks could do, that doesn’t mean it was good enough.

If Avery can’t figure that out, I don’t see how he can lead the team to a title.

Jeremy said...

"I think we can all agree that it was the wrong decision in that it alienated both Kidd and the fans."

I haven't seen evidence that Kidd was alienated. And who cares if the fans are alienated for a couple of nights.

I'll agree that it was the wrong decision if the Mavs go out early (or miss the playoffs altogether) and the reason is that Avery kept Kidd on too short a leash.

But there remains the possibility that Avery was merely signaling that he is the one who makes the ultimate decisions on this team, and that could be a good thing.

scoots said...

Contrarian. =)

Jeremy said...

I have to hand it to Dirk. Nice game tonight, esp. in the clutch.

Cody said...

I agree with you on Avery issues. But I have confidence that he'll figure it out and change his ways. It might take a while, but I think he'll come around.

Good to see that you're still alive. I began to suspect that you had died of over-exposure to ancient texts or something.

I am planning to go to the Nuggets game when they play Dallas this month. It might end up being a key game for both teams in a playoff run.