The most irrelevant big-name, big-money college basketball job belongs to the University of Alabama. It has money to burn and access to plenty of top-tier talent and the fan base simply can’t convince itself to care because basketball is not football.
Which is why Alabama’s hiring former Dallas Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson was a genius move, and the equivalent of SMU bringing in Larry Brown a few years ago.
The first season of Alabama Avery is working far better than anyone could have hoped for so early. Alabama is the ideal spot to repair a reputation that needs improvement. It’s also a good spot to make a lot of money - Johnson’s contract runs through 2021 at a clip of $2.8 million per season.
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Of the many coaches to transition from the pros to the college game, AJ’s personality seemed like a reach but he has made it work. As long as he doesn’t hate recruiting, AJ can turn his time at Alabama to return to the NBA.
Alabama is 16-10 and 7-7 in the SEC this season under Johnson. The Crimson Tide are at best a bubble-team for the NCAA Tournament; they have wins against then-ranked teams Wichita State, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Texas A&M. The Tide have four regular-season games remaining before the SEC Tournament.
If the Tide can defeat Kentucky in Lexington on Tuesday night then they may slide in the NCAAs but right now this is an NIT team.
For Alabama, under a first-year head coach, this is a success.
Before Mark Cuban hired Rick Carlisle, Johnson led the Mavs to their best era. It was Johnson who led the Mavs to their first appearance in the NBA Finals, which they famously gagged away a 2-0 series lead to lose to the Miami Heat in six games in 2006. It was under Johnson the Mavs won 60 games in consecutive seasons. It under Johnson that Dirk Nowitzki won the NBA’s MVP award. Johnson was named the NBA Coach of the Year in 2006.
Johnson was fired after the 2007-’08 season when the Mavs won 51 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Johnson took a few years off before he accepted the head coaching job with the New Jersey Nets where he led that bad franchise to a glittering 60-116 record. He was fired after 28 games in the 2012-’13 season.
“Since I have been in college, people want to downplay what happened in the NBA,” Johnson said during the SEC conference call on Monday. “I had an unbelievable run in the NBA but this is gratifying to coach young people and to be on a college campus.”
With so many retreads granted second and third chances as NBA head coaches you would think that Johnson and his overall .577 winning percentage and accomplishments with the Mavericks would land him another shot in the league.
Johnson had a way of rubbing people the wrong way, namely point guard Jason Kidd, and he eventually lost Dirk. When Avery lost Dirk, he was done and Cuban had no choice but to fire him.
I asked Johnson if he had to modify the way he coaches to transition to the NBA.
“I don’t know if I’d say ‘modify.’ The great thing about the Dallas situation and the Nets situation were totally different,” Johnson said. “(In Dallas) I took over a veteran team, not a championship team. We had a superstar in Dirk. The guys were professional. The Nets were a complete rebuild. From that standpoint I had to teach a lot more and it’s the same thing here. I really don’t have a veteran team I inherited. It’s a lot of teaching. You really have to communicate, you have to be really patient and you have to make sure you are crystal clear and there is no gray area.”
It’s a coincidence, but Avery’s best player is another Euro - Retin Obasohan is from Antwerp, Belgium. He averages 16.9 points per game as a senior.
Johnson is well versed in the amateur circuits that he must travel in order to recruit. He’s been around good teams and bad teams. He’s been around some monster egos as a player and a head coach.
Alabama has a history of putting together decent teams under Mark Gottfried and Anthony Grant. The problem has always been not the players or the coach but the status of basketball at that school. The second-class treatment compared to football eventually irritates every coach at such schools and they look to leave.
If Johnson can put together some NCAA tournaments and possibly a Sweet 16 or two, don’t be surprised when he’s back on an NBA bench.