Sunday, March 2, 2008

Seat Warmers Now Available

These days, there is something new at the AAC. Seat Warmers.

Well, actually, seat warmers are not provided for the average fans or even the folks with big hair and courtside seats. This luxury accessory is on just one seat in the whole arena. Who occupies that seat?

Avery Johnson.

Somehow, over the last few years Avery has deftly avoided much direct criticism of his coaching style and ability. Yes, there have been a few rumblings upon occasion, but he has avoided any real heat. And for good reason. The Mavericks have, almost unquestionably, been better daily under the leadership of Avery than they were with Don Nelson.

But with ghosts of the last two playoff collapses hovering over the city and the (re)arrival of Jason Kidd, fans have started applying the heat to Avery.
Is Avery's job really in jeopardy? Of course, nothing of that nature has been said by anyone within the organization. But if you corner any Mavs fan or sports "expert" in the city this week you will find at least a little doubt about Avery.

This week's doubt is largely due to the ending of the Spurs-Mavs gain from a few days ago. Those last 34 seconds have been well chronicled and dissected. To make matters worse, Avery's response to the criticism has probably increased the anxiety of local hoops-heads rather than serving to calm the situation.

Obviously, he can weather the storm of this one incident. But Avery's new "On The Hot Seat" status is not likely to go away anytime soon.

Three seasons of playoff failure have been rationalized thus far by the organization. Most of the post-collapse analysis focused on the problems with the players and the things that could be done to get the right players in place to avoid another collapse.
But the general feeling of local fans going into the 2007-2008 season was that the Mavericks team approached its last chance together. You could almost hear Mark talking to himself on the stairmaster saying "I'll give them one more year. But one more collapse and I'm cleaning house. One more year."

For a Mavs fan, this season has been painful to watch. After witnessing last season's regular season success it is painful to see virtually the same team under achieve on a nightly basis. They haven't been terrible, but they haven't played at the same level. And optimism has been hard to find in the fanbase.
But the late season trade that essentially swapped Devin Harris for Jason Kidd changed the equation. They didn't exactly blow up the team, but they did remove one of the biggest excuses for past failures. More specifically, they finally addressed the gaping hole that had haunted the team since Steve Nash exited in free agency.

Which means that even if Avery successfully washes last week's San Antonio folly under the bridge, when this season ends short of the ultimate goal (which is the most likely outcome given the competition) the heat will almost certainly be turned directly on Avery Johnson.

Sure, they could further shake up the team. They could swap this season's batch of veteran role players with another selection of aging former stars. They could exchange one or two parts with another under achieving team. But if this team can't get it done with Kidd and Dirk leading the way, the pressure from fans, media and most likely the owner is going to be to change something significant.

Dirk is not going anywhere. There are few trade options that include Dirk that would make sense for the Mavericks even if they wanted to get rid of him (and they don't). Terry, Stackhouse, Dampier and even Josh Howard could be floated as trade bait. And if the right trade came along, one or more of those players could be moved to significantly improve the team. But the odds are against a trade involving those players that helps the Mavericks in the short term.

Jason Kidd isn't going anywhere either. This organization has made that mistake before and it is not likely to repeat it. That leaves the head coach on the hot seat.

Would the Mavericks dare enter the 2008-2009 season with essentially the same cast of characters? At the moment, it seems unlikely. The momentum to replace Avery Johnson as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks has begun.

Will it really come to that?
In comparison... who would have thought that Doc Rivers would survive last season as the Celtics coach?

Avery has certainly done a lot to deserve more time. But he has also made his fair share of mistakes and has been out-coached in numerous key situations.

Mark Cuban has historically been loyal to his employees, almost to a fault. But at what point does he have to choose between loyalty to Dirk and loyalty to his coach? What if the best thing for the best player is a new coach?

I don't know what Cuban will do. But I do know that the the window of opportunity is narrow and unforgiving.

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