Keeping Score

The NBA New Year: A Tale of Two Sad Sacks

While the Los Angeles Clippers keep winning, the Brooklyn Nets fire coach Avery Johnson

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Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images

Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks against the Boston Celtics on December 27, 2012 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.

For a long time, the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers have been two of the worst franchises in the NBA, if not all of sports. The Nets used to play their games in the swamps of the Meadowlands, and aside from a glory era in the early 2000s when the Nets reached back-t0-back NBA Finals — and proceeded to annihilate all TV ratings momentum for the league — their home arena was a mausoleum.

The Clippers have never gone further than the second round of the playoffs. They’re regulars at the NBA draft lottery. Like the Nets, the Clips play second-fiddle in their home market: the team shares an arena with the wildly popular, and successful, Los Angeles Lakers (the Nets share a market with the less successful, though still popular, New York Knicks).

This season held great promise for both teams. The Nets moved to Brooklyn, acquired All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson in a trade, and gave free agent point guard Deron Williams, a presumptive franchise player, a $98 million contract. Los Angeles won a first round playoff series last season, and entered Year Two of the dynamic Blake Griffin-Chris Paul pairing.

While one team enters the New Year on an all-time high, the other, as usual, is reeling.

The Clippers are riding a 15-game winning streak, a record for the franchise. During the streak, they have beaten their opponents by, on average, over 15 points. While the team’s alley-oop heavy, “Lob City” offensive attack has earned comparisons to the showtime Lakers of the 1980s — Magic Johnson himself has made them — the team’s defense has been strong too. The Clips have held four of their last six opponents to 77 points or fewer.

While the Lakers have struggled to find consistency, despite their big-name acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the off-season, the Clips — with a record of 23-6 — are now the best show in Hollywood.

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The Nets, meanwhile, are 14-14. The problem is that they started out 11-4, creating expectations, and pressure to win in Brooklyn right away. The team needs to catch on in New York City in Year 1, and the success of the Knicks, who are fighting with the Miami Heat for the best record in the East, adds more pressure. So on Thursday, the team fired head coach Avery Johnson, even though Johnson was the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month in November. So much for such an accolade buying an employee a little bit of time. “Avery got fired?” LeBron James tweeted. “He was just coach of the month wasn’t he? That’s like a player get Player of the Month then gets traded the next month#NBA.” (He may have meant “released,” but LeBron still had a point).

The NBA will always be a players league. And when your point guard, Williams, praises the offense of his former team – the Utah Jazz — in public, that’s a direct shot at the current coach. Williams is gaining quite the reputation as a coach-killer, as he helped push long-time Jazz coach Jerry Sloan out of Salt Lake. Johnson may not be the ideal leader for this group; the Nets have blown a recent spate of fourth-quarter leads, which never reflects well on a team’s coaching. But the biggest problem for Brooklyn right now is it’s roster. Johnson has been underwhelming. Big-man Brook Lopez hasn’t grown into a true star.

And Williams, who the franchise was desperate to keep in Brooklyn this off-season, has returned the team’s generosity by being pretty awful, at least by his standards. He’s shooting less than 40% from the field, less than 30% from three-point range, and his scoring average is down 21%, from 21.0 points per game last season, to 16.6 per game this season. (On a per 36-minute basis, his average is down even further, 23%, from 20.8 to 16.1). His assists per 36 minutes are down 10.3%, from 8.7 to 7.8, and Williams assist percentage — the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on the floor — is down 18.2 percent from last season.

Avery Johnson’s son, Avery Johnson Jr., kind of had a point on Thursday, when he tweeted “I’m sorry are best players couldn’t make open shots. Yeah that’s my dads fault totally…”

Interim coach P.J. Carlisemo takes over for Johnson, and the Nets will surely do a dance with Phil Jackson, and try to lure the Zen Master out of retirement. (TIME reached out to Jackson’s agent: the call was not returned). Don’t be surprised if Jackson jumps at the opportunity: he would have returned to the Lakers if the team hadn’t chosen Mike D’Antoni as its new coach instead. You figure Jackson is itching to do something, and the Nets do have some talent to work with. They could legitimately contend for a conference title.

But for now, the Clippers have Chris Paul, and the Nets have Deron Williams. So the Clippers are the story of the early season. And the Nets are still the Nets.

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