As news comes down that former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson is likely to become the next head coach of the New Jersey Nets and reunite with former Mavericks point guard Devin Harris, I decided to revisit a crucial point in their relationship.
After the debilitating 2007 first-round playoff loss to Golden State, Johnson determined the only way the team would progress was to tab Harris as the starting point guard over Jason Terry.
That July in Las Vegas, the transition began. Harris met Johnson in the desert during summer league for something of a one-on-one workout camp. I sat down with both separately to talk about the progression of their relationship. To that point, their relationship was very much teacher-pupil in the strictest sense, and seemingly often times contentious.
Johnson often criticized Harris for needing to look to the bench for guidance too often, while Harris felt as though Johnson didn't trust him to make the right calls on the floor.
Here's some excerpts from my discussions with them.
Harris on dealing with Johnson's iron-fist control of the offense as well as relating to him on a daily basis: "He's still head of command, but I have to take on some of that responsibility as a point guard. Yes, he does push me. Yes, I don't think that's ever going to change. Yes, I probably get yelled at the most. But, I've learned to deal with it. I've learned to cope with it, and it's good."
Johnson on Harris' biggest problem as a point guard: "The problem with him is he was born a point guard and he has a former point guard [as his coach] who has played at all levels and has won at all levels. That's a big problem for him because I see plays before they happen. I see things develop and that's a big problem for him, me being his coach and having played the position. I'm always going to stay [on him]. I like to ride him."
Harris on in-game issues: "Sometimes we have disagreements on what play we should run. Sometimes I have to remind him that after we just scored on a play, I'll be like, 'Hey, let's run that again.' He'll call something else, and we'll get into an argument...But he is the General. I don't think at any point in time he's not going to stand there and point and bark orders because that's what he does."
Johnson on his realization of how to best utilize Harris' skills: "The experiment with me trying to make him Jason Kidd, that's not his game, that's not his game. We have an idea now exactly who he is and I think we can maximize him being a certain type of point guard."
When the Mavs traded Harris to New Jersey later that season for Jason Kidd, Harris acknowledged that he looked forward to a new start in an offense that promised to remove any shackles, real or perceived: "I have a new future to look forward to," Harris told me the night before the trade was made official. "I’m looking forward to having a little bit more control, a little bit more freedom over there. I love my teammates here, so it’s mixed emotions, but I’m excited about the new challenge."
Harris, now 27, became an Eastern Conference All-Star the next season, but he's also been dogged by nagging injuries and this season suffered through the Nets' misery that led to the early firing of Lawrence Frank. Johnson now has the unique perspective of looking in from the outside as an ESPN analyst over the past two seasons.
Who would have figured that they'd be reunited? But, they are and under an owner in Mikhail Prokhorov, who is not so unlike Mark Cuban -- a billionaire who's willing to spend big to fulfill big ideas to make the Nets relevant again.
Clearly, Harris and Johnson have respect for each other and both have matured as player and coach. Most of all, both want to succeed.
We'll see if Harris and Johnson will both be long-term fixtures in a New Jersey renaissance.