In March 2011, about a month after Deron Williams was acquired in a trade, Avery Johnson made a fateful move that may have ultimately numbered his days as Nets coach.
According to team sources, Johnson was annoyed with Williams' visible apathy toward the Nets' offense and delivered a sarcastic "How would you do things differently?" -- only to watch as Williams diagrammed plays, maneuvered players around and basically showed up his coach in front of the entire team.
For Johnson, sources said, that was the beginning of the end -- an end that officially arrived Thursday afternoon when Johnson was dismissed as coach of the Brooklyn Nets, a little more than two seasons after getting the job and just two months into the team's arrival in Brooklyn.
"We weren't playing well," Nets GM Billy King said of the move. "That's the bottom line. We just weren't playing good basketball and we seemed to be regressing.
"We're in the business of accountability. Players do have to play, but when they're not, others will be held accountable, too. That's just the way it is, unfortunately."
P.J. Carlesimo will be the interim coach. Whether that scenario lasts the entire season or not remains to be seen. At the moment, speculation is escalating that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, hell-bent on avoiding playing second-fiddle to the New York Knicks, is willing to open his vault for the services of 11-time championship coach Phil Jackson. And to maximize the $98 million investment Prokhorov made in Williams, which the boss clearly did not believe Johnson was doing.
For the time being, problems exist for the Nets (14-14), losers of five of their past six and 10 of their past 13 games. And all fingers are pointing in the direction of Williams.
Averaging 16.6 points and eight assists, the All-Star point guard isn't just getting pilloried because he is shooting career lows from the field (.398) or from 3-point range (.295). Williams is also being accused, by those in the coaching fraternity who are close to Johnson, of being too difficult to coach. Of contaminating the locker room. Essentially, Williams is seen by some as the man who got Johnson fired -- just as he was accused of driving longtime Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan into an abrupt resignation.
"First of all, I have not had one conversation with [King] about not being happy with Avery, wanting him gone, etc.," Williams told me Thursday, just hours after Johnson was fired. "It's not my fault. But as soon as I heard the news, I knew what was coming. I knew folks would blame me, would assume that it's history repeating itself because of what was said about Coach Sloan and me after he resigned.
"The last thing I would want to do is get Coach Johnson fired. Any coach, for that matter.
"Coach Johnson is a big reason why I came back to the Nets this summer, along with Billy. I enjoyed playing for him last year. We never had a argument or a fight. We never got into it, on or off the court. I don't even know why people would assume that."
Williams' performance against Boston on Christmas would qualify as one of the latest reasons. He launched just seven shots, seemingly indicative of apathy more than inability.
Williams' play, coupled with the losses, served only to highlight his apparent discontent with Johnson's offense. The fact that Williams spoke out against that offense last week highlighted, to critics, his unwillingness to accept accountability for his own lack of productivity. But Williams refuted those theories as well.
"The comments I made about struggling with our offense started off being about Coach Sloan, because I was being interviewed about him prior to us playing versus Utah," Williams explained. "I loved playing for Coach Sloan and his offense. At times we had disagreements and [had] fallouts, so that's what I explained.
"Then, on the flip side, they asked me about [the Nets'] struggles, and I told them I wasn't accustomed to playing in [isolation] and one-on-one. That I'm a system guy, which is what I'm accustomed to and where I've always excelled.
"I also said that I had to figure out how to play with Joe Johnson, because in my heart I know that I'm the one playing like crap. Is it Coach Johnson's fault that I'm playing bad? Hell, no! I'm the first one to accept accountability for the way I'm playing. And my family, people who know me, know I would be the first to admit that."
Except they are not the critics. The ones quick to point out that in an age when point guards are vital, the Jazz appeared as if they couldn't wait to get rid of Williams, a point guard in his prime.
"The last thing I would try to do is get any coach fired," Williams said. "I already went through that situation once when people thought I got Coach Sloan fired. Why would I want to put myself through all of that? There's no way I'd do it, because there's certain situations you can never detach your name from once it's happened. But people already are going to believe what they believe. So what can I do now?"
That much remains to be seen.