It was December 6, 2007, and for a Mavs team reeling from its worst stretch of the season it was just one more blow. At home against the Denver Nuggets the Mavs were sliced and diced by Allan Iverson and dropped their second straight game in the process of losing six in nine. Dirk Nowitzki could have been speaking for head coach Avery Johnson when he described the game: "It was a layup drill out there. At no point in the game I thought we could really stop them."
Avery Johnson puts a lot of emphasis on judging his team in 20 game increments, and after what he saw in the previous 19 games, this loss to Denver was more than a symbolic close to the first 20 games of the season: It was the final straw. He had done everything he said he would do coming into the season. He had let young players like Brandon Bass and J.J. Barea get significant playing time. He had unleashed Devin Harris to control the game and the Mavs offense. He had moved Jason Terry to the bench and increased the size of his shooting guard position. For twenty games Avery Johnson had done what everyone else had told him to do, and for what... a thrashing at the hands of the Nuggets?
The result from Johnson was immediate and severe and led to his losing the season, the team, and ultimately his job.
After the Denver loss, the first thing he did was strip Devin Harris of his freedom to run the offense. Fast breaks and offensive sets built off of transition were removed, as Johnson slowed the game down so that he could call plays and run the offense. For the first 20 games the Mavs offense was clocking in at 90 pace, a significant gain over the previous year's glacial offensive pace. As we noted in a previous column, however, the pace was inconsistent. Twice in November Harris directed back-to-back-to-back games where the first game had a pace of over 95, which was followed up with a game where the pace plummeted to under 84, only to have the pace increase again to over 92. This inability to control the pace of the game clearly drove Johnson crazy, and the low point was, not coincidentally, the Denver game on December 6, where the Mavs played completely at Denver's pace, over 100.
The next five games after Denver the Mavs pace never went over 85 and averaged an almost unbelievably slow pace of 83. To put this into perspective, the slowest team in 2006-2007 was the Detroit Pistons, and they averaged a pace of 86. After Denver, Johnson put the hammer down on Harris, and he never let up.
Denver also was the moment when Johnson gave up on working to improve his bench and grow players into the rotation. He dramatically lowered the minutes of Barea, who had averaged 11.3 minutes per game in November but saw his minutes drop to 7 minutes per game in December and 4 minutes per game in January. Dasagana Diop, who averaged 23 minutes per game in November, found himself riding the pine and averaging 12 minutes per game in December. Even Brandon Bass, who showed real flashes of excellence, saw his minutes cut by over 4 a game from November to December.
In short, after the Denver loss, Avery Johnson lost his perspective on the team, what it needed to do, what HE needed to do, and, perhaps most importantly, the value of listening to advice from others. His response was extreme, and it reverted the Mavericks back to the team that lost in the first round of the playoffs the previous season: A one-dimensional iso-focused offensive team that was eminently beatable in a series. Even worse, it was clear as the season wore on that Avery's reversion to his system adversely affected his players, which affected their effort, especially on the defensive end.
Here were my comments at the halfway point of the season:
By now you should be seeing a pattern: The Mavericks defense is slightly worse in every single aspect other than fouling the opposition. There are two things to take from this: The first is that the Mavericks are suffering death by papercut on defense. The small declines in multiple defensive categories adds up to a significant decline overall. The second thing to take from this is that there is a reason for what we're seeing: A drop in overall defensive aggressiveness.
Make no mistake about it: Avery Johnson is a very good defensive coach, but if the players don't have their heart into it, you see what I outlined above. After Denver, Johnson's moves demoralized the team. Even if they didn't say it, you could see it in their performance on the court.
Certainly we can't blame one game for Johnson giving up on all of the important tasks that he had to tackle coming into the season, but the game was absolutely a turning point. It was after this game that Johnson gave up on all those important initiatives and adjustments that the team needed to move ahead. After twenty games of chaos and a debacle against Denver, Johnson retreated to what he was comfortable with: His system. His offense. His rotations. His plays. His way.