Alabama couldn't land a coach who's been to a Final Four in Gregg Marshall, so it went out and got one who's been to the NBA Finals instead. The reports are in and unequivocal: Avery Johnson will be the next head men's basketball coach for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Our friends at Roll Bama Roll have a great post up today from Alabama's perspective, and I encourage you to check it out. Here's what I will add as an outside observer.
Johnson had an expedited rise as a coach upon retiring as a player following the 2003-04 NBA season. He had played for Don Nelson with the Dallas Mavericks in the 2002-03 season, and Nelson chose to groom him as his eventual successor as head coach. Johnson took over late in the 2004-05 season when Nelson resigned, and he led Dallas to the conference semis that year.
The following two seasons were 60-win campaigns, and his third was a 50-win year. The Mavericks chose to fire him after that third full season, partially due to frustration over two straight first round playoff exits and partially due to a desire to shake things up. Johnson coached two seasons and part of a third for New Jersey/Brooklyn. They were largely forgettable.
Alabama is obviously banking on the idea that the Dallas version of Johnson is more representative than the NJ/BKN version of Johnson. The 2012-13 Nets got much better after he left under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, going from 14-14 under Johnson to 35-19 under Carlesimo. The team heavily invested in re-signing and adding new players for that season, and after an 11-4 start, the bottom fell out from under the team.
Not having held either of his first two coaching jobs for longer than about three seasons isn't a total red flag for the pro circuit, where organizational politics among players, the GM, and ownership can scuttle coaches' tenures quickly. Unless you're someone like Gregg Popovitch or Jerry Sloan, you're going to have a short stint or two somewhere.
The bigger red flag is that Johnson hasn't had anything to do with the college game since he himself was in college. There is a reason why you can't think of anyone but Larry Brown who has excelled at both the college and professional levels of basketball: they're two completely different jobs. What you have to teach is different, how you acquire players is different, and how you manage players is different. Also important for someone with two short head coaching jobs in the past is that who manages you and how they do it is different as well.
Even the nuts and bolts of simply putting an offense and defense together are fairly different because of NCAA practice time limits, the lower skill and experience levels of college players, and the fact that it's far harder to find good big men in quantity in college than in the NBA. Is Johnson able to put together a good scheme for a team like this year's Tide that only had two players taller than 6'8" on the roster? We don't know, and pointing out that he's a former guard means nothing to that effect.
Johnson will probably do well as a recruiter. He's got an engaging personality and always seems to be bursting with energy. It likely won't take him long to make inroads in key talent development areas because, well, he's Avery Johnson. The players, for now, will be old enough to remember him taking the Mavs to the Finals, and the coaches and some of the general hangers-on will likely be old enough to remember him making a big shot in the San Antonio Spurs' first NBA title series.
The one thing we can be reasonably sure of is that Johnson will upgrade the talent in Tuscaloosa. That, and he'll probably energize an Alabama basketball fan base that hasn't had a reason to get excited in many recent seasons.
Alabama fans should be cautiously optimistic about the hire, and they should get as caught up as they care to in the positive energy Johnson will exude. It will be fun to have Johnson as the coach there, at least for a while. But as with all coaches making a jump of either kind between the college and pro level, it remains to be seen whether Johnson will actually put together outstanding teams.