Why Not Dennis?
Dennis Johnson died this week and I was saddened almost immediately by his post-retirement career, particularly when compared to his last 80s Celtics teammates. His lack of opportunity encouraged me to consider the difficult question:
Why was DJ screwed?
The NBA circuit talks about his intellect and kindness. His work ethic, humor and thorough understanding of the game are also commonly referenced. That sounds like a great combination for a head coach in the NBA yet DJ worked for years as an assistant and scout but had only one short interim stint in an awful situation with the Clippers. It seemed odd that someone with his combination of basketball pedigree and personal characteristics couldn’t get a real shot at a coaching job so I thought I’d take a look at some of his peers just for the sake of comparison.
Ainge and Johnson were a great backcourt combination. They also reversed the standard assumptions about skill set. Ainge was one of the best athletes in the league for the bulk of his career. His baseball exploits were impressive (he was no Michael Jordan) but his speed and jumping ability are still the source of story telling. DJ had more stereotypically White playing characteristics (high basketball IQ, good leadership…) and the blend of the two was tremendous.
When Ainge quit his job as the coach of the Phoenix Suns mid-season, many of us assumed that he would have to work his way up the ladder if he wanted another opportunity to be a significant figure in the NBA. His leaving the Suns was not a Hubie Brown situation (an older man with health concerns) or a departure connected to an intense family problem. It was roughly the equivalent of taking your ball and going home.
Not only did Ainge land on his feet, he landed up. Despite quitting on his team and frequent substantial disputes with the players he had coached, Ainge now has the dream job of most former Celtics. He’s sitting in Red’s chair. He runs the Celtics. DJ died while coaching a D League team.
What about Larry Legend? He was able to come home to Indiana and coach a veteran laden, talented team who’d simply grown weary of working under a domineering personality. Bird got the Pacers to the Finals then quit as he’d promised. Bird never seemed particularly engaged in coaching and talked openly about his role as a manager and how little of the actual coaching he did, relying instead on Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle.
After quitting and spending a few years fishing, Bird also fell up. He became Donnie Walsh’s heir and immediately fired Isiah Thomas (despite Walsh’s discomfort) for his buddy Carlisle. Bird returned to Indiana hailed as a conquering hero despite being more interested in scouting than management. Since then, the Pacers have moved from being a model franchise to being Blazers East. And without much playoff success. This month was the first time that there has been any public criticism of Bird’s continuing poor job with the Pacers. And that criticism came from a single columnist and was immediately dismissed by most of the good Hoosier faithful.
McHale’s GM career started because 1) Minnesota owner Glen Taylor didn’t know much about basketball and 2) Kevin McHale is an icon in Minnesota. That’s pretty much it. Despite having one of the twenty best players in NBA history for the duration of his time as GM, McHale has managed to turn the Timberwolves into a team that should earnestly hope they luck into a high draft pick this summer instead of sneaking into the playoffs because they’d be lucky to win even one playoff game against one of top teams in the West.
McHale’s tenure in Minny is filled with a litany of poor decisions, stupid trades, missed opportunities, ridiculous contracts and unnecessary conflicts. It is only due to Billy King, Isiah Thomas and Danny Ainge that McHale is not universally considered the worst GM in the game. If nearly anything were different with the Wolves (an engaged, savvy owner with more money; a larger market; a star with any less loyalty than Kevin Garnett; a retired Timberwolf who was a star; a GM who wasn’t a state hero; really, almost anything) McHale would have been fired at least a year ago.
So, a quick recap. Ainge quit on his team during the season then landed his dream job and has been atrocious at it. Bird landed a great gig, did well at it then quit and as an exec has been a disengaged, uncomfortable disaster. (Not coincidentally, Donnie Walsh is being asked to put off his intended retirement by both Bird and ownership. Yes, this is a sign.) McHale’s career with the Timberwolves had a single high point (the Garnett-Cassell-Sprewell run), followed by an almost comic fall. He is now so widely viewed as incompetent that Fred Hoiberg is replacing him next year and EVERY Wolves fan is happy about this. (I honestly think McHale is happy about it too, he didn’t really want the job when it was offered.)
With this, mixed at best, track record, how is it that DJ, a diligent scout and assistant after playing and a legendarily smart, nice, devoted basketball lifer could only get a sniff with the Clippers and died in the D League?
Well, maybe it’s just because it’s Black History Month but there clearly seems to be an element of racism at work. What other explanation is there? The differences between his opportunities and those of McHale, Ainge and Bird are too vast to be dismissed.
This is an uncomfortable thing to write about but I think it’s important to consider. Is it race? Or am I missing something entirely different and very important? Please let me know.
I sincerely hope I’m mistaken. But I don’t think I am.
RIP, DJ. You deserve it.