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June 04, 2019

Sixers interviewing Avery Johnson for assistant coach role next to Brett Brown

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Former NBA head coach Avery Johnson is interviewing for an assistant coach role with the Sixers, a source confirmed to PhillyVoice on Tuesday afternoon. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski was the first to report the news.

Johnson, who was most recently the head coach at the University of Alabama before parting ways with the university in March, is an interesting candidate to fill one of the vacancies on Brown's staff. His background as a player and coach could theoretically help the Sixers on multiple fronts, and there is some stylistic overlap with how the Sixers want to play.

Though he has fallen out of favor in recent years, Johnson does have some coaching credentials. After retiring from the NBA in 2004, Johnson immediately took a job as an assistant coach under Don Nelson in Dallas, and his ascent to head coach happened just five months after taking the job when Nelson resigned. The Mavericks closed that year on a 16-2 run under Johnson, and in his first full season as head coach they went to the 2006 Finals, losing in semi-controversial fashion to the Miami Heat. He was the quickest coach to 50 and 100 wins in history at the time he reached those marks.

The years since have not been as kind to Johnson. A pair of first-round upsets in Dallas lead to his ouster there, and he was at the helm of some uninspired Nets teams in Brooklyn in the early 2010's. How much of that is his fault is hard to say, but Johnson did not exactly drape himself in glory at Alabama, either, with the Crimson Tide making the NCAA Tournament just once during his four years there.

Johnson's basketball philosophy is not entirely different to head coach Brett Brown's. He is a high-tempo coach who has always wanted his teams to run after they get stops, and that should sound familiar to anyone who has followed the Sixers over the last half-decade. 

There are some key distinctions between Johnson and Brown, however. Johnson coaches aggression on both sides of the floor, which he has detailed in a more public manner than many coaches at his level. You can buy an instructional video for $39.99! 

While the Sixers have generally preferred to play one-on-one defense as much as possible to stay home on shooters, Johnson has been outspoken in the past about playing aggressive, trapping defense in order to generate turnovers and get out on the break. This is a style that is tough to play at the pro level without proper personnel and serious commitment from all parties involved, and one that is more easily punishable in this era with the prevalence of the three-point shot.

The Sixers are likely in search of a new full-time defensive coordinator this summer if we assume Jim O'Brien doesn't want to remain in that role on a full-time basis. It's certainly not a lock that Johnson (or any other candidate) would take that role over an internal candidate, but it would be fascinating to see how much his own personal philosophy would impact how the team sets up on D. 

Offensively, Johnson's desire to run comes attached to an instinct to democratize the process of pushing the ball on the break. While the point guard pushing the ball in transition is still his ideal, Johnson's teams are predicated on making the correct outlet reads and pushing against defenses who aren't set rather than getting it to a specific player every time up the floor. The Sixers operate in this manner a lot of the time anyway, but it would be interesting to see if that had any impact on how Ben Simmons was used running the break, assuming the rest of the personnel remains in place moving forward.

It should be noted that Johnson has softened on having hard and fast rules as he has gained more experience in the coaching world.

"One of the first mistakes I made when I first became a head coach is trying to get guys to play in the image of Coach Avery Johnson," he said during his introductory presser at Alabama. "I had to get over the hurdle pretty fast."

That mentality is important because the league has changed a ton since Johnson last coached in the NBA in late 2012.

As an added bonus, there may be a hint of familiarity between Brown and Johnson should they decide to work together. Johnson played for the Spurs from 1994-2001, which overlapped with Brown's first stint in San Antonio as an unpaid assistant in the basketball ops department. Whether there is actual history there is another story, but it's yet another reminder of how deep the Spurs tree actually goes.

We'll see what this search for an assistant brings, but one thing that is important to keep in mind — success or failure as a head coach does not necessarily have any impact on one's ability to have a positive impact as an assistant. Johnson's 400+ wins in the NBA will take a backseat to the gaps he can fill on Philadelphia's staff, and his ability to work as part of a greater whole.

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