Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov has his first NBA coach in New Jersey: ESPN analyst Avery Johnson.
After breaking into the coaching business under Mark Cuban in Dallas and interviewing with New Orleans and Atlanta in recent weeks, Johnson on Wednesday struck a verbal agreement to coach Prokhorov's Nets.
Although the sides might need the rest of the week to finalize what sources close to the situation say will be a three-year contract, Johnson confirmed the agreement in a Wednesday afternoon interview with ESPN's Hannah Storm.
"We're excited about it," Johnson told Storm. "We've come to a verbal agreement and hopefully the Nets will have an official announcement tomorrow. But, yes, I am headed to New Jersey."
Prokhorov understandably wanted to make the biggest possible splash with his first hire and ultimately sanctioned the selection of Johnson, who is completing his second season at ESPN after posting the highest winning percentage (.735) in NBA coaching history in three-plus seasons in Dallas. Johnson was fired by the Mavericks in May 2008, in spite of his 194-70 record, after consecutive first-round playoff defeats.
Taking the Nets' job takes Johnson out of the running in Atlanta after three face-to-face interviews with the Hawks, which followed a contentious end to Johnson's candidacy with the Hornets after the New Orleans native was initially presumed to be the favorite with his hometown team.
The Hawks met with Johnson as recently as Saturday, when general manager Rick Sund came to his house in Houston. But Atlanta, according to NBA coaching sources, is now expected to choose by week's end between Dallas Mavericks assistant Dwane Casey, holdover Hawks assistant Larry Drew and ESPN/ABC's Mark Jackson.
Although Casey is widely regarded as the favorite, largely because of his longstanding relationship with Sund dating to their days together in Seattle, sources say Drew has made a late charge.
Sources told ESPN.com this week that there is some sentiment in the organization that Drew might be "the next Alvin Gentry," referring to the Phoenix coach who was passed over by the Suns when Mike D'Antoni left the team in May 2008. Gentry eventually landed the job halfway through the 2008-09 season and helped lead unheralded Phoenix to the Western Conference finals this season.
In New Jersey, Johnson will take over a team that flirted with the league's worst all-time record before finishing 12-70. Yet it can be argued that the Nets' job was the most attractive on the board, after factoring in Prokhorov's presumed willingness to spend, New Jersey's salary-cap space this summer to sign top top-tier free agents and its possession of the No. 3 overall pick in the draft later this month to pair with promising young center Brook Lopez and point guard Devin Harris.
ESPN.com reported in early April that Harris was making a hard internal push for his former coach in Dallas, despite the fact that the ever-demanding Johnson rode Harris hard as he was learning the nuances of NBA point guard play.
"You look at a team that won 12 games, so the sky's the limit," Johnson said of the Nets' future during his ESPN interview. "... There's so many great possibilities and so much potential here."
Prokhorov's impending arrival immediately prompted speculation that New Jersey would try to lure Mike Krzyzewski to the pros with an offer of $12 million to $15 million annually, but Krzyzewski made it clear that he has no interest in leaving Duke for the NBA. The Nets likewise had strong interest in ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy, but Van Gundy told team president Rod Thorn that he wanted to stay in television for at least one more season. ESPN.com also reported recently that New Jersey made back-channel inquiries to determine if it had any shot of convincing Nets alumnus Phil Jackson to consider a return to the Nets should he leave the Lakers at season's end.
Johnson was the only coach from the Nets' initial wish list to formally interview. Although the Nets did have conversations with Boston Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau before Thibodeau agreed Saturday to coach the Chicago Bulls, Johnson was the only known candidate to have a face-to-face interview with Thorn.
"It's exciting," Johnson said of the Nets' long-term outlook. "I'm glad to have the opportunity."
Johnson was the NBA's Coach of the Year in 2005 and took the Mavs to the NBA Finals in 2006, before the back-to-back early playoff exits to Golden State and New Orleans and rising tensions in the Mavericks' locker room brought an end to his tenure just one year into a lucrative four-year contract extension he received from Cuban.
Thorn, though, was apparently drawn to Johnson's forceful nature, hoping that the Li'l General -- as Johnson was known during his playing days in San Antonio -- can be a steadying force for such a young team.
How dramatically New Jersey's roster changes in free agency remains to be seen. During a recent analyst appearance, Johnson insisted that the best option for Cleveland's LeBron James is signing with the Nets, but he was careful to avoid any potential tampering violations when Storm asked him about James.
"No comment now," Johnson said, laughing. "Who are you talking about?"
Pressed on free agency in general, Johnson added: "If I'm a free agent, New Jersey would be the place that I would want to go."
Storm then asked Johnson, 45, if he can deliver the championship Prokhorov says he hopes to win with the Nets in five years or less.
"Yes," Johnson said. "That's why I took the job."