EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — There have been doubts about Avery Johnson at every level in his NBA career.
Some felt he wasn't good enough to be a player. Others said the Spurs would never win a title with him at the point guard, and there were many who felt he didn't have the characteristics or the experience needed to be an NBA head coach.
All Johnson did was play 16 years in the league, win a ring with San Antonio and post the NBA's all-time coaching record in 3½-years with the Dallas Mavericks.
Johnson took on a new challenge Tuesday, the job of turning around the league-worst New Jersey Nets, and there was a cockiness about him. He smiled broadly, spoke of optimism and gave off a feeling of confidence that one expects from someone expecting to succeed again.
"I am all about the positive," Johnson said after being introduced as the Nets' 16th coach. "I am about hard work. I am about dreaming. I have a big dream right now in my mind in terms of where this franchise can go and where we can take it and I see all the possibilities."
Johnson didn't lay out a time line for turning around a team that won a league-low 12 games last season. He insisted that the team can go from worst to first with a couple of young talented players on the roster, the third pick overall in next week's draft and a rich Russian owner who seemingly will spend money during next month's free agent bonanza that might include LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
"We've got a lot of work ahead of us, but the sky's the limit," said Johnson, who spent the past two seasons working as an NBA analyst for ESPN. "We're in a great situation here with the Nets. "We've got plenty of draft picks. We've got plenty of money to spend, we've got an owner that's all in, wants to win and wants to win now."
Johnson posted a 194-70 mark with the Mavericks, guiding them to the NBA finals in 2006. He was fired by Mark Cuban after a first-round playoff series loss to New Orleans in 2008.
He takes over a team that set an NBA record losing its first 18 games and then threatened the league mark for fewest wins in a season (9), set by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1972-73.
Only a late run prevented the Nets from a season of infamy.
With point guard Devin Harris and center Brook Lopez looking on, Johnson said he made a conscious decision to be optimistic, so as not to send the wrong message.
"Where I come from is all about winning and it starts with having a winning mentality," Johnson said. "We have to get rid of the losing stench and losing mentality that we had here last year. We know it is going to take a lot of work and I don't think it's about being overly optimistic. It's about having a positive outlook. The two players who were here needed to see that conviction in my eyes."
Johnson met with new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov during Game 5 of the NBA finals in Boston on Sunday, and he is convinced the billionaire is "all in" on helping the team.
For the past two seasons, Johnson has recharged his batteries and evaluated his coaching career. While he will make a few tweaks, Johnson was happy with his self evaluation of his days in Dallas, which included a few quarrels with a young Harris before he was traded to the Nets in the Jason Kidd deal.
Harris wanted more responsibility on the floor. Johnson would not let him have it.
"We butted heads, we'll probably still butt heads going forward," said Harris, who called Johnson a player-type coach who can be a bit of a dictator when he does not get the desired results. "But it's all about winning and that's the only thing we both respect."
With a young team, Harris thinks Johnson will be just as tough, demanding discipline and hard work on both ends of the court.
"Obviously I would like to have a little more trust on the sideline," Harris said. "I'm at a different point in my career. I think he has learned a lot from his absence in coaching and I think we will be a good fit."
Lopez said Harris has been very positive about the hiring, which was announced last week.
"I think we are definitely going to try to build a winning culture here, regardless of what happens in the offseason," Lopez said. "From Day 1, we're going to come in believing we can win games."
Nets president and general manager Rod Thorn said Johnson brings the proven ability to work with young players, to teach defense while demanding accountability from every player, regardless of status.