Mike Brown Can Coach an Offense

February 28th, 2010 by John Krolik


I try not to rant in published form. I actually like the media, believe it or not. I don’t even have any real beef with the dreaded mainstream media.

However, there is an issue I believe that it’s time to speak upon. The “Mike Brown can’t coach an offense” meme has become tiresome. It’s lazy, it’s not based on analysis, and it’s something that people say because everyone else seems to be saying it.

I understand where it comes from, to be certain. Mike Brown is young, and this is his first head coaching job. He started out as a video coordinator. He sounds unassuming in interviews. He will often grimace and spit in a cup during games. Like Stan Van Gundy, Mike Brown takes a lot of undeserved flak because it doesn’t look like he should be a good NBA coach.

There’s also some factual basis behind the criticism of Mike Brown’s offense. The Cavs have always been a defense-first team since Brown took over. They don’t play fast. Their sets are often basic-looking, especially when LeBron starts holding the ball. And during Mike Brown’s first few years on the bench, the Cavs were not a good offensive team despite the fact they had LeBron.

In the last two seasons, things have changed. The Cavs were a top offensive team last season after they revamped their backcourt and gained significantly more offensive firepower. Much of the coaching credit for this improvement was given to Jon Kuester, who Brown named his “offensive coordinator” before the season. In the off-season, Kuester was named the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, and the offense was handed to Mike Malone.

Under Kuester, the Pistons have the 26th best offense in the league. Under Brown, the Cavs have the third best offense in the league. The only two teams with a better offensive efficiency mark than Cleveland are the Phoenix Suns and the Denver Nuggets, who make much more of an effort to push the ball than the Cavs and don’t play defense anywhere near as well.

In fact, if you take offensive rebounding out of the equation, the Cavs look even better offensively. The Cavs are only 21st in offensive rebound rate, but second overall in TS%. When you consider that the Cavs are a bottom-three team in free-throw percentage, which isn’t a reflection of how well the offense is designed, that number looks even more impressive.

Meanwhile, offensive guru Flip Saunders’ team is currently 22nd in offensive efficiency. Kuester’s team is 26th. Don Nelson’s team is tied for 17th. Rick Adleman’s team is 16th. Mike D’Antoni’s squad is 15th. Phil Jackson and Tex Winter’s team is 11th.

What I’m saying when I say that Mike Brown is good at coaching offense:

I’m not saying that any of the above coaches are bad offensive coaches. I’m not even saying that they’re not great offensive coaches. It’s the idea that a great offensive coach has the power to single-handedly make a good offensive team that I have an issue with.

I don’t know how well Mike Brown would do if he was given a set of five random players and told to construct the best offensive sets. That’s never been his task. Mike Brown has always had LeBron James on his team. His job is not to impress NBA junkies with the most intricate offensive sets. It’s been to figure out a way to use the players he has to put the ball in the basket. He’s done that very well.

In The Blind Side, (the book-I haven’t seen the movie) Michael Oher’s high school coach had been at a small Christian school for some time. His teams had never had the biggest, fastest, or most skilled players. To compensate, he had one of the most complex and wacky playbooks in his league. He loved trick plays, and would run them regularly.

Then he got Michael Oher, a left tackle so much more athletically gifted than every player in the league it was barely fair. After a few games, the coach cut his playbook down to exactly one play. They would run the ball to the side of the line that Michael Oher played on. Every single play. They ran a running play called “gap” every time, and the team immediately experienced success.

Mike Brown has been in a similar situation as a coach. When LeBron James is on your team, Occam’s Razor is your friend. It’s not just understandable that the Cavaliers don’t run a variety of intricate sets for a number of possible players. Doing that would actively harm the offense. Relying on LeBron James is predictable. It’s predictable because not relying on LeBron James would be stupid.

What should the Cavs be doing more of to “mix up” their offense? More pin-downs for Anthony Parker? Put Anderson Varejao in the high post and try to cut backdoor? The idea is that doing this would free LeBron up for more easy baskets. The issue with that theory is that NBA coaches are smart. They know the ball is going to LeBron at some point. Running intricate stuff to try and get the defense to leave LeBron alone is more often than not going to mean he gets the ball at the top of the key with 9 seconds on the shot clock instead of 18.

Yes, LeBron does hold the ball at times and completely stagnate the offense. This is something that is going to happen with a player of LeBron’s caliber. It even happened during the All-Star Game. Since LeBron is having one of the greatest statistical seasons in history, I’d say the good is outweighing the bad with those type of situations.

Mike Brown has also done a good job of complimenting LeBron’s talents with his sets. Brown loves to use back-screens to catch teams overloading on LeBron and set up shooters. Delonte West, Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, and Daniel Gibson have all had their career-best mark from beyond the three-point line either this season or last season. The Cavs are also very good at cutting to the rim when LeBron has the ball and the weak-side is freed up. LeBron’s assists set up almost four shots at the rim per game, as opposed to just under two assists per game leading to mid-range baskets.

The Cavs have also become adept at getting LeBron James the ball on the move to the rim, where he’s unstoppable. The best example of how the Cavs do this is the play where Mo Williams runs a screen-and-roll, James gets a back-pick, and receives the ball at full speed from Mo, who is drawing the defense by going baseline. (Here are some visuals of the play.)

Because of plays like that, 47.7% of LeBron’s shots at the rim have been assisted. That’s a higher percentage of assisted dunks or layups than Wade, Carmelo, Kobe, or Chris Bosh receive. 48.1% of Kevin Durant’s shots at the rim are assisted, which only beats James by a hair. The Cavs aren’t running complex sets, but they’re doing what they should be doing to take advantage of James’ effect on a defense without taking away from his impact.

All of this means that the Cavs have done a great job getting shots from the most efficient areas on the floor. The two most efficient shots in the NBA are shots at the rim and three-pointers. The Cavs lead the league in FG% at the rim, and trail only the Suns in three-point percentage. Additonally, only two teams have a higher proportion of assisted shots at the rim than the Cavaliers. (The Cavs are dead-last in proportion of assisted threes, which is almost entirely due to how many three-pointers LeBron shoots off the dribble.)

Meanwhile, mid-range shots are the least efficient shots on the floor. The Cavs take very few of those. They’re in the bottom three in attempts from 10-15 feet, and only five teams take fewer shots from 16-23 feet. The Cavs are also in the top-five in free throw rate. The goal of an offense is to get as many shots as possible from the most efficient spots on the floor. That’s what the Cavs have been doing.

It’s true that the Cavs have LeBron and no other team does. That doesn’t mean the coaching staff should get no credit for having this good of an offense. Kevin Durant’s team is currently tied with Wade’s team for 17th in offensive efficiency.

If you think LeBron is that much better than Wade or Durant, please identify yourself now so you can recuse yourself from last year’s contrarian “Wade for MVP” bandwagon or this season’s “Durant for MVP” bandwagon.

LeBron is better than either of those players, and does have a better supporting cast. Still, I haven’t seen one “Scott Brooks can’t coach offense” comment in my time. Maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough, but it seems to me that Mike Brown takes far more heat for how he runs his great offense than Brooks takes for running his below-average one.

How Mike Brown Became a Bad Offensive Coach:

On that note, let’s take a look at some of what Mike Brown had to work with outside of LeBron when he got his reputation as a bad offensive coach. Here are the most-used rotation players outside of LeBron in Mike Brown’s first full season as a head coach, by order of minutes played:

1. Eric Snow

2. Zydrunas Ilgauskas

3. Drew Gooden

4. Damon Jones

5. Larry Hughes

6. Sasha Pavlovic

7. Anderson Varejao

8. Alan Henderson

That was the rest of his rotation. You tell me how to run offensive sets that don’t have the defense loading up on LeBron with that bunch. Give that question to Mike D’Antoni, Tex Winter, and a team of MIT scientists, and what would come back would still likely be a variation of “give LeBron the ball and pray.”

You could go on like that for a few seasons. Instead, I’ll do this. It’s true that some players have played worse after coming over to the Cavaliers. There are several possible explanations for that. However, if Mike Brown’s offense is such a wasteland, shouldn’t there be players who have improved after escaping his offensive purgatory? Let’s see.

Players whose production has radically fallen off, stayed almost exactly the same, or who have flat-out retired after leaving a Mike Brown Cavalier team:

Alan Henderson*

Ira Newble

Flip Murray

Larry Hughes

Drew Gooden

Eric Snow

Sasha Pavlovic

Damon Jones

Luke Jackson

Zendon Hamilton**

Martynas Andriuskevicius

David Wesley

Scott Pollard

Dwayne Jones

Wally Szczerbiak

Kaniel Dickens

Billy Thomas

Cedric Simmons

Devin Brown***

Tarence Kinsey****

Joe Smith

*Just about matched his Cavalier averages with the 76ers.

**Played 46 minutes for the Cavs in 2005-06. Was named Zendon.

***Was matching his Cavalier averages with the Hornets this season before he was traded

**** (tears)

Players who played slightly better after leaving a Mike Brown Team:

Mike Wilks

Stephen Graham

Players who experienced significant improvement after leaving a Mike Brown Team:

Shannon Brown

A lot of those players were veterans or guys getting a cup of coffee with the Cavs. But a lot of those guys were guys who played major roles for the Cavaliers and then failed to catch on with other teams when they got there. If Mike Brown is so bad at using the talent he has available to him, why haven’t other coaches been able to do anything better with the players that weren’t very good for the Cavaliers?

Shannon Brown is a success story, but he was very young when he was on the Cavs, never showed he could do what the Cavs wanted when he did get a chance, and was the young piece that made a hugely beneficial trade work. And don’t forget that the Bobcats had a chance with him before the Lakers did.

To some extent, the old adage is true. At the pro level, players win games and coaches lose them. Up to this point, Mike Brown has lost fewer games than any other NBA coach. Even if he struggles to keep getting it done with Shaq out, it’s time to start giving him some credit for that.