When Mike Brown was named head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers this past summer, the fan base was underwhelmed to say the least. From a PR standpoint, the real danger for the organization in Tenure 2.0 is that, regardless of how much Dan Gilbert or Chris Grant told us things would be different (but also the same), Mike Brown had already lost the ability to play to the imaginations of Cavs fans. Anyone who paid attention to the Cavaliers anywhere from 2005 to 2010 had seen it all before. We saw the warts, much more than the otherwise long stretches of unblemished skin. We knew what a Mike Brown Cavs team would look like. He could no longer surprise.
But, in the immortal words of a fictional boxer from Philadelphia, “If I can change… and you can change… everybody can change!”
Okay, sure, there’s still plenty of that old Mike Brown smell to remind us that this season is not entirely fresh off the lot. There have been issues with team’s offensive execution(slash “game plan,” slash “pulse,” slash “awareness that the other end of the court exists”). There have been some puzzling rotations and many nights where Brown goes 11-deep on a team whose 18th ranked pace isn’t exactly burning through many pairs of legs. There has been a sense of searching from Brown that, for lack of a better word, he describes as “process,” but that leaves others questioning the immediacy with which he leads this Cavaliers team.
But stop and take a breath. Take a really deep breath and you might notice something different. Is that hints of azaleas? Notes of coffee and barnyard? Nope. That’s just new Mike Brown smell you’re smelling.
So far, even as the team has gradually improved almost in spite of itself, Brown has done some things to buck what many considered the more troubling trends from his first time around. Consider:
1.) He moved Earl Clark back to back-up power forward. Make no mistake, Mike Brown likes himself some length. That was the word used most when discussing his attempt at forcing Clark into the role of starting small forward. Brown favored length so much in his previous stint, that we had to endure the aesthetic dung heap that was the Larry Hughes/Sasha Pavlovic backcourt. Length gave us Jamario Moon and Jawad Williams as actual NBA rotation players. Clark’s length, at 6-10, brought with it tantalizing defensive potential from the three-spot, it just didn’t work. I give Brown credit for attempting the bold positional move. It was very low risk and relatively high reward. More importantly, though, is the fact that Brown did not deal with Clark’s struggles at the three by doing what many of us would have bet cash money on: going even bigger and moving Clark to the two, playing Varejao at the three, Zeller at four and Bynum at five. (Note: totally kidding … but it wouldn’t have entirely shocked you, would it have?) Brown found a role for Clark where he could succeed and help the team (backup power forward) and used the even-more-vacant three spot (is there something more vacuumy than a vacuum?) to find some effective run for rookie Anthony Bennett, who had been struggling as a post player. And, yes, I almost put “post” in parentheses (or was it “player”?).
You can argue that making adjustments is what good coaches do. And that would be my point exactly.
2.) He’s actually using a three-guard line-up (and enjoying it). Okay, more about length: when the Cavs signed Jarrett Jack over the summer they thought they were getting a backup point guard who could also play off the ball some paired with either Kyrie or Dion. But because of how successful Golden State was playing a three-guard set with Jack, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, there was speculation that Mike Brown might, at least, consider toying with a Jack/Iriving/Waiters lineup. The coach admitted that he would try what, for him, was clearly against the grain — running out three guys under 6-4 at the same time — but he ended up not only trying the three-guard, he’s been leaning on it. Before Tuesday’s game, those three guards were all in the top five in minutes per game. Kyrie was first (34.4), Dion fourth (28.5), and Jack fifth (26.5). This has caused the Cavs to close games with Waiters on the opposing team’s small forward which, despite Waiters generally engaged defensive play this year, cannot be in any part of a Mike Brown dream scenario. It may not be what the coach wants to do; it just happens to help the team win games (well, at least moreso than the alternative).
In fact, Brown practically committed to long stretches of three guards when he moved Waiters to the bench during the first month of the season. Waiters wasn’t benched because he wasn’t talented or didn’t deserve minutes. He was moved into a different role because he and Irving hadn’t figured out / didn’t want to play together. He still deserved minutes. Jack was going to get his minutes. Brown really had only one good solution.
The real ripple effect of Brown being open to playing three-guard sets, though, is that it created time for Matthew Dellavedova on the court. When your back-up point guard is playing starters minutes, you actually have cause to turn to your third point guard and that’s allowed Dellavedova to get on the court and play like a one-man flesh-eating zombie mob.
And, just like that: I call Dellavedova “Zombie Mob” and never have to look up how to spell Dellavedova again. Go get ’em, Zombie Mob!
3.) He’s handled his first big test behind (mostly) closed doors. The players-only meeting in November could not have been a high point for Brown. Here, he had a team of young players and mostly quiet, lead-by-example type veterans (except, possibly, for Jack) already venting their frustrations with some oblique finger pointing. This was followed up with whatever was going on with Waiters’s illness (I really wanted to put illness in quotes there … no one believes he was sick enough to be completely excused from the team) and then the Waiters trade rumors, none of which was being helped by wunderkind Kyrie Irving’s decidedly unwunderkinian start to the season, the up-and-down-and-up-And-rew Bynum, the chance that Anthony Bennett may have melted away his NBA-talent along with those extra 20 pounds he started the year with, and… well, if you’re reading this blog, you know the list.
What has Brown done? He’s stayed calm. He’s said “it’s a process.” Even when he’s been frustrated, he’s said, “it’s a process.” Even when it’s frustrated us to hear “it’s a process,” he’s said, “it’s a process.” And in the last two and a half weeks the Cavs have shown some signs of life. They’re 5-3, with two of the three losses coming against two of the league’s top teams. Irving has come on. Waiters has been strong in his new role. They still haven’t figured out how to make Bynum a consistent factor, but you know what Mike Brown would say. It’s a… yeah.
None of this is to say that Brown has been without blemish in his second turn. Very few coaches get absolved from second guessing. Still, it’s interesting to see how Brown — even against his natural instincts — has found a way to find some degree of success in this early season with such an unproven roster.
That’s right. There’s nothing quite like that new Mike Brown smell.