A few thoughts on Mike Brown’s departure

May 25th, 2010 by John Krolik

Well, that felt fairly anticlimactic. Mike Brown, who’s been the coach of the Cavaliers for the majority of the LeBron era, won the coach of the year award last season, has one of the best winning percentages among active coaches, and is the only man to have ever coached LeBron James in a playoff game, was fired on Sunday night. When it happened, most NBA fans wondered what took the Cavaliers so darn long to do it. As unfair as that may seem, that’s today’s NBA for you. (By the way, sorry for the late response to this on my part — I spent the last 24 hours moving and away from a computer.)

Make no mistake: firing Brown was probably the right move, given the situation. The bottom line is that the Cavs have failed to meet expectations in the playoffs for two years in a row. When a team fails to meet expectations, the weight of those expectations falls on the coach. More often than not, he finds himself out of a job. After a disappointing season, someone is going to be the fall guy, and it’s a lot easier to change coaches than it is to make a major roster move. If you can’t change the product, change the packaging.

That would be true any year, but it’s never been more true than it is this summer. With so many potential franchise players choosing where they’re going to play next season, perception is everything. On some level, it doesn’t matter if Mike Brown can coach or not at this point. Lots of people think he’s a bad coach, and that is a big deal with this free agency market. Even if (if) LeBron believes in Mike Brown, do you think a guy like Chris Bosh would beg for a sign-and-trade because he wants to play for Mike Brown? Regardless of how the Cavalier brass felt about Mike Brown, they ultimately weren’t left with much choice in this situation.

And that’s a shame, because Mike Brown didn’t deserve to have it end like this. When he took the Cavaliers over, they did not play defense. Without any major roster upgrades, he turned Cleveland into one of the best defensive teams in the league. Under his watch, LeBron James improved tremendously on both ends of the floor. In the 2006, 07, and ’08 playoffs, the team outperformed expectations every year through pure grit, defense, rebounding, and hustle. (And LeBron, although his offensive production used to go way down during the playoffs.)

He did his best to make adjustments when the team made major roster moves, often bringing in players who represented potential defensive liabilities. During this year’s regular season, he constantly tweaked the lineup in the face of a slew of injuries, allowing the Cavs to get the #1 record while playing a variety of styles.

And then the Celtics came and took all of that away. The Celtics beat the Cavaliers convincingly, and then it was time for Mike Brown to go. Maybe he would’ve had a chance if the series hadn’t have been so ugly, but it was. The facts are these: the Cavs won six games this post-season, their lowest playoff win total in the last five years. The Cavs almost never got blown out in the playoffs before — over the course of six games, they were blown out twice on their home floor. After that kind of performance, change is necessary. But how much of the blame for the Celtics fiasco should honestly rest on Mike Brown’s shoulders?

Mike Brown certainly made some mistakes in that Celtics series. His offense wasn’t complex enough to create open looks against Thibodeau’s defense. The intensity was not where it needed to be. He didn’t have his rotations ready for Boston, and not having enough “small-ball” lineups ready to match Boston’s athleticism was a fatal mistake. It’s Monday morning quarterbacking, but there are things Brown probably should have done differently in that series.

All of that being said, let’s take a second to acknowledge that Mike Brown had a very tough task in front of him during that series. Look what he had to work with:

-The Cavs’ three major acquisitions (Williams/Jamison/Shaq), who had been forced into the starting lineup and were brought in to win big playoff games, were all horrible matchups for the Celtics and were often hurting the Cavs in one way or another when they were on the floor. To put it bluntly, they were $40 million worth of suck. What do you do in that situation? Remember, these are supposed to be the players Mike Brown could lean on in tough situations. Do you cut the minutes of three of the four highest-paid players on the team during the most important games of the season? Do you tweak the starting lineup? Wouldn’t those moves reek of desperation?

-A reminder: the starting center and power forward had barely played together coming into the Boston series.

-Mike Brown went into every game having no idea who the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th-best Cavalier was going to be that night.

-The Moon/Parker/West SG situation was a nightmare to figure out. Parker would hit threes, but he would get attacked on defense and was too passive offensively. Delonte made hustle plays and changed the game at times, but he couldn’t find the basket. Jamario’s length was exactly what the Cavs needed on defense, but then he’d miss a wide-open three by a couple of feet.

-J.J. Hickson started for almost the entire year and seems like the kind of athletic big the Cavs needed, but the Celtics were exploiting him on defense every time he touched the floor. Every time Hickson came in, it was like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Should MB have trusted the 21-year old to figure it out?

-Do you bring in an ice-cold Boobie Gibson? Or how about Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who was the team’s starting center up until this year and was an afterthought player coming into the playoffs? Again, how common are radical rotation adjustments like these in the midst of a playoff series?

Plus the team was getting killed on the boards. Plus the defense wasn’t there. I’m not saying any of the above is quantum mechanics, but the front office gave Mike Brown a LOT of things to figure out in a matter of weeks, and then on a game-to-game basis. Coaching-wise, the degree of difficulty in managing that rotation was darn near off the charts. Mike Brown has always been a guy who prevents losses more than a guy who creates wins — why is everyone acting shocked and betrayed when he failed to perform the roster alchemy necessary to beat a surprise Boston team that the roster hadn’t been built for?

It was Mike Brown’s time to go. That doesn’t mean it’s time to grab the rope and a rail. For five straight years, the Cavs made the playoffs. They won 66% of their regular-season games during that time, and 59% of their playoff games. Mike Brown coached defense, and took the Cavs to the playoffs because of that defense. He never made excuses, got into it with the players or the media, and never let his ego get in the way. He had the perspective and humility to publicly cede control of the offensive schemes over to assistant coaches. He never complained about the perception that his teams were winning in spite of him. He just put on his tie, spit in a cup, and coached very good basketball teams. He never did get that title, but neither have a lot of coaches who are held in a different stratosphere of regard than Brown ever will be. Was he the best guy to manage a team with the kind of the talent the Cavs had over the last two seasons? Maybe not. But over five seasons as a head coach, Mike Brown has shown himself to be a good man who can coach basketball.

Coaching jobs in the NBA are a funny thing. Brown likely won’t be getting a slew of plum offers coming his way anytime soon thanks to his reputation, and there’s only so much any coach can do for a team without much talent. I could see him getting a young team to play defense and sneak into the playoffs in the next couple of years, like Larry Brown and Scott Skiles did this season. At this point, I don’t see Mike Brown coaching a serious championship contender anytime in the foreseeable future. There’s a very good chance that Mike Brown will never have big-time success as a head coach, and an even better chance that his accomplishments over the last five years will be widely dismissed. Sports fans like quick narratives, and Mike Brown’s rubber stamp may always read “Over-matched, under-imaginative coach who may have kept LeBron from winning a ring.” That doesn’t mean Brown’s accomplishments as a Cavs coach didn’t happen, or that he doesn’t deserve a bit of respect for those accomplishments. For all that happened, and all that will be said and written, I hope Mike Brown knows that he could have done a much worse job during his time in Cleveland.