Mike Brown’s Unfair Firing

May 13th, 2014 by Nate Smith

Yesterday, the Cavs officially changed directions. The attempt to recapture the magic of the first LeBron era is over. A couple hours after I predicted that the Cavs would let Mike Brown twist in the wind until after the finals, they did the merciful thing and cut Brown loose (again). But let’s not mince words. David Griffin got rewarded and Brown got screwed. Mike will get a lot of money to go away quietly, but this situation was completely unfair from the start. I’ve been a Brown detractor many times over the years, but after a night’s worth of contemplation, I doubt any coach could have made the playoffs with this team.

At CtB, we have very little information about the inner workings of the Cavs. So as it’s been for years, we have no idea which decisions last offseason were Brown’s, which were Gilbert’s, which were Grant’s, and which were Griffin’s. But the roster last summer was put together by a guy hitting random buttons in NBA2K14. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say Bynum was Gilbert’s idea, Earl Clark was Brown’s, Jarrett Jack and Anthony Bennett were Chris Grant’s. Jarrett Jack is the only one of those moves that even comes close to a zero sum gain. The only good move of the offseason was bringing in Matthew Dellavedova, who was was one of the best rookies last year, in one of the most talentless rookie classes in postmodern NBA history. Delly got a training camp invite because Mike Brown saw him in a pickup game with his son. So we’re clear, the only positive addition from the 2013 offseason that can clearly be credited to anyone is Delly, and that credit goes to Brown.

Things definitely got better when Bynum was removed from the team (which has also been the case with Indiana).  Shortly thereafter, the Cavs traded for Deng and later traded for Spencer Hawes. Deng, when he played, was not the train wreck many made him out to be. The team was 4.9 points per 100 on offense better on offense with him on the floor, and 2.4 points worse on defense for a net of 2.3.  For all the good Spencer Hawes did on offense, he was and is one of the worst interior defending bigs in the NBA.  While the Cavs were 3.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court on offense, they were 6.1 points worse, for a net of -2.9.The Cavs did improve defensively, but were woeful defensively from three. Tom Pestak’s point from yesterday stands out.


The Cavs decision to pack the paint limited their perimeter defense and their ability to get out on the fast break. It is hard to blame Mike Brown for picking this poison. Byron Scott put the Cavs in high risk/high reward situations and didn’t win as many games as Brown because the defense was worse. The Cavs were 17-16 after David Griffin took over, and to not give Brown just as much credit for that change is just wrong. Even with all the giving up at the end of the season, that extrapolates out to 42 win season: one game over .500 and good enough for eighth place in the East.

On The Doug Gottlieb show, yesterday, (Hour 1, 5-12-14, 38:00) Gottlieb dropped this bomb.

Brown never had a chance. I had somebody on that team tell me their team was so dumb, they could only run three plays… “Our fellas, not very smart. Just too young. Don’t know sets.  Don’t remember. Anthony Bennett can’t stay in shape.”

And maybe that’s why Brown is gone. Maybe he can only coach veterans. Brown has never had a track record of developing young talent in the NBA. Outside of LeBron James and Anderson Varejao, few players have improved under Brown. But is that even a fair assessment for this year?

Delly did a great job for a rookie and Dion Waiters came on strong in the second half of the season. Kyrie Irving did improve on defense. He’s still bad defensively, but he’s not nearly as bad as he was, and his offensive falloff wasn’t worse than his defensive uptick. Tyler Zeller’s improved game was obvious throughout the season, and he became the Cavs best interior finisher. While Tristan Thompson improved as an offensive player, especially from the free throw line, his defense got much worse. He was bad around the basket, and he was one of the worst players at guarding jump shooters in the league. But all-in-all it’s hard to say that Brown didn’t develop young players this year.

Offensively, the Cavs were a mess at times, and the Gottlieb comment about “only running three plays” passes the memory test. But Brown showed more versatility in his lineups than he has in his career: frequently going three-guard to push the pace and get shooting on the floor. I do wish that we had seen Tyler Zeller get more of TT’s minutes, and that Brown would have trusted C.J. Miles more, but given the roster limitations, I can’t say that many coaches could have done much better. As a guy who’s coached 10-year-old girls can attest to, coaching young people is really hard. Sometimes those players just don’t do what you tell them to. Mike Brown can’t make 22-year-olds play like 27-year-olds.

I have been critical of Brown many times. Some of those criticisms were fair, and many were in the heat of the moment. After we all ripped the Cavs for horrible inbounds plays at the end of a 102-100 victory over the Raptors, Brown coached a brilliant comeback against Detroit, the next game, where he drew up a perfect inbounds play to set up Dion for a game winning shot.  For me, it was the highlight of the season. For Brown, I hope it was the highlight of his second Cavs stint (I mean aside from six figure checks for the next four years).

Brown’s dismissal certainly wasn’t fair, but that’s the NBA. As LeBron James said yesterday, “It’s a tough business and Mike Brown got the short end of a tough business.” The perception is that Brown did not do enough to control the locker room last season, and that he had a hard time relating to his young players. Those players failed to compete and seemed to quit in multiple games last season, yet, after, Brown got them to play hard time and again. It always seems like a glass half full/glass half empty situation with Brown.

Another perception is that David Griffin wants to get “his guy” to coach this team. And that’s what really scares me. The candidates I’ve heard all seem to be former Suns retreads like Alvin Gentry and Vinnie Del Negro. Forgive me if I am underwhelmed by a guy who got all his wins because of Steve Nash and a guy who couldn’t win with the Clips in the playoffs. I have a real fear of the pendulum swinging back the other way, and the Cavs becoming a team that scores a lot of points and can’t defend anyone (like all those David Griffin Phoenix teams).  Scott Skiles is another former Sun who sounds like an awful idea. Do I  want a coach who quit on his team in mid-season, and who is despised by most of his former players? The Plain Dealer lists the usual suspects of the Van Gundi (meh), George Karl (hmm), Mike Fratello (yes please), Calipari, Izzo, Ollie… Aside from Ollie this reads like a coaching search from 2009. How about some guys that are actually current?

How about guys who could recruit LeBron?  Fizdale, Nate McMillan, Ronzone… How about assistants who coached on winning teams this year? (ok, Gentry is on that list). I’d love to see the most underrated assistant in the league, Ron Adams, get a shot. Or here’s an idea, how about Cavaliers legend and Bobcats assistant Mark Price? Maybe the early impressions are just the media’s ramblings, but it certainly seems David Griffin suffers from a similar problem that surrounded Lombardi and Banner when they were with the Browns. Is Griffin able to work outside his circle of known associates? Can he think outside his own box?

There’s a final thought that needs to be brought up, and that is perception Mike Brown did not get a fair shake, and that this is a common theme with black head coaches in the NBA. David Aldridge wrote yesterday about Mark Jackson.

The elephant in the room. Black coaches do better in the NBA than in any of the other major team sports played in the United States. Of late, black coaches who’ve failed at one stop get second (and, sometimes, third) chances to be head coaches. But black coaches — especially those who weren’t stars — still feel like they have to wait longer, and get fewer plumb jobs, than their white counterparts. You may not like that, but it’s the truth. You may disagree with them, but that’s how many — not all — of them feel.

Why do they feel this way? Marcus Thompson II of the Bay Area Mercury News had some of the best writing on the subject, last week.

NBA front offices are about connections and relationships and access. It’s about a community of people who know each other, spend time with each other off the court, have lots of money, interact with each other’s families and kids. Also in this circle is patience and understanding. Access and opportunity. Favors and back-scrathing. A certain comfort level.

And the bottom-line reality is that few African-American coaches exist in this circle.

And now there is one less African American head coach. I hope the process to hire a new head coach is more transparent than the one that was conducted to find a new Cavs GM. No one knows who else the Cavs interviewed for the that position, or if there were any people of color. One of the best things the NFL ever did was require that teams interview minority head coaching candidates, which at the very least increases those candidates’ access. I hope David Griffin employs a similar strategy to not only interview minority candidates (which I’m sure he’ll do — the NBA has always been at the forefront of giving minorities coaching opportunities). But I also hope Griffin interviews to those outside of his “community of people.” I have a feeling that the reason Mike Brown is no longer coach of the Cavs has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with not being in that community.