I’m not sure there are many more thankless jobs in American popular culture than NBA Head Coach. Yeah, sure, in society there are plenty of jobs where people are overworked, underpaid, and taken for granted. But in terms of sports culture specifically, being an NBA coach can be a brutal task. Coaches are forced to meld a virtual cornucopia of eccentric personalities into one collective and functioning unit for any chance of success. The very nature of the sport where any individual player can have a greater impact on his teams’ success than other team sport makes such coherence indispensable.
And yet for taking on this task, NBA coaches are expected to deliver immediate results and are quickly cast aside when such immediacy is not met. The turnover rate of the NBA coach is staggering. The average tenure for NBA coaches as of last season was 2.64 season, but the median tenure was 1.3 seasons (you can thank Jerry Sloan for that difference).
Which brings us to current Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. Currently Coach Brown is in his 5th season with the Cavaliers, which is a lifetime in NBA terms. The only coaches who have held their current job longer (or the same length of time) are Jerry Sloan (22), Gregg Popovich (14), Mike Dunleavy (7), Doc Rivers (6), Mike Woodson (6), George Karl (6), Nate McMillan (5), and Phil Jackson (5). In general, not bad company to be amongst. And yet throughout the years Mike Brown has continuously received the brunt of criticism from everyone from fans to analysts across the country. Which begs the question of just how fair some of this criticism really is.
As Mike Brown was getting destroyed the other night on Twitter as the Cavaliers were in the middle of winning a huge road game in Portland, I really started to feel like Coach Brown has become the convenient scapegoat for all of the Cavs problems. Sure, that’s part of the territory of being an NBA coach, but is Mike Brown really a worse coach than the majority of them in the NBA right now?
The biggest criticism Mike Brown tends to get is for his team’s offense. Particularly on Twitter I saw numerous people (both fans and writers/analysts) just rip apart Mike Brown’s perceived lack of offensive knowledge. I found this pretty interesting as I looked up the Cavaliers’ offensive stats. They are currently 5th in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency, 3rd in eFG%, 5th in FG%, 2nd in 3P%, 12th in ppg, 4th in points per shot, and 10th in assists per game. The Cavaliers actually have a good offense, as deceiving as it may look at times to the naked eye. And this isn’t necessarily a fluke, either. The Cavaliers were 4th in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency last season. In fact, in 3 of Mike Brown’s five seasons the Cavs offense has been in the top 10 in the NBA.
Of course, Mike Brown’s biggest critics will say that those numbers are skewed because of LeBron James. But the fact of the matter is, the Cavaliers do have LeBron James on their team. It seems a little strange to criticize a guy by saying he wouldn’t be a good coach without LeBron when there’s nothing to base that on. The only thing we know for a fact is how Mike Brown coaches this team with LeBron, and the results have been pretty good to this point. Nobody knows how Mike Brown would coach differently if LeBron wasn’t here, and hopefully we don’t have to find out.
There have certainly been times when I have been critical of Mike Brown and prior to the start of the 2008 playoffs I wondered if Mike Brown had lost the team and was falling on deaf ears. So I’m not saying Mike Brown is above reproach. I don’t take issue with people criticizing Coach Brown in total, but I do have some issues with the manner in which people criticize his coaching abilities.
There are two main problems I have. First is the fact that Mike Brown takes all the criticism for the offensive woes while LeBron tends to get a free pass. Of course it’s off-putting to dare suggest that perhaps the best player in the team’s history and perhaps someday in NBA history is guilty at times of handcuffing the Cavalier offense. But that’s precisely what he does, and we all know what I’m talking about. When LeBron gets into 1-on-5 mode, when LeBron dribbles out the shot clock before heaving up a long jumper, when he takes unnecessary and hurtful “heat checks” just because he made a couple ill advised jumpers in a row. These are all things LeBron does quite frequently that causes the Cavs offense to grind to a halt and draw so much criticism. But here’s a news flash. No amount of coaching in the world on Mike Brown’s part will get LeBron to stop it.
If you were coach of the Cavs, what would you do? Would you bench your franchise player and risk having him turn against you, knowing who the fans and, more importantly, the front office would side with? It would be foolish to handle it that way. For all the great things LeBron does for this franchise, we have to put up with the fact that from time to time, he’s going to just do what he wants. For example, last night’s game at Golden State, when LeBron was just killing the Warriors in the post. It was a clear advantage that the Cavaliers could abuse whenever they wanted to. LeBron knew it, too. All 4th quarter long LeBron was scoring at will inside of the Warriors. But then with the Cavaliers up 3 with the ball and 30 seconds left in the game, LeBron dribbled out the clock until there were 5 seconds left and then missed an off balance 26 foot jumper, giving the Warriors a chance to tie the game. You can blame Mike Brown for that all you want, but if LeBron didn’t want to shoot that shot, he wouldn’t. That was all LeBron’s doing. He knew exactly what he was doing.
The 2nd thing that bothers me about the way people criticize Mike Brown is the lack of credit they give him as a defensive coach. Now, everyone knows he’s a great defensive coach, but that fact is often taken for granted and overlooked. There’s more to basketball than just offense. Mike Brown came into this job promising two things: 1) a great defensive philosophy that would change this franchise into a championship contender, and 2) a system where the team will function like a family and thrive on positive chemistry. He has more than lived up to his end of the deal on those two fronts.
When you look at the way the Cavaliers play defense and the defensive adjustments Coach Brown makes throughout the game, it should be apparent how his skills help this team win. For recent examples, after being killed by Chauncey Billups for 19 points through 3 quarters, Mike Brown made the adjustment to initiate a high trap on Billups defensively to force the ball out of his hands. Billups finished with only 4 points in the 4th quarter on one made FG and 0 assists. Or perhaps in Portland when the Blazers scored 29 in the 3rd quarter to make the game close, Mike Brown used Jawad Williams’ defensive versatility to allow he and LeBron to take turns rotating on Brandon Roy and Andre Miller, which was the key to holding the Blazers to just 16 4th quarter points. These are prime examples of excellent in game adjustments Mike Brown makes to help his team have the best chance to win, but is rarely credited for them.
It’s easy to pounce on the one perceived weak link in the chain, but in order to be fair to what Mike Brown has accomplished, you have to look at the whole body of work. There’s a bigger picture here than just the occasional questionable substitution pattern or the times the offense is stagnant. If you look at the sum of the whole, you will see a coach who has turned this franchise into one of the NBA’s elite teams. He’s found a way to keep his star player happy and involved and has built the team into a family unit around LeBron. This chemistry might not be able to exist if Mike Brown was benching LeBron or trying to humble him in front of his teammates. And that’s the intangible thing that Mike Brown seems to understand that is often overlooked by his critics: sure, you can nitpick at the things he doesn’t do as well, but when all is said and done, he is going to have this team ready to fight for a championship. And as a fan, that’s all I can really ask for.
Am I saying Mike Brown is the best coach? No. Are there other coaches in the NBA I would trade him in for? Sure. All I’m trying to say is that maybe it’s time to ease up on the baseless rhetoric and to spread out some of the blame for our frustrations to the players themselves. After all, they’re the ones who actually affect the outcomes of these games.