I’ll add at the outset that I hope Brown is not the only candidate that the Cavaliers interview. I’m intrigued in particular by Warriors assistant Mike Malone and Pacers assistant Brian Shaw. I’d give anything to have Phil Jackson come to Cleveland, but despite some reports, I just don’t see that happening. Malone was an assistant under Brown here in Cleveland from 2005-2010, while Shaw was reportedly a finalist back when the Cavs hired Scott in 2010. The problem is with Detroit and Philadelphia having vacancies and a few other teams potentially having openings after the first round of the playoffs is over, the Cavaliers may feel they have to move quickly to avoid losing Brown to a current playoff team.
Let’s talk about the things that went right in the Mike Brown era here in Cleveland. First, the Cavaliers were one of the best defensive teams in the association every single year. Here’s a little chart to show just a piece of those impressive defensive stats. Here is the team’s rank by season in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), opponents’ point per game, and opponents’ field goal percentage.
|Def. Rating||Opp. PPG||Opp. eFG%|
Those defensive stats came with, for varying periods, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Wally Szczerbiak, Damon Jones, Drew Gooden, and Donyell Marshall playing key minutes. It wasn’t as if Brown had a team stacked with defensive talent that he just coached up a bit to make them better. Other than LeBron James, Anderson Varejao, and Delonte West, the Cavaliers didn’t have many elite defenders. Of course, there were the Sasha Pavlovic, Ben Wallace, Larry Hughes, Anthony Parker, and Jamario Moon types who were certainly above average defenders, but far from elite. Instead, it was a defensive culture established where at least serviceable defense was expected out of everyone, and help defense was incredibly important and demanded of from Brown.
I’ve heard the argument that Brown is just a polar opposite to Mike D’Antoni, a defensive specialist who will never be able to coach his teams up enough to play good enough offense. Instead, I argue that defensive-oriented teams with offensive issues can and do get a lot further in the playoffs than offensively-gifted teams with defensive problems. Let’s go back to the four scenarios where the Cavaliers had incredibly talented teams that came up short in the title pursuit: I’m talking about the last four years of Brown’s time here (2006-07 through 2009-10).
First, there was the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, who swept the Cavaliers, largely because Tony Parker could not be stopped. Larry Hughes’s plantar fasciitis rendered him useless and eventually chased him from the Finals, ruining all of the momentum gained by inserting Sasha Pavlovic into the starting lineup and moving Hughes to the point guard position. It also forced the rookie Daniel Gibson into starting duty, leaving the Cavs with one less bench option. Gibson was too green, Eric Snow was too old, and Parker averaged 24.5 points while slicing the Cavaliers defense apart.
In 2008, you ran into the eventual NBA champions in the Celtics, taking them to a game seven on their homecourt. Pierce’s 41 points eclipsed LeBron’s 45, and one offensive rebound from P.J. Brown made the difference in a five-point loss. In 2009, the Magic had not only Dwight Howard but two physical, scoring forwards that were a matchup nightmare for the Cavaliers’ personnel in Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. The Magic rained down 62 threes in 6 games, and they won two of those games by a total of three points. The next offseason saw the Cavaliers completely go all-in to get past the Magic, getting Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon to help defend the three-point shooters and Shaquille O’Neal to defend Howard. Sadly, the Cavaliers saw the Celtics, and one despicable franchise-changing series later, the rest is history.
My point in rehashing all of that painful history is that those Cavaliers teams were probably talent deficient in every single one of those series. Brown’s defense played a crucial role in them closing the gap and nearly pulling off each of those series (with the exception of the Spurs, though they lost the two home games by just one point each). The Cavaliers are currently trying to correct the process by which they gathered talent (high picks for three straight years, accumulating cap space, and acquiring additional picks as opposed to neglecting the draft and making immediate need short-term push trades to bolster the roster). Maybe, they had the right coach and the wrong player acquisition strategy all along. I respect an organization that will admit their mistakes if they feel correcting said mistake is the best way to move forward far more than one neglecting the possibility by default.
People question Brown’s offense for its conservative and low-scoring nature at times. However, it may surprise you to know that the Cavaliers ranked as a top ten offense in terms of efficiency three times in his five years here (9th in ’05-’06, 4th in ’08-’09, and 6th in ’09-’10). I think Brown’s greatest failure was probably being unable to get James to commit to running offensive sets instead of going 1-on-5 most of the time. I would add that getting LeBron in the post could’ve made all the difference in the world.
Is hiring Brown again admitting a misstep in the franchise’s decision-making just three short years ago? It’s a fair question, and it’s one I can’t answer with all certainty. What I can tell you is that I believe if Mike Brown was not going to be fired if not for the desperate situation that the summer of 2010 caused. The thought was that LeBron didn’t respect or like playing for Brown. If the Cavaliers could bring in a more polarizing, maybe more offensively gifted coach with championship experience, it would convince LeBron that Cleveland was the best option. We all know how that played out. The Cavaliers chased multiple high-profile candidates, and they eventually hired Byron Scott. Weeks later, it was all turned upside down anyway.
Then, branching off of that, there’s the question if hiring Brown would hurt the Cavaliers’ chances at a certain big-time free agent in the summer of 2014. LeBron said himself that he thought Brown got a raw deal in Los Angeles, but is that enough to make him want to return under the same coach? I think only one person knows the answer to that.
For Brown to be hired again, however, I would absolutely REQUIRE that the team hires an experienced, offensive-minded coach to have a very vital role in what the team does on that side of the court. When Brown had John Kuester, the Cavaliers offense was the best it ever was in the 66-win campaign of 2008-2009. It led to Kuester departing for the head coaching position in Detroit. That team was 4th in offensive efficiency, 4th in effective field goal percentage, and 7th in turnover percentage. And sure, they really, really slowed it down (25th in pace), but it got the job done.
So, in the end, I guess I’m sort of endorsing a Mike Brown rehire. I’d certainly be OK with Malone, Shaw, or Jackson as well. If you feel Malone or Shaw is the next great head coach, they can provide a defensive plan that will work, and you believe in their vision more than Mike Brown’s, then by all means hire one of those guys or the others mentioned, such as Miami’s David Fizdale or fan favorite Mark Price.
What I do know is that Mike Brown’s an incredibly hard-working coach who doesn’t fold his arms when things aren’t going his way. He’ll shake up matchups and starters if he feels it will make an impact, and I don’t think he has the type of ego that Scott did. He has the ability to take a less-talented team and give them an edge by instilling defensive toughness. That’s exactly what Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, and company need right now to make a playoff push next season. The last era’s Cavaliers were victims of not enough offensive talent. What they need now is not more talent on the defensive end (though, it would certainly help), they need an identity on D. Mike Brown can provide that and get this team turned around.
(Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)