The second verse will not be the same as the first. While it will be easy to cast a wide narrative net of repeat performance or straw-man trope of remarriage and second honeymoons, the Cleveland Cavaliers hiring of Mike Brown to help guide them in their continued quest of rebuilding toward contention is firmly saddled on a horse rooted in continued growth, but also one of change.
Having classified the last three years as painful and difficult, Cavs general manager Chris Grant sat in one of three high-backed wooden chairs atop a dais in Independence and spoke of excitement, but also about how unique the current situation is for the Wine and Gold. Certainly, teams rehiring men whom they fired just three seasons earlier is uncommon enough, drawing plenty of scrutiny on its own. But if anything was evident after hearing the words pour out—not just from Grant, but from Brown and team owner Dan Gilbert—the decision to add Brown and his court courtside prowess to this Cavaliers team was one that was independent of anything that happened during the coach’s last tenure with the Cavaliers.
“Forget that he was here in the past,” said Gilbert. “It’s who he is, his philosophy and his identity. If you put something over the name Mike Brown and just describe who this man is and what he brings, and didn’t even know it was Mike Brown, you’d say ‘that’s the guy you need.'”
The Cavaliers announced the firing of head coach Byron Scott one week earlier following consecutive seasons of win totals in the low-20s. In doing so, Grant sat on the same stage he was on this very Wednesday afternoon stating that the team was going to hire a “hard-working grinder” who focused on defense—he stopped just short of adding “bald and bespectacled” to his list of prerequisites as he otherwise described Brown to a tee. That following Saturday, shortly after enjoying one of his son’s AAU events, Brown received a call from Grant asking him to head into Cleveland to discuss a potential reunion. What was supposed to be a 90-minute meal between he and Gilbert turned into a six-hour marathon that involved Brown, Grant, and Gilbert as well as Nate Forbes and Jeff Cohen, members of the Cavaliers’ ownership team. They spoke about life, they spoke about basketball. They spoke about growth. As visible as the “same-day appointment” advertisement that was draped behind them during Wednesday’s press conference, it was evident that Brown was going to be the man to lead them going forward.
Brown’s hiring is not only a testament to the shelf life of men who exude class on a day-to-day basis, but one of a man’s ability and willingness to grow on and off of the court. “I’ve matured,” said Brown of his three-year hiatus from the team, speaking of maturation terms of the game of basketball, but with regard to his people skills as well. “I think it’s a natural process for those who are not closed-minded,” he said.
But Brown’s willingness to look past being fired one season after winning a Coach of the Year award is hardly the only modicum of growth in Independence. Seated to Brown’s right was Gilbert, who admitted that relieving Brown of his duties—having won at least 60 games in back-to-back seasons—was a mistake, a move that drew many smiles in the crowd given the owner’s tendency to not admit fault1. Referencing hindsight and a little bit of destiny, Gilbert did not go as far to say that the firing out of panic and uncertainty surrounding the future of LeBron James, but the message was as clear as the chart which hangs outside of the coach’s office at Quicken Loans Arena: Defense is key. Getting players to buy into a defensive scheme takes work. Mike Brown, for all of his warts and wrinkles and criticism of years past, has a long, sustainable track record of being one of the best defensive minds in the game today.
“When you get the benefit of hindsight, it was a mistake,” said Gilbert. “We’re very happy that we get to rectify any position we took back then by Mike being available right now.”2
Brown referenced unfinished business. He referenced Cleveland still having a special place in his—and his family’s—heart. Though it’s been three long years since he was the man in Cleveland, Brown was quick to inquire about the families of those who covered the team when he was last here. He spoke as if he had never left, showing that to the team, the past is nothing but a blip in the rear view—what happened against Orlando and Boston and San Antonio has a complete absence of impact on what will occur over the course of the next several seasons. In doing so, Brown also provided a theme for the next few years, titling it “a commitment to the journey.”
Players will be expected to be selfless and accountable and have a “blind trust” in the group. And where the team lacked any sort of identity in the past, Brown wasted no time in saying that this will change immediately. This Cavaliers team will pride itself on being a tough-minded, physical and defense-first unit that is smart on both sides of the floor. “These players will feel it, they will breathe it, they will touch it, and they will see it,” said Brown. The opposing field goal percentage chart that hangs across from the coach’s locker room within Quicken Loans Arena will no longer have “Cleveland” in the 30th slot. And while a journey insinuates a long-term process, a term that Cleveland fans are all too familiar with (and growing tired of hearing), this specific journey is one that will not be providing Brown with a fresh start. Gilbert ensured that there were no grey areas in this one—this is Year 3 of the team’s rebuilding process, the team is expected to not only play better defense, but to win basketball games. Brown, stopping just short of saying he expects this team to make the playoffs, said that the long-term focus of this team’s process will be preempted by one that aims to ensure game-to-game improvement.
“It will be about how we do every time we step out on to the floor,” said Brown in response to an inquiry by WFNY. Right now, for me, I’m not thinking long term or too far in front. I don’t know the group very well and it’s a fairly young group as we talked about early on. In order to get there, you have to make sure—like Dan says—you look for all of the inches out there and make sure you don’t miss anything. That means that pace has to be very genuine and very methodical in getting from point A to point B. For me, that’s what it’s all about.”
There is no denying that question marks loom. Despite only a three-year absence, Brown has little-to-no history with any of the players currently employed by Gilbert. Anderson Varejao will be the only player from the 2009-10 roster to be a member of the Cavaliers; Zydrunas Ilgauskas is now a member of the team’s front office3. Some will want to point to a perceived “track record” with superstar players and wonder if Kyrie Irving will buy into what Brown is selling. Others want to point to an ousting from the Los Angles Lakers as a sign that Brown had plateaued as a coach who cannot get past the first round or two of the playoffs, especially without one of the league’s best players. It can even be asserted that the roster Brown is inheriting possesses a fraction of the overall talent compared to those he has been fortunate enough to coach in his still-young career. But if you ask Gilbert and Grant, the latter of whom called this current landscape as a “pivotal” one for the franchise, this is exactly why Brown is here. Gilbert stated that three years is roughly 60 when it comes to the NBA; so much changes in the matter of 12 months in terms of rosters, coaches and outlook—just as Byron Scott. These last three years have allowed Brown to mature as a person and for the Cavaliers to realize his skill set is what it is they will need to get them to the next level, regardless of the outcome of the chapters which preceded this one.
(AP Photo/Jason Miller)
- It took Gilbert a little less than two years to deem the Comic Sans-laced tirade a mistake, but even then it was categorized as “not the most intelligent thing I’ve ever done.” [↩]
- In 2010, Brown had a 10-day clause in his contract where the team would be forced to pay him a guaranteed portion of his salary if he were not dismissed. Gilbert attempted to get Brown to waive this clause, but the coach, in fear of losing out on a potential job himself, refused. Pressed with time and unsure of the immediate future, they relieved him of his duties. [↩]
- “Z’s your boss now,” Grant said to Brown [↩]