History Repeating: Mike Brown takes the Fall…Again

Mike Brown

kyrie_brown

There was a time, not that long ago, when Mike Brown was being applauded for being one of the game’s bright young defensive minds. His coaching skills had been forged in the crucibles of playoff runs as an assistant in San Antonio and Indiana. His Cleveland teams won ugly but won, and he even managed to have three seasons with a top ten NBA offense in terms of efficiency. Without the summer of 2010 ransom note the Cavaliers had in hand, there is no way Mike Brown would have been dismissed that summer in his first term as head coach. He was quickly swooped up by one of the league’s premier franchise in the Lakers that needed a culture change and identified Brown’s ability to get results. Then, after a shortened stay in L.A., clearer heads had won out, we were led to believe, and the Cleveland front office, led by Dan Gilbert and former-assistant-GM-and-then-general-manager Chris Grant, had realized the error of their ways. The triumvirate would once again provide stability to a franchise that preached it from the top down.

And yet, here we are today. After signing a five-year contract, the Cavaliers fired Mike Brown yesterday. Between his two deals with the Cavs, they will have paid him for eleven years of coaching and only received six years of return on that investment. As Jacob and Scott have pointed out, he took a very poor defensive squad with few defensive stoppers and made them mediocre to above average defensively in one year’s time, which is no small feat. Last time, I was firmly of the belief that Mike Brown got the rawest of the deals. This time, I’m not thrilled by his termination. Rather, I see his exodus as primarily a cop-out, one that falls far from curing what ails this current installment of the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Let’s talk about what did contribute to his dismissal. His aversion to young players likely did him in. When you have one or two young players drafted in the mid-to-late first or second round being neglected on perennial 50-plus win teams that’s one thing. However, it’s an entirely different story when you have a roster where eight players are 24 years old or younger and there are just three players over 27. Whereas last time when he arrived in 2005 he had a team ready to compete and win, this team was a huge work in progress despite the major acquisitions. There were questions whether Shannon Brown, J.J. Hickson, Danny Green, and others were choked out due to a lack of playing time and attention. This time, there were much larger fundamental questions about whether he was getting through to Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson among others.

Then, there’s the three point defense. It’s the one area that sticks out when you look at the Cavaliers’ defensive metrics. While they were mediocre to good in fastbreak points allowed (7th), points in the paint allowed (5th), defensive effective field goal percentage (17th), and defensive rebounding percentage (6th), Brown’s squad allowed the most three point attempts and makes while allowing the 9th highest percentage. But, we’ve talked about this at length in film rooms and articles past, Mike Brown’s defense has two holes: it doesn’t force a lot of turnovers, and it gives up a higher than average number of three point attempts. It was prone to do those same exact things during the Cavalier golden era1

Here’s an excerpt from my “Mike Brown Take Two?” article just over one year ago:

“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.”

Brown was handed a roster that lacked size in both the backcourt and frontcourt as well as defensive prowess, a bad combination. Only an undrafted rookie (Delly), an aging incumbent (Varjeao), and a one-dimensional quasi-rotational player (Gee) provided any sort of consistent defensive effort. Brown had to change his bread and butter of big men hard-showing on pick-and-roll action. Nobody seemed to want to buy into a defensive system that time and again has proven itself worthy of 50-win seasons, first round playoff victories, and keeping the team competitive. Some of that certainly falls on Brown’s shoulders, no doubt, but at the end of the day, the players need to own some of that blame as well.

QUOTEOccasionally, we have received feedback over the years on Twitter about how we were much more forgiving with the Cavaliers than the Browns front office given similar results. I’m not one for sweeping generalities representative of an entire site, but, previously, comparing the Cavaliers and Browns, given the difference in their success over the past decade is laughable. One thing I’ve mentioned countless times is the amount of churn an organization can withstand. Each subsequent move in a short period of time creates even more disorder and instability. The Browns have been fighting that non-stop for 15 years, and now the Cavaliers run the risk of giving off that vibe. It doesn’t get much worse image-wise than Dan Gilbert, whether it was his idea or Grant’s, admitting a mistake in firing Brown only to admit another mistake in re-hire one calendar year later. Gilbert thoroughly knew what Mike Brown was, what his strengths and weaknesses were. If he wasn’t going to stick with him through a reasonable amount of adjustment given a less-than-perfect roster, he should have never went down that road again. The #SeasonOfHuh screwed with a lot of people’s heads, Gilbert’s included. A 9-win increase came off feeling like the most tremendous of failures, when it probably wasn’t, as much as we all wanted to and expect to make the playoffs. None of the free agent signings worked out, and the draft picks weren’t given adequate playing time to make an impact. Worst of all, however, was that the young core didn’t seem to take the huge strides forward in development that many envisioned.

Despite the objections, Brown will coach again in the league, in my opinion. Name 15 coaches better than him in the league today. It goes back to a larger issue with the NBA, where coaches like Mark Jackson, George Karl, Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro, and possibly Tom Thibodeau are dismissed only to shake things up rather than on merit. It was startling to see what the average NBA coach span was versus the other two sports. Tom Ziller at SBNation recently shared that the average NBA coach has been in his current position just 2.4 seasons, and just four coaches have held their job since before 2010. Compare that to MLB, where half of the managers were hired in 2010 or earlier2 and the NFL, where 11 coaches have been in place since at least 20103. With the retirement of Hall of Fame coaches Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich is the last of a dying breed among NBA coaches in terms of longevity.

What do I want out of a future option?4 Just like with my reaction whenRob Chudzinski was relieved after one season, my initial response was, “OK, but you better have a clear plan in your coaching search.” The Browns largely winged it in their search and ended up with far from their top choice, despite what they may say. If the Cavs do the same thing, it would be a colossal disaster. I hope they can get one of the more attractive names out there in Fred Hoiberg, Steve Kerr, or maybe Mark Jackson, though people do bring up valid concerns about his ego. The Cavaliers have now failed to have Byron Scott or Mike Brown effectively get through to these young players. Perhaps a stronger personality with a college background that won’t back down is needed.

In the end, I hope the Cavaliers are moving to a targeted and well-thought-out head coaching option rather than running from Mike Brown and what his systems stands for. Life’s not fair, and neither are the NBA coaching ranks. I realize that, but I just can’t help but feel that we gave Mike Brown another raw deal. While it may be a raw deal for him, the Cavaliers are now taxed with ensuring that it wasn’t a raw deal for the franchise.

(Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

  1. 25th in TOV% in 2010, 14th in 3PM allowed, for example. []
  2. Six have been in place since before 2008 []
  3. Six before 2008. []
  4. My short answer is “Anyone but Mike D’Antoni!” Seriously. Anyone but him and I’ll live. []
  • http://waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Loved the line about the Browns and instability. The Cavs could be the most dysfunctional team in the city and it may not even be a close race.

  • MrCleaveland

    Maybe Mike would be a good fit at one of the service academies, where players are used to discipline, teamwork, and hard work, etc., and therefore more likely to buy in to playing tough defense.

  • boomhauertjs

    Sam Amico did a great interview with Kenny Roda about the coaching change and some of the issues with Brown, including that he’s too detailed oriented for a young team and the players got bored in practice.
    The guy who should take the blame for last season already lost his job (Grant), and now Griffin is cleaning up the mess. Hopefully, he can get rid of one of Grant’s other mistakes (Jack).

  • boomhauertjs

    And with the 3 point shot becoming even more and more important in the game, maybe Brown’s defense is becoming outdated because you need to defend the 3 much better than his teams traditionally do (painful flashback to 09 ECF’s).

  • WFNYKirk

    Oh… The memories of tear-soaked rally towels and Natty Light consumed at OSU during that series….

  • WFNYKirk

    I’m all for ridding the team of Jack. That may be Brown’s fatal flaw, the inability to effectively communicate his system in terms these guys can buy into and fully understand.

  • BenRM

    As an aside: can we get the floating RSS links moved to the right side of the page? They always cover text.

  • cmm13

    Interesting point on the longevity of current NBA head coaches.

    I read an article the other day on how the feeling from many GM’s is that there is also a lack of assistant’s and college coaches ready for the NBA head coaching positions as well.

    With both those pieces combine I think we can now honestly say the players have taken over the league.

    Could this be the signal of the return of the Player/Coach? LeBron at the 4 and on the greaseboard?

  • Pat Leonard

    I talked myself into the re-hiring of Mike Brown and I can talk myself into the need to re-fire him as well. I’m not sure I understand the love for Steve Kerr though. Kerr with the Knicks makes sense to me because he’s reunited with Phil Jackson who can serve as a coaching mentor to him. I really have no idea if he would make a good coach in Cleveland where Phil Jackson is not.

  • mgbode

    if we are going to go down the re-hire road again, then I want Wayne Embry and George Karl

  • mgbode

    Really, any smaller school with a proud basketball history. Take a look at VCU and how hard Shaka runs those kids. Defense creating offense in that system for sure.

  • WFNYKirk

    Jason Kidd stepped right into it and several others have shortly followed their playing days with a head coaching job. The jump isn’t that far away.

  • mgbode

    doesn’t the NBA have a rule against it now though?

  • WFNYKirk

    I’d be all for going the next innovator from college route. Shaka Smart would be intriguing.

  • mgbode

    I’m gonna help you out – Shrink your window width and they will disappear.

  • cmm13

    And there is already the talk of LA waiting for Fisher to retire this year to IMMEDIATELY plug him in as HC for next year.

  • cmm13

    Yes, according to the Interwebz, the current CBA prohibits that practice.

    Also according to the Interwebz, cats are hilarious.

  • Harv 21

    Having been here 1.2 seasons, Tito is Cleveland’s Bobby Cox.

  • mgbode

    i was thinking the opposite. Mike Brown succeeding in college. I think Shaka would fail miserably in the NBA (I still remember Pitino trying to get NBA players to play full court basketball).

  • mgbode

    all he does is go to the playoffs.

  • Harv 21

    I get the statistical improvement Brown brought but here are my 2 main concerns as they search for a new coach:

    – The worst thing I saw from the ’13-’14 Cavs was palpable lack of effort in stretches of games, including what appeared to be an insurrection before Grant was fired. Maybe LeBron did what he wanted but the other players on his teams did not. Brown kept pulling Pavlovic from the lineup when he did whatever he wanted, and the next guy up didn’t pull the same crap. What we had this time, I fear, was a coach who could not/would not take the risk of lowering the boom. Maybe he was right – it wouldn’t have made things better with these particular players. And Mike just hoped he was protected, that he could play the long game with a 5 year contract.

    – Kyrie has not dramatically improved or changed his game for 2 coaches. Those 2 coaches have now been fired in consecutive years. What does Kyrie make of Gilbert’s trigger finger? We say Kyrie must grow up to be a leader and refine his game so that his teammates are involved and his play results in actual wins. Kyrie’s take may be far different. Something like: yeah, get another coach that busts my chops … I can walk if I don’t like it, and I just might.

    I do not pretend to know who they should hire. But it better not be a Byron-type hire, one designed to keep Kyrie as much as a guy who can flat out coach. Kyrie, Tristan and others have been without player role models good enough to emulate, and their attitudes about the NBA might already be ruined in an Iverson kind of way, and they might all leave. The team needs another rebuild and they better get a coach for any roster that’s left. Yesterday’s hiring and firing might just be the opening salvo before a major roster vomit.

    -

  • Steve

    Right, Pitino/Shaka’s system’s don’t work against NBA-talent PGs. I thought a good test would be going up against Burke and Michigan in the tournament last year. They got run out of the gym.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    “Poor” Mike Brown!

  • WFNYKirk

    If there’s ONE thing he isn’t…

  • Steve

    “players got bored in practice”

    I understand that it’s on the teacher to communicate effectively, but I have no sympathy for professionals who can’t cut it because they got bored. Many of us are going to sit in meetings that are far from thrilling, and the boss is not going to accept “well, it was too boring to pay attention to”.

  • Steve

    You could pay Lebron $20M to play, and $30M to be your coach.

  • mgbode

    yeah, no turnovers = no offense for them.

  • mgbode

    the lazy media storyline is that Griffin is from PHX so he wants a fast-paced team. I have no idea if he does, but from a player standpoint it makes sense for our team. we have athletic players who can run, it might keep them engaged (easy points), and mask some of our defensive inadequacies.

    however, Philly was the fastest paced NBA team for most of the last 2 years, so it’s not like I would expect it to cure all our ails.

  • Steve

    I’m on board, though frustrated, as a Brown/Griffin pairing almost certainly would have serious issues working. But this situation reminds me of a very Brownsesque move in changing coaches. We went from offense-only under Scott, to defense-only under Brown, to presumably an up-tempo offense-oriented plan under whoever Griffin chooses. Kind of like watching the Browns go from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and back to a 4-3 every other year.

  • Steve

    We’ll see who the coach is and what the actual strategy is going to be but I’m expecting up-tempo to exacerbate our defensive inadequacies. Bad defensive teams can’t afford to give up any easy points. Irving and Waiters are prime candidates to get caught out of position and give up easy transition points.

  • mgbode

    yeah, it depends on the buy-in. if they buy into playing faster pace, then maybe they get back better. Kyrie specifically. Dion I do worry about in a fast-paced system because he was often caught watching the other team’s break.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I expect roster turnover you can’t have these same players just change coaches they need both IMO.

  • The_Real_Shamrock
  • Steve

    Over at Cavs: the Blog, there’s a quote from Doug Gottlieb

    “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.”

  • Pat Leonard

    Yep, I’m getting tired of that movie. Scratch that, I’ve BEEN tired of that movie. Just find me a coach who is a good fit with our players Griffin. And frankly I have no clue who that coach would be.

  • Pat Leonard

    What’s funny to me is that their team was better when they had players who were more limited. The VCU team that made it to the Final Four had more lightly recruited players, but they had like 5-6 guys who could knock down open threes (and not much else), which made them more dangerous when forced to play halfcourt. This year’s team would go through huge scoring droughts when they weren’t getting live-ball turnovers.

  • mcgolfin

    Doc Rivers, Greg Popovich, Brad Stevens, Steve Clifford, Jeff Hornachek, Terry Stotts, Tom Thibs, Frank Vogel, Dwayne Casey, Erik Spolestra, Rick Carlisle, Brian Shaw, Mike Budenholzer, Dave Joerger, Kevin McHale. 15 current coaches I think are better than Mike Brown off the top of my head, not counting available guys like SVG, Mark Jackson, George Karl, or any of the college guys.

    Other teams will realize that Brown’s system doesn’t fit the NBA anymore. His offense is inefficient and his defense still allows wide open threes in a league that shoots threes at a higher and better rate than ever. He showed no inclination to adapt to the landscape of the NBA or even that of the roster he was given. The players may have quit on him, but it’s better to go out a find a better fitting coach than to have him be a lame duck for a (half) season before Griffin fires him.

  • WFNYKirk

    Thanks for taking the time to humor me. I disagree on Clifford, Joerger, Casey, Shaw, Budenholzer, and McHale. I don’t think Stevens and Hornacek have shown enough yet, but I won’t hold that against them as I tend to agree with you. That brings my list down to nine (ten if I add Mark Jackson). I’d throw SVG in there, but I consider Karl retired from coaching.

  • Big Z

    The dumbest hire I have ever seen…

  • DaveinLA

    I think this is the key point that no one seems to accept when they defend Brown. He refused to adapt his model to the league, as you said, but he also refused to adapt his model to his team – something I find much more egregious.

    The Cavs were never going to be a team that won games on defense. Look at their lineup. This article makes that clear. Never. And yet, the fact that Brown stubbornly tried to force some of the more promising young, offensive talent in the league to focus solely on defense (as far as I could tell, offense must have never come up in practice) is not even questioned. So they went from one of the worst defenses in the league to one which ranked only just below average under Mike Brown (PPG/DEF EFF)? What an accomplishment! With zero improvement on the offensive end, the place where the lineup actually shows promise to achieve a lot more), then you get exactly the results you’d expect – a sub-.500 record.

    What makes great coaches great, and the reason teams win championships is because they run schemes that fit their players. No one would ever talk about what a great coach Hornacek is if he tried to implement his fast-paced scheme with a Rose-less Bulls team. Similarly, Thibs would fail with the lineup in Phoenix if he forced that team to stand on defensive prowess.

    Can Mike Brown Coach d? I actually don’t think so, but a lot of people still believe he can. But let’s assume he can. That’s not the point. The point is, this Cavs team is built to win on offense, not defense. A coach needs to develop and draw out that talent. Not shun it because he has an obsession with his own defensive “system”.

  • mgbode

    do you remember Pat Shurmur?