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.
Occasionally, 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)