As the fallout from last night’s Celtics/Cavs game continues, basketball talk today has centered around analyzing LeBron James‘ Game 6 performance, speculating on where LBJ will end up in free agency, and watching the Cavs’ front office to see if (or when) coach Mike Brown will be fired.
Just a few minutes ago, Cleveland majority owner Dan Gilbert held a press conference where he denied reports that Brown had been fired.
Back in 2007, when the Cavs were down 3-0 to the San Antonio Spurs and on the brink of an NBA Finals sweep, I wrote a column saying the team needed to fire Mike Brown that offseason. I went back and re-read that column during the Gilbert press conference, and aside from some flubs on my part — like mentioning Boobie Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic as part of Cleveland’s “decent young core” — it holds up remarkably well three years later. Check out “Firing Mike Brown,” from June 14, 2007:
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Blame is a complicated thing, especially in this purportedly simple endeavor we call sports. When a game or series can hinge on so many variables, the loser has a number of directions to point his finger: referees, weather, teammates, injuries, distractions … anything to steer the blame away from himself.
The ‘07 NBA Finals are basically over, and whether the Spurs claim the trophy this week in Cleveland or next week in San Antonio, the time is coming when the Cavs will be looking to place blame.
Mike Brown doesn’t deserve all of it. Anyone who knows basketball knew (whether they wanted to admit it or not) that Tim Duncan and Co. would win this series while making the Cavs look like a March Madness 14-seed trying to hang with a 3-seed in the process. And Brown isn’t solely to blame for how this series has played out.
But when it’s all said and done, and the Cavs have wrapped up the best season in franchise history, Mike Brown still needs to be fired.
Brown’s shortcomings as a coach were exposed in last year’s playoffs, when his offensive game planning (which sits somewhere between “unimaginative” and “nonexistent”) and poor late-game management came into play when the Cavs squeaked by Washington and ultimately fell to Detroit. This year it’s been no different. The Cavs played like a badly-coached team while trudging through the injury-depleted Wizards, the overrated Nets and the uninspired (and also badly-coached) Pistons.
Against San Antonio, Brown’s deficiencies have shined brighter than the wardrobe room of a Kid ‘n Play movie. He watched Tony Parker abuse Larry Hughes for two games, and didn’t change the lineup until Hughes literally couldn’t play anymore. He didn’t play the right players for the right situations, like when he had Ilgauskas on the bench at the end of Game 3 and left Varejao and Eric Snow (arguably his two worst offensive players) on the court when Cleveland needed to score. And he’s mishandled LeBron’s playing time (first quarter, Game 2) and potential.
Seriously, I wrote before Game 1 that Brown needed to mix it up with LeBron. Here’s what I said at the time: “Mike Brown’s ‘playbook’could probably fit on a bar napkin — it seems the only actual plays the Cavs run are iso’s for LeBron, pick-and-pops with LeBron and Big Z, and pick-and-rolls with ‘Bron and Varejao. It worked against Detroit, in part because ‘Bron was an absolute animal, but also because the Pistons played terrible defense and Flip Saunders never came up with a way to defend those three plays. Gregg Popovich is smarter than that; he’ll find a way to neutralize Brown’s mini-playbook, so Brown might want to at least come up with some creative things to do with LeBron. We’re not asking for anything too abstract — it just wouldn’t be the worst idea to post LeBron up a couple times or have him work the baseline … anything to mix it up and give the Spurs defense different looks. Ultimately, it will open up more doors for ‘Bron and his teammates.”
So when did Brown start putting LeBron in the post? Game Three. And what happened? After two frustrating games in San Antonio when he was relatively bottled up on the perimeter, LeBron had his best game of the series, dropping 25 points, 8 boards and 7 dimes and scoring easily on Bruce Bowen.
To Mike Brown’s credit, he is a great defensive strategist and, as Jed wrote in his column defending Brown, the Cavs players like playing for him. But the reality is that he’s not a championship-level coach, and this organization’s only goal should be to win a championship while they have a future Hall of Famer at his athletic peak.
Look, I’m normally the type of person to give everyone another second chance. I can forgive the Mike Vicks, Ricky Williamses, Mike Tysons and Dennis Rodmans of the world. But for the Cavs organization, there isn’t time to take too many chances, including the chance that a mediocre coach will somehow become great in a short period of time. This Cleveland roster is a complex one with so many unique flaws and strengths, they need a sharp offensive mind to make everything work, and as we’re seeing right now, Brown’s defensive acumen just isn’t enough by itself to get the job done.
Talented as LeBron is, he needs a great coach to become a truly great player. Look at the standards by which he’s being judged: Jordan had Phil. Kobe had Phil. Magic had Pat Riley. D-Wade has Pat Riley. Larry Bird (who LeBron could eventually supplant as the greatest small forward of all-time) won his rings with Bill Fitch (900-plus career wins) and KC Jones (500-plus wins), who aren’t legends but still very good coaches. LeBron doesn’t have a great coach. He doesn’t even have a very good one. And why waste time now when it’s safe to say Mike Brown will never be on that list of great coaches?
Seem a little hasty? I can see why. On the surface, everything looks to be in good hands. LeBron is just 22 years old, already playing for a ring, under contract for at least the next three years (with a player-option for a fourth), and surrounded by a decent young core in Gibson, Varejao, Gooden and Pavlovic. But if Cleveland’s decision-makers have been watching the same flawed team I’ve been watching on a regular basis, they know this summer is critical in determining the long-term future of the Cavs.
Objective No. 1 obviously is keeping LeBron happy, and his body language during this series tells you he’s not. Maybe he isn’t even directly pissed off at Mike Brown yet (or maybe he is), but once the offseason hits and LeBron has had time to watch the film and reflect, will he go into ‘07-08 with a lot of confidence in his coach? In three years, when LeBron will be 25, fully in his prime, and possibly a free agent, is he going to want to still be the focal point of a one-note offense? Will he want to be seven years into a career with zero championships?
And what about that much-maligned supporting cast? Ilgauskas, slow as he is, remains one of the League’s few legit centers, but he doesn’t have many years left. Hughes is good when healthy, but that’s just the problem; his body is falling apart year-by-year. Cleveland doesn’t have a first-round draft pick this year, so immediate help from a youngster isn’t on the way, and even if the Cavs land a free agent like Chauncey Billups or Vince Carter, neither of those two are on the youthful side of their careers.
In short, the Cavs don’t have time to wait for Mike Brown to become a championship-level coach. They can’t afford to take a step back next year, and anything short of another trip to the Finals will be considered a step back to not only the franchise and the fans, but also to the one who matters most to them right now: LeBron. You cannot assume LeBron will get back to the Finals just because he’s done it once. Hakeem went eight years between Finals appearances. Gary Payton went 10 years between Finals. Iverson got there in his fifth year in the League and hasn’t sniffed a ring since, which could very easily happen to D-Wade as well. (Have you seen Miami’s roster?)
The Cavs need to strike while the iron is hot and the East is weak. There are a few coaches available right now who could improve the Cavs immediately and get them over that hump, from Rick Carlisle to even Larry Brown. For my money, Carlisle would be the top candidate. He’s won everywhere he’s been, and was poised to win a ring with the ‘05 Pacers before Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson ran into the stands at The Palace. Carlisle is demanding and controlling, but he is a deliberate game planner and a definite upgrade over Brown as an offensive coach.
If the Cavs want to win a championship, and more importantly for them, keep LeBron in the fold long-term, they need to unload the person who is most prominently standing in the way of that happening. Blame is a complicated thing, and unfortunately for Mike Brown, the amount of it that will land at his feet should cost him his job.