Mike Brown: Looking Past the Cover

CLEVELAND - MAY 01: Head coach Mike Brown of the Cleveland Cavaliers calls out instructions while playing the Boston Celtics during Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 1, 2010 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland won the game 101-93. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

For the last week, we've had the opportunity to discuss a variety of coaching candidates for the Lakers, from hometown candidate Brian Shaw to outside ones such as Rick Adelman and Jeff Van Gundy. Most of us would have been fairly satisfied with any of those choices, even if they weren't fans of any one of them individually. Shaw represented stability and the promise of continuing a resplendent era of championship-level play with the triangle; Adelman offered a creative system similar to the triangle and a solid pedigree of success; and JVG brought an elite defensive system that has produced marvels both for him and his longtime assistant Thibodeau in a variety of locations. Sure, the Lakers had discussed marginal candidates like former Clippers' coach Mike Dunleavy, but that was dismissed as just an instance of the Buss family's magnanimity, and he was never a serious candidate.

Enter Mike Brown. He was first brought up earlier this week as a possible candidate, but that was similarly shot down as the Lakers applying due diligence and casting a wide net in their coaching search, which by all reports has been slow and deliberate. Last night, however, Yahoo! Sports' Mark Spears and Adrian Wojnarowski brought forth the report that the Lakers considered Brown a serious candidate and that a deal could be consummated within the next day or so. As Laker Land exploded into a cacophony of rage and disbelief, Silver Screen and Roll not excepted, we were faced with the notion that the Brown, the constant butt of jokes as the coach of the LeBron-era Cavaliers, would be the one replacing the greatest coach of all time in Phil Jackson.

That said, first impressions are rarely conclusive, so let's take a closer look at the coach that will likely lead the Lakers in the opening hurrah of the post-Phil era:

Brown's initial claim to fame was his service as an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio from 2000-03, after which he was hired by the Pacers under current Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. As far as assistants go, the coaching pedigree they descend from is pretty critical to their development, and Brown acquired a reputation as a sterling defensive coach much in the spirit of Pop's early Spurs teams that were anchored by Tim Duncan and David Robinson. That got him a head coaching gig in Cleveland in 2005, as they hoped to import that same defensive focus that, until recently, has typified the Spurs, and lead Cleveland as well as young star LeBron James.

For the most part, Brown was successful in that regard, garnering a 272-138 record with the team, and in his second year, behind a tremendous performance from LeBron in the conference finals against the Pistons, got to the NBA Finals, where they were overwhelmed by the Spurs and dispatched in four games. He endured significant roster turnover during the '07-'08 season, including a bizarre ten player deal that looked like an overall wash for Cleveland and an injury to LeBron that was disastrous for the few games he was out, and took the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the conference semifinals. The '08-'09 year was arguably Brown's most successful, as the Cavs won 66 games behind an MVP year from LeBron and new acquisition Mo Williams (who inexplicably made the All-Star team) and advanced to the conference finals, where an Orlando team almost perfectly constructed to stop and counter Cleveland's personnel (or in other words, had Dwight Howard) bested them in six games. In his final year with the club, the Cavs again exceeded the 60 win total behind another MVP year from LeBron, but were defeated by the Celtics as LeBron was infamously derided for "quitting" on the team. Owner Dan Gilbert, desperate to keep LeBron in what in retrospect was a fruitless effort, fired Brown and replaced him with Byron Scott.

With the history lesson out of the way, let's take a closer look at how Brown's teams performed during his tenure with the club:

Year
Offensive efficiency (rank)
Defensive efficiency (rank)
'05-'06
107.8 (9th)
105.4 (14th)
'06-'07
105.5 (18th)
101.3 (4th)
'07-'08
106.0 (20th)
106.4 (11th)
'08-'09
112.4 (4th)
102.4 (3rd)
'09-'10
111.2 (6th)
104.1 (6th, tie)

 

So with the exception of his first year with the club and the '07-'08 season, in which he had to deal with a ton of roster turnover, Brown's teams have posted top six defensive efficiency marks, which befits his reputation as a former Spurs' assistant. I don't think there's any doubt whatsoever about Brown's defensive chops, and if anything, it's his biggest calling card. Conversely, his teams have been a mix offensively, with below average marks in '06-'07 and '07-'08 paired with solid and even elite marks with his later teams. For his part, Brown gets a rap for a lack of offensive creativity, namely that his offense is "give the ball to LeBron." That's not inaccurate, but it betrays a bigger issue at hand, namely that Cleveland's roster, even in their better years, was a terrible offensive unit at worst, and flawed at best.

Here are the top five players not named LeBron who led the Cavs in minutes each year in order (PER in parenthesis):

Year Player (PER)
'05-'06 Eric Snow (8.1), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (21.9), Drew Gooden (17.6), Damon Jones (9.3), Donyell Marshall (13.4)
'06-'07 Larry Hughes (12.1), Drew Gooden (16.5), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (18.0), Anderson Varejao (14.4), Eric Snow (8.6)
'07-'08 Zydrunas Ilgauskas (18.7), Daniel Gibson (11.7), Devin Brown (11.3), Drew Gooden (12.5), Damon Jones (11.3)
'08-'09 Mo Williams (17.2), Anderson Varejao (14.6), Delonte West (14.1), Daniel Gibson (10.1), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (18.0)
'09-'10 Mo Williams (16.1), Anthony Parker (9.9), Anderson Varejao (15.8), J.J. Hickson (15.2), Delonte West (13.8)

 

Of those players, you have one All-Star (Williams, '08-'09), one All-Defense performer (Varejao, '09-'10), and one player that had a 20 PER season (Ilgauskas, '05-'06). And even then, that All-Star nomination for Williams was a complete joke as he got in over several more deserving candidates only due to the entire Cavs organization erupting in mock outrage that the league didn't fulfill the imaginary rule that the team with the best record needs two All-Stars. In any case, prior to '08-'09, with the exception of Ilgauskas and maybe Gooden, there were literally no decent offensive options available and especially none of the perimeter. I don't know about you, but if your secondary or tertiary options were Drew Gooden or Larry Hughes, I'd tell LeBron to create something than force Larry Hughes to handle the ball.

To Laker fans, this is the classic "Is Kobe a ballhog?" question, and reminds us of the false dichotomy it represents when there isn't anyone to give the ball to. If Eric Snow and Larry Hughes were my starting backcourt, I sure as hell would make sure that they never touched the ball as much as humanely possible. John Krolik, the editor of the excellent Cavs: The Blog and a writer for NBC's Pro Basketball Talk, ascribes the Cavs' offensive improvement to, shock, getting getting better offensive players in Mo Williams and Delonte West in '08-'09, when the Cavs' offensive efficiency mark skyrocketed to fourth in the league after being a miserable 20th the previous year. Some point to former Cavs assistant John Kuester as the offensive mastermind behind this transition, but given how spectacularly terrible his time in Detroit has been, I find that explanation difficult to believe. Similarly, I don't think LeBron gathered all the responsibility on himself and told his teammates how to set back cuts or where to spot up.

My larger point isn't to portray Brown as a solid offensive coach, which I still have doubts on, but that he's much more competent than the "give the ball to LeBron" image that has been perpetuated about him. He's never had anything remotely close to the level of offensive talent the Lakers have right now in Cleveland, and yet he still wrung two top six offensive efficiency marks out of a deeply flawed roster. That simply doesn't happen if a coach doesn't possess an iota of offensive acumen. Is he better than Adelman on that end? Of course not. At the same time, you could make an argument that he's better than JVG, who had both Allan Houston and Patrick Ewing in New York and Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming in Houston, yet his units were always average at that end.

Granted, why hire a defensive coach then? At their best this season, or in other words, that 17-1 post-ASG breakout section of the year, the Lakers were actually merely an above average defensive team and an elite defensive one courtesy of Bynum's emergence as a Dikembe-esque force in the interior. Overall, the Lakers were sixth in defensive efficiency on the season. Beneath that veneer, however, execution on defense often was as poor as the offensive stagnancy we were all used to seeing. Half the battle on defense is effort, and as Orlando can attest to, it's a lot easier to account for mistakes on the perimeter when you have a monstrous interior presence that can erase all of those mistakes. Remove that effort and Bynum's presence, as we saw all too often in the playoffs, and you get the utter wreck that was the Lakers' pitiful defense against a simple pick-and-roll attack from the Mavericks.

Phil has traditionally delegated the task of designing the defense to an assistant, from Kurt Rambis in '08-'09 to a mishmash of assistants the following year to Chuck Person this last season. With the exception of Rambis' system, which was flawed and figured out by every team a month into the season that could pass the ball around the perimeter to a shooter, the Lakers' defensive systems have been fairly solid. That said, it's one thing for an assistant to develop the defense and another for it to come directly from the head coach and the specific details to be emphasized every timeout and stoppage. By his own admission, Phil has never been much of an Xs and Os guy, hence the delegation to his assistants, and Brown certainly is that. While it's possible that his system might not be better than Person's (and I'm inclined to think that a system derived from Pop's playbook is definitely better), the execution of that system will definitely improve. It's much of the same argument for hiring JVG, and Brown's defensive pedigree is very comparable to his.

Moreover, despite the presence of a number of solid defensive players over the course of his tenure in Cleveland, including Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, and especially Anderson Varejao, who definitely deserved that All-Defense spot for his amazing pick-and-roll defense and solid post defense, the Lakers provide personnel on that end better than he's essentially ever had. Artest is still a lockdown one-on-one defender, Odom is a solid pick-and-roll and help defender, and Bynum, at his best, is an all-world defensive force in the interior. And in an ironic parallel, Brown has already had experience dealing with the defensive problems of porous point guard defense (Mo Williams) and a star wing who likes to float around off his man (LeBron).

Finally, the question comes to how the Lakers themselves receive Brown. Much has been made of how Brown dealt with the situation in Cleveland and the ridiculous activities that LeBron embarked on (his "photo shoot" with his teammates before games as one of the principal examples), but I would describe those things as something entirely out of his control. As has been widely documented, Dan Gilbert was an enabler who allowed LeBron to control the club essentially in whatever manner he wanted, whether that was flying personal friends around on team jets, controlling personnel decisions, or the aforementioned in-game antics. Brown entered this situation as a rookie coach, and coming from Pop's disciplinarian ways, I highly doubt that he supported that behavior, but at the same time, couldn't do anything about it lest Gilbert simply fire him at LeBron's behest. It's one thing for an established coach with clout in the league to take a stand against that ridiculousness and another for a rookie coach in his first gig who is simply thankful for the opportunity to be there. At the same time, you have to hold him complicit, even in a small way, with all of that, as the bad rap he gets from there might precede him.

So how does that translate to the Lakers? I honestly have no idea. That said, the focus of this Lakers team has always been winning, which takes from Kobe, and most of the problems get swept under the rug if the team is successful. I'd wager that the team takes a guarded approach to Brown until they see how applying his system works in the season, and the situation would only sour if the team wasn't performing well, but you could say that for any new coach, whether it was Shaw or Adelman.

In the end though, Brown isn't an ideal choice. We've covered how Adelman and Shaw are more natural fits for this roster in painful detail over the last week, and I continue to think that they're better candidates. At the same time, however, Brown brings real positives to the table in his defensive acumen and the rap he's gotten about his offensive chops has been considerably overblown. When it comes down to it, Brown is a coach who has won 66.3% of his games, has led a team to the Finals, and experienced considerable success. There are things to nitpick and to bemoan what could have been with Adelman or Shaw, but in my opinion, the Mike Brown era should be one accompanied with excitement mixed with a fair amount of caution and trepidation, not outright panic or despondence.

UPDATE (4:08 PM): According to Hoopsworld's Eric Pincus, Mike Brown has invited former Real Madrid coach Ettore Messina to be an assistant coach with the Lakers. If any of you were looking into a silver lining into the Brown hiring, this is it. Messina has had a distinguished record in the Euroleague, bringing success wherever he went and winning four titles during the course of his career. He started with the Italian league club Virtus Bologna, winning two Euroleague titles in 1998 and 2001, as well as making to the title game in 1999 and 2002. He then replaced Mike D'Antoni as the head coach of the Italian league club Benetton Treviso, and again was able to get to the title game in 2003. He then went to CSKA Moscow, and won titles in 2005 and 2008. His last gig was at the Spanish League club Real Madrid.

In all, Messina is considered an excellent offensive mind; his teams were always disciplined, had great execution, and he has experience with heavy post-up systems just as with P&R-dependent sets. For everyone who joked about hiring JVG to coach the defense and Adelman as his assistant to manage the offense, this isn't a whole lot different from that. He's been on the radar of a lot of NBA teams as a possible head coaching candidate, but as Pincus notes, he knows that he has to pay his dues as an assistant. Naturally, there's no better place for him to do that than for the most distinguished team in the league.

Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that Brown has also reached out to Tim Grgurich, who is currently an assistant coach to the Mavericks. Grgurich has annually been considered one of the finest assistant coaches in the league, and is an excellent teacher of the game. Testament to this, he was at one point, one of the highest paid assistants in the league, so there's that. Another report from Woj notes that current Lakers assistant Chuck Person could stay on, as he's had a relationship with Brown going back to when both were with the Pacers. As I noted above, Person's defensive system was pretty solid, even if the execution wasn't there from the team, and he could help Brown with the transition.

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