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Mike Brown: Analyzing the Culture of Change

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With the lockout creating a stranglehold on nearly all Lakers-related news that isn't Derek Fisher commenting on the state of the negotiations or Kobe Bryant deciding whether to lace up for a foreign squad, it's a welcome sight to see an article that holds at least some relevance to the Lakers' next season. Last Friday, the reputable Kevin Ding of the Orange County Registrar released a piece discussing his meeting with newly minted Laker coach Mike Brown, who helpfully detailed some aspects of his coaching philosophy, the culture he hopes to engender in the locker room and on the court, and hints at the system he wishes to implement next season. As arguably one of the best beat writers currently covering the Lakers, especially with the Los Angeles Times' Mark Heisler departing for former ESPN writer Chris Sheridan's eponymous Sheridan Hoops, Ding's account is replete with acute observations of Brown's mindset and mannerisms. He takes it further by drawing on his extensive experience with the Laker front office and roster to analyze how these attributes led to Brown's hiring and how they will be received in the locker room. After the jump, we will take a look at Ding's points, their applicability to many of the assumptions and theories that have been made about Brown's hiring, and what this means for the Lakers moving forward.

The first impressions Ding writes of in his article are of Brown's mannerisms, which are striking not only for what they reveal of Brown's personality, but because of how different they are from Phil Jackson's, which have been in full view of the L.A. media for most of the past decade. Where Phil is sarcastic and sometimes taciturn, which almost creates a veneer of subtle contempt for those he is speaking to, Brown is enthusiastic, gregarious, and straightforward. The first few examples Ding introduces embody these traits:

1. He apologizes to someone coming up to shake his hand because he has a little au jus sauce or ketchup on his – and offers the person a fist-bump and a smile instead.

2. He actually listens to something you tell him, because he truly believes he can learn from you as much as you can learn from him.

3. He oozes pride in sons Elijah and Cameron not for their current skill, but for their current work ethic.

4. He calls himself "lucky, fortunate, blessed, whatever you want to call it" for his place in this world.

5. He argues that you – yes, you – could play defense at a high level in the NBA.

If the first two examples don't already show why Brown is diametrically different from Phil, you haven't been following the Lakers for that long. Phil has always been secure in an aura of self-assurance, which to other teams is an expression of arrogance and condescension, although he has damn good reason for carrying himself in that manner. He reserves his outward displays of respect almost entirely for his mentors such as Red Holzman and Tex Winter, and it is no secret that Phil is something of a pariah among the NBA coaching community. If you want evidence of it, look to the travails of Brian Shaw after Mike Brown was hired. Whether justified or not, Shaw came away from the summer without a head coaching position, and an underlying reason in several reports was because teams don't want to touch the triangle or Jackson's philosophy with a twelve foot pole. For whatever reasons Bay Area fans devise to explain the hiring of Mark Jackson, an unknown with no coaching experience and a cliche-ridden broadcasting career, there clearly was some aspect of Shaw that Golden State wanted no part of, and to demonstrate their level of trust in Jackson, they threw Tom Thibodeau-level assistant money at Brown's former assistant Michael Malone both to aid him and provide him with a security blanket.

On the other hand, Brown is, well, humble for lack of a better word. As someone who came up through the coaching ranks relying almost solely on his work ethic and not the memory of a stint in the NBA, he understands the importance of accepting and learning things from everyone around him, and Ding goes to great lengths to emphasize Brown's insistence on thanking what others have taught him rather than any of his own innovations. Brown more or less says as much below:

The guy is simply not afraid of what he doesn't know.

"This might get me in trouble going on record saying this, but I don't think there's a dumb question out there," Brown said.

Whether it is Greg Popovich or Rick Carlisle, arguably the two best coaches in the NBA with Phil retired, or Marc Iavaroni, a longtime assistant who had an underwhelming stint as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, Brown speaks highly of how they have shaped him into the head coach he is today. He flat out admits his self-perceived limitations to Ding at one point:

"I don't feel like I'm the smartest guy out there," Brown said. "I feel like I'm a pretty good people-person. I feel like I have common sense, at least. And I do believe that I work hard. To me, that's where my advantage is going to be, if there is one."

If Phil ever said that, my immediate thought would be as to how much peyote he had to chew to spew out something so blatantly out-of-character. And before we go further, it should be emphasized that these differences with Phil are emphatically not a negative thing. True, most NBA coaches have egos big enough to defy human comprehension, and one is often needed to give a coach enough gumption to handle the often equally large egos of a group of millionaire twenty-somethings, especially since a good deal of them have been coddled by handlers from the moment a scout noticed that they had some real talent. This noted, Phil's approach is not the be-all, end-all approach to NBA coaching, nor is it necessarily the only one this current Laker team will respond to, as the lack of fire and effort last season can painfully attest to.

That dearth of effort is the core of what Brown is seeking to address this upcoming season. As Ding notes:

Brown wants to build a cooperative community in Lakerland where no one is keeping track of who gives what to whom, yet everyone is accountable. At the heart of that is consistent effort, and although Brown is too nice to cast the aspersions, it's abundantly clear that he intends to bring a passion back to the Lakers' play that was sorely lacking in a disappointing last season under Phil Jackson.

For a veteran team, this is generally an acceptable governing principle. Young teams need a heavy hand to squash out bad habits while veteran teams want a coach to give them a degree of freedom commensurate with their years of service. Needless to say, about 99.9% of that "cooperative community" relies on a certain Kobe Bryant giving his assent to Brown's philosophy, as there is no accountability if #24 does not hold himself accountable to what Brown is espousing. It's too early to say for certain what Kobe's views on Brown are, although the limited reports we have indicate that Kobe is fine with Brown's hiring if not the way Jim Buss and co. handled the proceedings. From a more cynical standpoint, even if Kobe is utterly opposed to Brown -- and there's very little to attest to that -- he is also fully aware that his career is winding down, and wasting a year feuding with Brown is essentially throwing away one of the precious few remaining years of championship contention that this core has.

Despite that rather ominous and morbid line of thought, Brown's philosophy appears to be something that Kobe can accept on its face, as no one in the league works harder to refine his game than Kobe, and he has lamented the time he had to spend out of practice last year due to various ailments, as he could have helped to work against the atmosphere of apathy and nonchalance that gripped the Lakers last season. Whether this means that Fisher will finally get bitched at after he gets burned for the fourth consecutive time in a game is another story, but you could do much worse than having Kobe being the one to enforce Brown's message of accountability.

On a more basketball-related note, however, Brown will also call on Kobe to sacrifice his touches in favor of the team's bigs; while this was indeed the change many called for last season when Kobe used a ridiculous 35.1% of the team's possessions, it also treads on some dangerous territory:

And whether you want to read a lot or a little into it, note this: When talking about the contrasting offensive styles Brown will show from Cleveland to here, the new Lakers' coach summarized the coming Lakers offense as feeding Gasol and Bynum inside, not being the Kobe show.

"This team is completely different from what I had in Cleveland," Brown said. "In Cleveland, I had a guy who liked to come off the top of the floor, liked to play in space and play pick-and-roll and make plays for others. Here, I've got two guys similar to what we had in San Antonio; you're able to throw them the ball on the block."

Brown's statement confirms a few things, first of which being the assertion from John Krolik, the excellent Cavs blogger, that Brown designs his offense to conform to his personnel instead of imposing a system on his players. One can see the failure of the opposite approach with Flip Saunders, whose voluminous playbook was a fine fit for a championship-caliber Pistons team but a terrible one for a rebuilding Wizards squad. As I noted in my reaction piece to Brown's hiring, it's no accident that Cleveland's offense exponentially improved once the offensively inept Eric Snow and Larry Hughes were replaced by competent offensive players in Mo Williams and Delonte West, and that the playbook correspondingly expanded due to the greater responsibilities his players could handle on offense. I've covered what a San Antonio-derived offensive system could entail at length in previous articles, and it follows Krolik's statement, as it's an item of faith that the Laker offense works better when the ball goes through the post. Questions as to whether the triangle or Popovich's playbook are a better fit for this team aside, there's little question that this is an offense that could definitely work if properly implemented.

Of course, the only way that is going to happen is if Kobe agrees to make it happen, although the actual application of this process does not necessarily boil down to Brown directly asking Kobe to throw the ball into the post more often. For one, Kobe may have more ball-handling responsibilities as a pick-and-roll operator, and there are several plays in both Brown's Cleveland playbook as well as Ettore Messina's that help Kobe into his favored spots for isolation plays. Moreover, it will be difficult for Kobe as a practical matter of course to duplicate his insane usage rate last year even if he was playing under the same system, let alone one centered around having two skilled bigs playing off each other in the post. As for the notion that Kobe would be naturally resistant to such a system imposing limitations on him, Ding throws some cold water on that thought:

It's impossible to imagine Bryant not getting his, however, and if the baseline for Brown's Lakers basketball is going to be the passion and work ethic, though, Brown and Bryant will get along just fine.

Keeping up with him in drive time, after all, is what Bryant has always wanted from and for his teammates.

Brown's specialty is getting it.

This goes along with the idea above concerning Kobe being receptive to a system that resonates with his freakish drive, and given Ding's experience with both Kobe and the team, it is easy to see him draw up that kind of correlation. Similarly -- and perhaps ironically -- Laker management was of a similar line of thought when they interviewed Brown, as they came away very impressed with his energy and plan to reinvigorate the team. Per Ding:

No one in Cleveland ever questioned Brown's work ethic in his five seasons there. His accompanying drive and passion came across clearly in wowing Jerry and Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak in Brown's Lakers job interview, and Brown revealed Thursday that some of the best advice in telling Lakers executives what they wanted to hear came from his former general manager in Cleveland, Danny Ferry, and the Cavaliers' current GM Chris Grant.

While I would feel slightly more comfortable if Brown's cited sources were Popovich and Carlisle, it does stay consistent with his overall persona of a humble guy accepting of good ideas regardless of their source. Moreover, if there was anything Brown conceivably could have done to show how different he was from Phil, whose legacy Laker management appears all too ready to consign to the pages of history, it would have been to show up with an upbeat and passionate attitude, as this clearly resonated with all the major decision makers in the matter. And while the way in which the Lakers went about uprooting Phil's legacy, namely not even having the courtesy to inform Shaw that he didn't get the job, was worthy of scorn, Ding reports that there were reasons other than simple spite or vindictiveness:

For all who've wondered if Brown catered too much to LeBron James in Cleveland, some within the Lakers' organization wondered if Shaw would've catered too much to Bryant here in a system Bryant actually understood even better than Shaw did.

While it's easy to see Shaw in a good light after the way his leaving the team was handled, there were legitimate arguments against his hiring, one of the more poignant of which is the one above. A common truism in sports is that the coach that the players want isn't necessarily the best choice available, particularly a young coach such as Shaw with no previous head coaching experience, as the players sometimes treat the coach as a caretaker or a substitute teacher whom they see as a buddy rather than an authority figure. Moreover, if Phil had failed to energize the team during last season, was Shaw, cut from much of the same cloth as Phil but without the history and the gravitas, going to repair the problems with the team? The question of his relationship with Kobe is another notable point, as while he and Kobe are amiable by all accounts, how he would handle a disagreement with Kobe over touches or playing time?

If you think there's a double standard in this view of Shaw's and Kobe's relationship as compared to Ding's take of how Kobe will more or less accept Brown's coaching philosophy, I would point to the context of both cases. Shaw's experience with Kobe is that of a role player and assistant coach in which he could always rely on Phil's mediating presence and he never had to, as far as we know, openly oppose Kobe on an issue by his lonesome. Brown, on the other hand, comes in with an already established reputation and record he can rely on, and is in many ways, approaching Kobe as an outsider with no previous baggage. Of course, compelling arguments can also be made that the continuity Shaw represented was a positive that would have overridden the previous issues, but the above is to emphasize that there was a coherent and legitimate line of thought from the Laker management, however poorly executed, behind passing Shaw up for the head coaching gig. 

In any case, although there might be a few bumps along the way, Brown's effort to reshape the Lakers' culture should bear some fruit next season, as the system and culture he is bringing are, on the whole, largely compatible with this Laker squad. While Rick Adelman's recent hiring by the bumbling David Kahn twinges a bit for those, including yours truly, who wanted him as the Lakers' next head coach, there has largely been sufficient comforting signs coming from Laker Land, this Ding article included, that the Brown hire can and will work out. And hey, if he truly believes that anyone can be taught to play NBA defense, including your author's lazy, Ivy League-educated, couch-loving rear, then perhaps we will see some special things next season.

Follow this author on Twitter @brosales12.

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