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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cavs Fire Mike Brown After Best Five Year Run in Franchise History

No one can be surprised that the Cleveland Cavaliers fired Coach Mike Brown. His fate was sealed when LeBron James quit in game five of the Boston series as a prelude to the entire team surrendering meekly to the Celtics in the waning moments of the sixth game, declining to foul to extend the clock and instead wandering around looking completely disinterested; after failing to reach their stated goal of winning an NBA championship, the Cavs clearly needed to sacrifice a scapegoat and owner Dan Gilbert was not going to put any public pressure on James, the two-time MVP who has been coddled by the organization for several years and whose impending free agency status hangs over the franchise like a Sword of Damocles. Despite being the most successful coach in franchise history, Brown never was very popular among media members--who did not find him to be particularly colorful or quotable--nor did Brown capture the imagination of the fans, many of whom ignorantly feel that they could coach a LeBron James-led team to 60-plus wins.

However, just because Brown's firing was inevitable does not mean that it was fair and it does not mean that the Cavs will find a replacement who can do a better job. My newest article for CavsNews.com places Brown's coaching career in historical context and sounds a cautionary tale for those who assume that the team is better off now (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The Cleveland Cavaliers have officially fired Coach Mike Brown, an action that surprises no one and certainly delights some misguided fans and media members—the same people, I suspect, who called for Bill Belichick’s head a decade and a half ago. Defense wins championships in pro sports but defensive-minded coaches generally do not “win” press conferences, so media members often turn against such coaches and sometimes the media members succeed in convincing the local fan base that writers, broadcasters and fans venting their frustrations on talk radio know more about coaching than actual coaches do.

Belichick learned his craft under a variety of NFL coaches, helped the New York Giants to win two Super Bowls as their defensive coordinator and then “failed” in Cleveland—if you define inheriting a 3-13 team and transforming them into a squad that won a playoff game just four years later as a “failure”—before creating a dynasty in New England; media members were consistently unimpressed by Belichick until the sheer weight of his successes finally muted their short-sighted and superficial critiques of his wardrobe and his dry press conference statements. Remember how the Cleveland media used to mock Belichick’s play-calling? His New England offenses have been shattering records for years but rather than admitting that they misjudged Belichick the media asserted that Belichick had nothing to do with his team’s explosive offense because he was just relying on Charlie Weis’ genius, a theory that has been refuted in light of Weis’ tenure with Notre Dame. As a last resort, these media members like to assert that Belichick “changed” after he left Cleveland but if you listen to the people who actually know football—the players, coaches and executives—they will tell you that Belichick got a raw deal in Cleveland and that he won in New England with the same basic philosophy that he tried to employ in Cleveland. Does any person with a shred of common sense believe that after Belichick was a great coach in New York he inexplicably turned into a fool in Cleveland before suddenly becoming a genius in New England? Belichick is a football lifer and the people inside the game have respected his knowledge for decades, even when the media had a field day mocking Belichick. Did Belichick learn some things along the way? Of course—it would be foolish to do otherwise—but Belichick’s core football values have been the same for a long time.

Brown’s resume is very similar to Belichick’s: Brown learned his craft under a variety of NBA coaches, he helped the Spurs win an NBA championship (though Brown’s role on that coaching staff was not as prominent as Belichick’s role with the Giants) and then he “failed” in Cleveland—if you define being the most successful head coach (in both the regular season and the playoffs) in franchise history as a “failure.” Media members repeatedly insist that Brown does not know how to coach offense, even though the Cavs ranked third in the NBA in field goal percentage (.485) and ninth in the NBA in scoring (102.1 ppg) in 2009-10; in 2004-05--the season before Brown arrived in Cleveland--the Cavs ranked 15th in field goal percentage and 17th in scoring. It is true that the Cavs have upgraded their roster during that time frame but it is wrong to ignore the fact that the Cavs became an efficient and productive team offensively under Brown’s watch. The self-proclaimed “experts” in Cleveland liked to credit former assistant coach John Kuester with anything that the Cavs did right offensively but in Kuester’s final season with the team (2008-09) the Cavs ranked sixth in field goal percentage and 13th in scoring, so the above rankings show that the Cavs continued to progress offensively even after Kuester departed to become Detroit’s head coach. By the way, Detroit fell from 39-43 to 27-55 under Kuester in 2009-10 and the Pistons ranked worse in both scoring (29th, down from 28th) and field goal percentage (27th, down from 16th). That is not to say that Kuester is wholly—or even mostly—to blame for Detroit’s problems; the point is that some members of the Cleveland media portrayed Kuester as an offensive guru but that has yet to be proven to be true.

When Brown came to Cleveland five years ago, the Cavs had absolutely no history of sustained playoff success nor did the franchise have the right culture to reasonably expect to attain that status. Brown pledged to make the Cavs a defensive-minded team and he was true to his word: in 2004-05, the Cavs ranked 11th in points allowed, 14th in point differential and 18th in defensive field goal percentage; by 2006-07, the Cavs ranked in the top eight in all three categories, in 2008-09 the Cavs ranked first, first and second respectively in those categories and this season the Cavs ranked fifth, second and fourth. Brown not only led the Cavs to the best record in the league the past two years—the first coach to achieve this since Phil Jackson did it with the Jordan-Pippen Bulls in 1996 and 1997—but the Cavs won more than 60 games in both of those seasons. Only 14 teams other than Mike Brown’s Cavs have won at least 60 games in a season since 2000 (the first season after the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign): 2009 Lakers (coached by Phil Jackson), 2009 Celtics (Doc Rivers), 2008 Celtics (Rivers), 2007 Mavericks (Avery Johnson), 2007 Suns (Mike D’Antoni), 2006 Pistons (Flip Saunders), 2006 Spurs (Gregg Popovich), 2006 Mavericks (Johnson), 2005 Suns (D’Antoni), 2004 Pacers (Rick Carlisle), 2003 Spurs (Popovich), 2003 Mavericks (Don Nelson), 2002 Kings (Rick Adelman), 2000 Lakers (Phil Jackson).

Getting rid of a coach is the easiest move to make but now comes the hard part: hiring a coach who will actually do a better job than Brown did, which at this point can mean one thing and one thing only: winning an NBA championship—anything less than that is a failure, because Brown already took the Cavs to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Good luck finding another coach who can guide the Cavs to 60-plus wins, let alone win a championship; fans may think that coaching an NBA team is easy but a team owner should know better.

Brown is a convenient scapegoat but the first thing that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert should have done after the season ended was sit down one on one with LeBron James, pop in a DVD of game five of the Boston series and ask James, “What was that?” There is no doubt that James quit in that game; the only question is why and James is the only person who can answer that. Considering that Kobe Bryant is playing through an assortment of injuries, Steve Nash hardly bats an eye despite taking numerous shots to his face and Kevin Garnett has persevered despite having to drag around his surgically repaired right leg, it really does not make a whole lot of sense to use an elbow “boo-boo” as an excuse—and what, other than “boo-boo,” can you call an injury that does not show up on an MRI, has been officially called a bruise and did not prevent James from firing half court three pointers prior to game six of the Boston series? I am not saying that James was not hurt at all but there is no reason to believe that he is more seriously injured than a whole host of players who are still making contributions to playoff contenders without uttering any complaints or excuses.

Do not buy the nonsense that James quit because he got frustrated at having to do so much just for the Cavs to have a chance to win—when you are a two-time MVP seeking out a max level contract you are quite rightly expected to be highly productive. Kobe Bryant’s supporting cast is constantly praised and yet look at how productive Bryant has to be for the Lakers to win: during this year’s playoffs, the Lakers are 7-1 when Bryant scores at least 30 points but they are just 3-2 when he scores 24 points or less. During the 2009 playoffs, the Lakers went 7-1 when Bryant scored at least 33 points (including 4-0 when he scored at least 40 points) but they went just 8-6 when he scored 32 points or less, including 1-2 when he scored 20 points or less. The Lakers went 6-2 when Bryant scored at least 33 points in the 2008 playoffs but they were just 8-5 when he scored 32 points or less, including 2-3 when he scored 24 points or less. The bottom line is that no matter how good a team’s supporting cast is—or how good it is purported to be—teams ultimately rise or fall based on how well their best player performs: to cite just one other example, in the 2003 NBA Finals, Tim Duncan had David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Stephen Jackson alongside him but in the clinching game Duncan rang up 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocked shots. So, yes, it is true that James has put up some awesome individual numbers but that does not “prove” that he lacks help; the great players who came before LeBron James and won championships all put up monster numbers during their title runs and James will have to do likewise in order to win his first championship.

It is also very weak that James is conveniently “on vacation” and thus unavailable to make any comment in the wake of Brown’s firing. Does James really think that he can remove his fingerprints from the “crime” simply by being silent? As the team’s leader, he should make some kind of public statement; it would be nice if James had enough humility and honesty to admit that Brown’s emphasis on defense played a large role in helping him to develop into a top flight defensive player.

Unfortunately, just like James stalked off without talking to the media in the wake of Cleveland’s loss to Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, he left it up to his teammates to respond to the firing of the most successful coach in Cavs’ history. Point guard Mo Williams emphatically defended Brown: “Do I think he deserved it? No. My question is: Who's out there that's better? He's not a bad coach. To fire him, that's making a big statement. After him, you have to get a Hall of Fame coach. I thought we prematurely acted on our emotions, as an organization. I think he did a good job. If anything, bring in a veteran assistant. I think we just could have gotten better instead of blowing it all up. Now we're starting over.”

Williams makes an excellent point, because Hank Egan once told me that it takes until “deep into your second year” before a team has completely internalized a new coaching’s staff’s system. Assuming that the Cavs fired Brown in order to fundamentally change their system, it will likely take until well into the 2011-12 season before the Cavs are completely in tune with the new way of doing things.

Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas echoed Williams’ sentiments: "Obviously, we didn't achieve what we set out to achieve, which is to win a championship. But if you're going to lay all the blame on Coach Brown and think that's going to solve everything, you've got another thing coming. I think we're all at fault--the players, everybody. You have to, at some point, accept some of the responsibility. We all have to do that. A coach only can take you so far. At some point you have to do it yourself and we didn't do it. I think Coach Brown will be fine. He'll be coaching again, and I'm very sure he'll have success.''

It is interesting that when the whole Orlando Magic team seemed to quit in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics the players received the brunt of the blame; the only person who criticized Coach Stan Van Gundy was Van Gundy himself in his postgame press conference. Yet Mike Brown has been fired, in essence, because LeBron James quit in game five versus Boston and Dan Gilbert apparently believes that the Cavs have a better chance of retaining James’ services by cutting ties with Brown. Gilbert and the entire Cavs organization have bent over backwards for five years to please James and James responded by quitting in the most important game of the season, hanging his coach out to dry in the process.

I’ll leave the last word to Ilgauskas. Many people speculated that Ilgauskas had a beef with Coach Brown after Brown did not play Ilgauskas at all on a night when Ilgauskas had invited family members to watch him set the franchise record for most games played (Ilgauskas eventually did set the mark) but Ilgauskas had nothing but positive things to say about Brown, concluding with these words: “I just have this funny feeling that they might come to regret this decision, unless they go for Phil Jackson or something. You can throw all the names you want at the wall, but the reality is different. I've been through a lot of coaches and coaching staffs and, trust me, they're not all that good.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 PM


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At Tuesday, May 25, 2010 4:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


there was issues with lebron and mike brown at the end of the season and that was ultimately his fate with team. he is a very good coach i dont know if he can put you over the top though his offensive philosophy was questionable alot of lebron going one on five at times and he was too much of a fan of lebron i dont think lebron respected him like kobe respect phil dwayne respected pat riley etc he never got on lebron and let lebron know when he is doing wrong like a coach is supposed too.

i think in his next job he will do better than he did in this one i know he had alot of reg season wins but this team was a championship or bust last two years and they flamed out twice ultimately the coach has too go plus when youre not on the same page as your star player, thats never a good thing david im not saying its totally his fault of course lebron quit on him in game 5 and team as whole didnt get it done but he is head honcho so he is going to take the blame.

lebron gave the old no comment im on vacation lol obvisouly thats telling enough i think he needs phil jackson or pat riley someone with the rings and cache to coach lebron ike kobe and jordan did.

other than that youre right there is no real upgrade dont think tom tibbedoh is or dan majerle kevin mchale, bryron scott been to two finals avery johnson been to one but brown is as good as them.

where you see mike ended up next year david.

At Tuesday, May 25, 2010 5:38:00 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

As a general rule, I have a hard time believing that a team that defends and rebounds as consistently as this Cavs team did for the last few years is poorly coached. People say that Brown's offense relied too much on LeBron, but to the extent that that may be true, I would suggest that LeBron prefers it that way. How would he function in a more diverse offense like the Triangle where he wouldn't have the ball in his hands quite so much? (This is another reason I find the 'Lakers - Kobe + LeBron = 73 wins' equation so dubious, but that's a subject for another day.)

The fact is David, Phil Jackson has won 10 rings and never missed the playoffs, and some fools still think he rode the coattails of the great players he coached. It doesn't surprise me that Brown, without a Jackson-like resumé to back him up, would be given a raw deal for the same reason. As you pointed out though, the easy part was firing him - now who do they bring in that will deliver a championship (assuming His Royal Highness sticks around of course)?

At Tuesday, May 25, 2010 6:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Just because there were "issues" between LeBron and Coach Brown that does not mean that Coach Brown was at fault; we do not know exactly what went on between them and that is why in my article I said that Dan Gilbert needs to ask LeBron why he quit. If LeBron is uncoachable then it does not matter who the Cavs bring in to be the coach. I am not saying that LeBron is uncoachable but I think that the way that he quit in game five is disgusting and not befitting of someone with his talent.

I don't know where Coach Brown will end up but I believe that he will be successful. It would not surprise me at all if he someday coaches a team to an NBA title; obviously, at any given time there are only a handful of legitimate contenders but Coach Brown's defensive game plan is sound enough to lead that kind of team to a championship. Coach Brown proved that by leading the Cavs to the 2007 NBA Finals. His winning percentage and overall resume are better than all but a handful of current NBA coaches.

At Tuesday, May 25, 2010 7:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You correct that a major measuring stick that knowledgeable people use to evaluate coaches is defensive efficiency and under Coach Brown the Cavs have been a very, very good defensive team.

There is no question that LeBron prefers to monopolize the ball offensively. LeBron is often called a "pass first" player but during his career he has averaged nearly 21 FGA/g, nearly two FGA/g more than Kobe. Kobe's numbers are a bit skewed because Kobe came off of the bench during the first two seasons of his career but there is still no question that LeBron's greatest skill is that he is a big-time scorer--and that is why the Cavs were in such trouble in game five versus Boston when LeBron inexplicably decided that he no longer wanted to score or even play hard.

It will be very, very interesting to see who the Cavs hire, particularly if their long shot hope of outbidding the Lakers for Phil Jackson falls through. As Mo Williams and Z said, the only way that firing Brown makes any sense is if the Cavs bring in Phil Jackson or some other Hall of Fame coach--but I find it hard to believe that Jackson would give up the opportunity to coach Kobe to come to Cleveland to deal with the LeBron circus. Jackson is near the end of his career, so the only reason for him to keep coaching is to win championships, not step back in the time machine and rehash the challenges that he had dealing with a young MJ and a young Kobe--with no guarantee that LeBron will ever figure things out the way that MJ and Kobe did. For all of their flaws/stubbornness as young players, MJ and Kobe clearly had a burning desire to be champions, while it is just not clear that winning an NBA title is LeBron's top priority. I hate to say it, but it seems like LeBron is more interested in spending a month as the focus of attention because of free agency than he is in spending a month playing all out to try to win a championship. Look at how LeBron is dominating the news cycle without even working at all! He is on vacation and yet everyone is still talking about him.

At Friday, May 28, 2010 12:31:00 PM, Blogger $9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

Do you think Lebron is watching Nash, Kobe and Pierce and thinking to himself, "Oh, "that's how you do it?" Or his huddling up with IMG strategizing over his global brand.

By the way, Amar'e Lebronned it last night-- 4 rebounds, 4 turnovers. Not good.

At Friday, May 28, 2010 12:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is hard to figure out exactly what LeBron is thinking.

I remember that in the 1980s Isiah Thomas and Mark Aguirre used to go watch their friend Magic Johnson play in the NBA Finals to get a sense of what goes on at that level of the game; eventually, of course, Thomas and Aguirre played for a Pistons team that won back to back titles. I've always thought that players who aspire to be champions should take an interest in watching champions play and I hate to hear someone say that he does not watch any games after his team is eliminated (not that LeBron said that but, on the other hand, there is no indication that he is following the playoffs now, either).


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