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Thursday, June 02, 2011

Defensive-Minded Mike Brown Faces Big Challenge in Los Angeles

The L.A. Lakers have selected 2009 NBA Coach of the Year Mike Brown to lead the transition into the post-Phil Jackson era. Brown was at the helm during the best five year run in the history of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is an excellent defensive-minded head coach who fully understands that championship winning teams are built at that end of the court but he is now facing a big challenge--actually, he is facing several big challenges:

1) It is always tough to be the man who follows "The Man."

Phil Jackson won 11 championships in the past 20 years, compiling three three-peats (1991-93 and 1996-98 with the Chicago Bulls, 2000-2002 with the Lakers) plus back to back titles from 2009-2010 after losing in the 2008 NBA Finals. Jackson shattered Red Auerbach's record of nine NBA championships as a coach and it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever approach Jackson's mark, let alone break it. Jackson is a brilliant coach but each of his championship teams also had at least one MVP level player in the prime of his career; Brown not only faces the burden of trying to replace Jackson but Brown inherits an aging team that seems to be declining and is led not by a great player in his prime but rather by a great player who has logged a staggering number of career minutes and who has sustained permanent damage to important body parts (right knee, multiple fingers).

2) False perceptions by media/fans and heightened expectations due to Lakers' proud history.

Mike Brown is well respected by knowledgeable NBA observers but he is an easy target for lazy media members and ignorant fans; part of the L.A. Times' "coverage" of Brown's hiring consisted of reprinting various negative Twitter comments about Brown and another part of their "coverage" consisted of a poll that overwhelmingly showed that Lakers' fans disapproved of the move--a conclusion that these fans reached before Brown had even been formally hired, let alone assembled a coaching staff!

3) Declining Kobe Bryant, soft Pau Gasol, weak bench, wild card Ron Artest.

Kobe Bryant should have won the regular season MVP from 2006-08 (he only received the honor in 2008) and he was the league's best playoff performer from 2008-2010 but age and injuries have eroded his dominance; he once could score 40 points at will and easily take over games down the stretch but last season Phil Jackson strictly limited Bryant's minutes and greatly curtailed Bryant's practice time in an effort to preserve whatever tread is left on Bryant's tires. The end result was that removing Bryant from the practice court robbed the team of its focus and sense of urgency, while shrinking his playing time cost the Lakers some wins (Bryant not only nailed multiple game-winning shots in the previous season but he also rescued many games down the stretch with clutch fourth quarter play). Despite the extra rest, Bryant was hardly his usual dominant self during the 2011 playoffs; his sprained left ankle obviously did not help matters but even in games when Bryant seemed to have his usual spark in the early going he faded noticeably down the stretch. The Lakers were never as talented or deep as some people declared them to be and at this stage of his career Bryant can no longer mask their deficiencies by simply scoring 40 points in a game or dropping 15 points in a fourth quarter. Now would be a logical time for someone to emerge as a legit first option to take some pressure off of Bryant but during the playoffs Pau Gasol did not even look like a decent second option, much less someone who could potentially be willing or able to assume the franchise player mantle. The Lakers' weak bench and Ron Artest's increasing lack of focus/general ineffectiveness are also major concerns but the Lakers' high payroll and the looming NBA work stoppage make it highly unlikely that the Lakers will upgrade their roster. If Mike Brown is going to lead the Lakers to a championship in 2012 he is going to have to do it with an older version of the squad that Jackson could not guide to a single playoff win versus Dallas.

The fact that a premier franchise like the Lakers hired Brown shows just how well respected he is in NBA circles; media members and fans may believe false narratives about Brown's tenure in Cleveland but the reality is that virtually any team in the league would be thrilled to bring Brown aboard. However, even though Brown landed a good job he certainly did not get an easy one; it will be very difficult to coax one more championship out of this version of the Lakers but Brown will be an easy scapegoat if the Lakers do not win the title.

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When I covered the Cleveland Cavaliers I noticed some interesting parallels between Mike Brown and Bill Belichick:

1) Both men revived moribund Cleveland franchises and turned them into legitimate contenders. Brown led the Cavs to the playoffs for five straight years--including two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and one NBA Finals berth--after the team had gone seven seasons without qualifying for postseason play, while Belichick took over a team coming off a 3-13 season and led them to a playoff victory in just four years; the Browns have yet to win a playoff game since firing Belichick in 1995.

2) Both men have been criticized heavily by the media for being too bland, for supposedly being unimaginative offensively and for getting the opportunity to become a head coach simply by riding the coattails of championship-winning mentors. Brown and Belichick may not have "won" too many press conferences but their teams have won a lot of games. Belichick did much to shed the rap about his conservative offenses by unleashing a devastating, record-setting passing attack in 2007 that helped New England post an unprecedented 16-0 regular season record, while Brown's oft-criticized Cleveland teams annually ranked among the NBA's most efficient and productive offensive units. Gregg Popovich did not start winning championships over night and his protege Mike Brown has not had enough time to fully develop his own coaching legacy but few people are still foolish enough to say that Belichick peaked as a Bill Parcells assistant; in fact, the record shows that Parcells won both of his championships with Belichick playing a prominent role, while Belichick won their only face to face encounter as playoff head coaches and then went on to win three Super Bowls in New England without any input from the "Tuna."

3) Both men received plenty of unsolicited strategic advice from the media "experts" in Cleveland. Point blank, the writers and talking heads in Cleveland had absolutely no understanding of what Belichick was doing with the Browns and their strategic acumen did not improve more than a decade later when Brown transformed the Cavs from a lottery team to one of the top defensive units in the NBA. Once Belichick started winning Super Bowls in New England the media revisionists claimed that Belichick had "changed"; while it is clearly true that any intelligent person changes and evolves it is patently false to assert that Belichick "failed" in Cleveland and then learned how to coach once he arrived in New England. Similarly, Brown did an excellent job during his tenure in Cleveland and I expect him to also do well in L.A., though it will be difficult for Brown to win a championship right now unless the Lakers improve their talent and/or depth.

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The idea that Brown cannot coach offense is simply false. Brown made it very clear when he first arrived in Cleveland that his top priority was to fix the Cavs' defense and that only after that was accomplished would he focus on the team's offense; Brown fulfilled both of those objectives, transforming the Cavs into an elite defensive team that also ranked among the league leaders in field goal percentage (third) and points scored (ninth) during his final season in Cleveland.

During his press conference on Tuesday after the Lakers officially hired him, Brown emphasized that excellent defense is the cornerstone to his program because excellent defense is an essential component for any championship team. Brown explained his three primary defensive principles:

1) "Shrink the floor: We don't want anything easy to happen in that paint."

2) "No middle drives: If the ball gets to the middle of the floor there are too many outlets."

3) "Give multiple effort and finish with a contest."

Coach Brown concluded, "Those three things, my players will hear often." Those are certainly three things that the Lakers need to hear--and do--because they failed miserably in each of those departments during their brief 2011 playoff run.

I don't know how good the Lakers will be in 2011-12 because it is not clear how much Bryant has left or what is wrong with Gasol but I am confident that Coach Brown will bring out the best in the team at both ends of the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:23 AM

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