Sluggish Lakers Fire Mike BrownMike Brown did not even last 82 games on the job after following 11-time NBA Champion Phil Jackson as the Coach of the L.A. Lakers; the Lakers fired Brown today in the wake of the Lakers' disappointing 1-4 start. Brown won the 2009 NBA Coach of the Year award in Cleveland and owns a 314-167 regular season record, a .653 winning percentage that ranks 12th in NBA history, ahead of several Hall of Famers--including both Red Auerbach and Pat Riley. Brown's Lakers earned the third seed in the West with a 41-25 record during the lockout-shortened 66 game 2011-12 season despite giving up 2011 Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom without getting another player in return.
Brown's Lakers maximized their potential last season but expectations went through the roof prior to this season when the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard and used the financial flexibility provided by the Odom trade to sign Steve Nash. The Lakers' projected starting lineup included two former regular season MVPs (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash) plus the league's most dominant center (Dwight Howard) and one of the league's top power forwards (Pau Gasol). If those four players were healthy and in their primes and had an even minimally competent group of reserves backing them up then the Lakers would be rightly expected to win 65-plus regular season games and strongly contend for the championship; even at the current stages of their respective careers, it seemed reasonable to predict that--health permitting--the Lakers would be serious championship contenders.
The Lakers' 0-8 preseason caused some alarm in Los Angeles even though Howard missed several games and is still rounding into form now (ahead of schedule, by the way) and even though Bryant also played sparingly. Through the first five regular season games, nothing has gone right for the Lakers except for Bryant's performance (27.2 ppg on .560 field goal shooting plus 5.2 rpg and 3.2 apg). Howard has scored well (22.4 ppg) and shot very well (.678 field goal percentage) but he clearly lacks his former explosiveness and thus has not been as dominant as he used to be defensively or on the boards (9.6 rpg, significantly worse than his career average of 13.0 rpg despite playing 36.0 mpg, right in line with his career average of 36.2 mpg).
Howard is still recovering from off-season back surgery, Nash only played in the first one and a half regular season games before breaking a bone in his leg, Bryant is dealing with a nagging foot injury (which has not stopped him from playing very well so far) and Gasol is putting up career-low numbers after back to back subpar playoff performances, suggesting that he is a declining player. No matter who was coaching the Lakers in those first five games, the Lakers were not going to be a dominant team under those circumstances. Contrary to popular belief, offense has not been the Lakers' problem this season, either in theory or in practice: the Lakers' system produced high percentage shots for Bryant and Howard (the team's two best players) and the Lakers scored enough (97.2 ppg, 13th in the NBA) and shot well enough (.470 field goal percentage, fifth in the NBA) to be successful. The Lakers' biggest problem has been their porous defense (98.8 ppg allowed, 19th in the NBA; .447 defensive field goal percentage, 20th in the NBA). Defense is Brown's calling card, so he is being blamed for the Lakers' struggles in that regard--but Brown did not suddenly forget how to coach defense: Howard's limited mobility, the team's lack of continuity (due to roster changes and injuries) and the team's unproductive bench have more to do with the Lakers' poor record than any supposed deficiencies in Brown's coaching. That said, when a team does not meet expectations the coach will generally take the fall; it is much easier to fire one guy than to trade several players--but, no matter who the Lakers bring in to replace Brown, their record will not improve unless Howard gets healthier, Nash returns to action and their bench becomes more productive.
It is rarely easy to be the guy who follows "The Guy" and it is generally much easier to be the guy who follows the guy who followed "The Guy." In June 2011, I explained that Brown faced a big challenge in Los Angeles and much of what I predicted came to pass: Brown improved the Lakers defensively last season but after a slow start this season he could not survive the high expectations placed on this team. It will be interesting to see who the Lakers hire now and how the Lakers perform during the rest of the season; if Howard and Nash get healthy and the bench performs adequately then the Lakers have a great chance to win the West but if those things don't happen then the Lakers will continue to struggle no matter who the new coach is.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 PM