This is how the march back to the Playoffs started. For a five year contract worth just over $20 million, the Cleveland Cavaliers added a coach with a playoff pedigree, an outstanding regular season coaching record and the demeanor to take the franchise back to the playoffs.
His coaching ability was in demand. He was potentially fielding interest from the Philadelphia 76ers, the Atlanta Hawks, the Detroit Pistons and the Phoenix Suns. Including the Cavaliers, a sixth of the league was interested in Mike Brown as a head coach. The Cavaliers got him.
So the Los Angeles Lakers of 2012-13 were not what people thought they were. So Dwight Howard’s recovery from surgery was not as complete as the Lakers hoped it would be. So the offense did not immediately gel. The Lakers decision to fire Mike Brown 5 games into the regular season was a short sighted mistake that became more evident through the season as the Lakers did not qualify for the playoffs until the final day of the regular season.
Mike Brown coming back to the Cavaliers is a complete and total coup. Brown had a list of suitors and chose Cleveland, where he coached from 2005 until 2010.
Cleveland was where he made the playoffs every year and was the head coach though the most successful stretch in the history of the franchise. Mike Brown’s defensive strategies were a key to taking a talented team that lacked a second superstar from the cusp of the playoffs all the way to the NBA Finals. When year after year the question was not of making the playoffs but whether they would win an NBA Championship.
Mike Brown, his coaching and strategy were the second Cavalier superstar that allowed the team to make deep runs in the playoffs despite the lack of a clear second option on the floor. Mike Brown coached a backcourt of Eric Snow and Larry Hughes to the NBA Finals. He turned Anderson Varejao into one of the most valuable defensive players in the NBA. He found a place for Sasha Pavlovic and Drew Gooden to succeed. He’s a teacher, a grinder, a professor of lockdown committed defense.
In 2010 there was a business decision that sent Mike Brown out of the Cavaliers organization. Danny Ferry, then GM, left when Brown was fired. It was the wrong decision to fire Brown, and undoubtedly a short sighted appeasement of one player who left anyway. The decision to Tom Izzo was famously courted to take Brown’s position certainly wasn’t made by Ferry or Chris Grant. When Byron Scott took the wheel, even Scott didn’t know what he would be steering.
26 game losing streaks don’t happen to teams that value playing defense. 30 point blowouts don’t happen to teams with effective defensive schemes that control pace, that are organized on that end of the court. The player and player’s mother’s gripes that led the franchise to part ways are just history now. This is no longer an organization centered on one single player’s whims and will no longer fall when one player decides to quit on the team and the city.
We’ll hear the complaints that Brown’s offenses stagnated in critical moments, that his rotations buried potentially useful players and that he deferred to assistant coaches instead of making definitive decisions on his own. This team has not seen a critical basketball moment in three seasons. If Mike Brown, now 43 years old, can help resurrect the importance of the moments the team faces, perhaps the lessons learned in his 30s as one of the youngest coaches in the league can take him further now, in his 40s.
Mike Brown is set up to succeed this time. He joins the team after they have already bottomed out, quit on a head coach, and failed to play defense with any kind of consistency. His best player, a 21 year old wildly talented on the offensive end of the floor, has provided nothing on the other end through his short professional career. Kyrie Irivng and the rest of core of the team have all been in the league for less than 2 years, short enough to unlearn bad habits. Anderson Varejao, one of Brown's greatest achievements, is still on the team. They are loaded with draft picks and financial flexibility. They are set to make a run at the 2014 free agency pool at exactly the point when Brown's young squad will be ready to take the step forward and play playoff games in Cleveland.
Cleveland isn’t basketball Alaska. Mike Brown was moving to Cleveland to live here before he reached his deal to coach the Cavaliers. Not because he was going to be paid more to coach here, then throw his set of golf clubs or a giant hookah and books about Eastern philosophy in his trunk and head out of town, but before any coaching offer. Mike Brown wants to be in Cleveland. If there’s a perception that Cleveland is not a destination with appeal, it never touched Mike Brown. He likes it here.
Mike Brown is a Cleveland guy. Mike Brown is as one of us as anyone else standing in line in the cold waiting for the RTA or driving across town for bagels because the West Side Market doesn’t have them on Mondays. Weeks before Byron Scott was fired, Mike Brown, who was still being paid by the Lakers, was searching for houses here in Cleveland through a realtor. Moving back to Westlake where he had volunteered as an assistant high school football coach just 2 years ago. There's a value to the organization having the head coach of your team care about the town where he and the players on the team play.
This is how it comes together. It’s 5AM and Mike Brown walks into his old office, flips on the light switch and sits down behind his desk. His mind and his ability to coach and his work ethic may be the most significant additions any team in the NBA will make this offseason. He’s dissecting film, charting plays, analyzing his roster but now with more acumen than when he came into the league as a video coordinator over a decade ago.
The Cavaliers will win more games next season. They will qualify for the Playoffs sooner because of this addition. Mike Brown wins games. And this is where things turn around.
Photo credit: Mark Duncan/AP