May 24, 2010
"Born to lose," the tattoo reads.
You've likely seen the scrawl on all manner of villains, both on screen and off. Best I can tell, it originated from a song Johnny Thunders' famously barely listenable classic, L.A.M.F., and it's the phrase that kept coming to mind when it came time to ponder Mike Brown's time as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
No, Brown wasn't born to lose. He wasn't even hired to lose, as some coaches are, and he certainly didn't do a whole lot of losing in his 314-177 turn as coach. But this guy was destined to fail, despite all the W's.
With LeBron James(notes) running that franchise as he saw fit, and the nebulous triptych that was the Brown/Danny Ferry/Dan Gilbert rotation alternately making half-decisions and crossing wires the wrong way, Brown just didn't have a chance. Win a championship or take a hike.
Perhaps Brown should have won a championship.
The Cavaliers didn't exactly have their way with the Lakers last season, but a tweak here and there (perhaps, less Ben Wallace(notes)? The guy who might be retiring in a month?) could have ushered them past their famous matchup issues with the Magic and into the finals. Perhaps they could be still playing, right now. Built to beat Orlando, had their way with the Lakers twice this year, who knows? If Brown couldn't motivate James to the point needed to make it past the Celtics, perhaps this is his fault.
But "his fault" never played in part in this dismissal. Because this was James' call. Brown needed to go, no doubt, but he needed to go just because a hypothetical 2010-11 pairing with LeBron James would be just too untenable for all involved. And by "all," I mean James. He is The Light.
Think about that. This guy is a free agent and he influenced a team's head-coaching position to the point where someone loses a job. There are other, legitimate, factors behind Brown's necessary dismissal, which we'll get to in a bit, but the fact that Brown was dumped because of the anticipated whims of a player who won't even be under contract in five weeks is just astonishing.
The Cavaliers have essentially torpedoed the most successful coach they've ever had (not the best, the most successful as a Cavalier) long after most teams have set to researching and interviewing and hiring new coaches, based on the expected preferences of a person who is a free agent this summer.
The Cavaliers were a rudderless mess in LeBron James' first two seasons, missing the playoffs both times. The team hired Brown in 2005, and within two years they were in the NBA Finals. Sure, they were knocked out of the second round in three of Brown's five years while boasting a player who far and away offered the most on-court contributions of anyone in this league, but it's a team game, and a lot can be argued away.
What can't be argued away? Brown's offense, to start.
Until last season, easily the nastiest in the NBA. Only James' presence seemed to allow this team to vault up from 30th in offensive efficiency. And even with James coming through with ungodly numbers, the Cavaliers were ninth, 18th and 20th in offense until former Cavaliers assistant John Kuester took hold last season and they ranked fourth.
It wasn't even a structured, exacting mess. It was dull, uncreative and impotent when it mattered the most. Now, those around the team will tell you the Cavs were constantly breaking plays, but that doesn't really speak well of the coach, does it? And to me, "plays" weren't the answer. Plays were just another liaison toward taking a contested long jumper with five seconds left on the shot clock.
Brown ran a fine defensive set. Excluding his first year as head man, the Cavs were consistently ranked as one of this league's better defensive teams. Why all these stops (and the team's coach-to-coach-to-coach ability to dominate the defensive glass) didn't result in more running opportunities, I'll never know. And Brown's guidance?
It couldn't have been that great. Stats aside, there was no difference in LeBron James' approach between Games 5 and 6 of this year's second-round series with Boston. And you can't have that, this late in the game. There has to be some desperation, be it implied or legitimate. Someone needs to sweat, before the ball even goes up. You never got that from Brown. And, by extension, you never got that from James and company.
Perhaps it's the other way around. If James didn't want to sweat, and Brown wanted to keep his gig, maybe the coach took his cue from the gravy train. I'm not going to feel sorry for the man, though, if this is the case. This is what happens — and the same goes to you, Dan Gilbert and Danny Ferry — when you sell out to a person still in his early-to-mid 20s.
What matters most right now is this franchise's best interests. And right now, with the hole dug too deep, the quickest way to a championship is to continue letting LeBron call the shots. There's no turning around now, not with the monster they've created. And Brown had to go. On several different levels.
He's a fine coach. He has his limitations, both in terms of leadership and X's and O's, but he's still head material and at the very least a knockout assistant. But it wasn't going to work here. At some point, everyone had to realize that this guy was hired to be chewed up and spat out.
Which is a shame, because Brown is good people. He'd like some decisions back over his five-year term, but who wouldn't? Despite all the winning, though, it was a hopeless situation. Despite all the time spent on national TV, the finals trip, the All-Star game, the hype, the love, the Coach of the Year, the cachet as the guy who coached the game's best ... something had to give.