Brown was James’ coach for five seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers before he was fired a little more than a month before James signed with the Miami Heat. The Lakers reached an agreement in principle Wednesday with Brown on a four-year, $18 million contract to replace Phil Jackson.
Brown was the 2008-09 NBA Coach of the Year and went 272-138 in his five seasons in Cleveland. He helped guide the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals and finished his tenure in Cleveland with 66- and 61-win seasons.
James said he hasn’t been contacted by Bryant or any of the Lakers with questions about Brown.
“Mike Brown is a great coach,” James said after the Miami Heat’s practice Wednesday. “He gave us success that we hadn’t had before in that city. It just started with his defensive concepts. He brought in a defensive mindset that we didn’t have. … We were competitive year after year because of him and his coaching staff.
“I respect him and I’m grateful to have him as a coach throughout the years that I had him. He definitely helped me to become who I am today.”
News of Brown going to the Lakers actually surprised James. James expected Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw to be promoted to replace Jackson. Bryant endorsed Shaw before the end of the season, and other Lakers echoed his sentiment. Brown also was a leading candidate to fill the Golden State Warriors’ coaching vacancy.
“Brian Shaw’s been with the Lakers, played for the Lakers and been around Phil,” James said. “I was surprised to see Mike Brown’s name. I thought Mike would get an opportunity at Golden State. I was more surprised like, ‘Wow.’ I’m happy for him.”
While James and Brown had some good moments together, there were some disappointments as well. The San Antonio Spurs swept the Cavaliers in the Finals. The Cavs didn’t return in James' final three seasons in Cleveland. After having the NBA’s best regular-season record a season ago, the Cavs lost in the second round to the Boston Celtics. Brown was fired on May 25, 2010, leaving as the franchise’s winningest coach.
“Ultimately, we didn’t win a championship in Cleveland,” said James, who didn’t comment publicly at the time of Brown’s firing. “I know he wanted it bad. I wanted it. We didn’t win. But we got better every single day and brought the fans in Cleveland something they hadn’t seen before.”
“I’ve been under a lot of coaches,” Ilgauskas said. “But when you get a good one, you know what you have. I just felt like coming off back-to-back winning 60-plus games it wasn’t fair to go that route.
“He will do a great job [in Los Angeles]. He’s a really good hire for them. I think the guys on the Lakers will enjoy playing for them. He treats everybody well. He demands a lot, but he’s fair.”
It was widely speculated the Cavs fired Brown because James had lost faith in him – and as an attempt to appease James before he entered free agency. Without getting into detail, James denied he played a role in Brown’s ouster. James signed with the Heat after Byron Scott was hired to replace Brown.
“Idiots pinned it on [James],” Ilgauskas said. “But he didn’t do any hiring or firing. That came from higher-ups. You can only blame so much on that kid. Eventually, someone else has to take some accountability.”
Brown is a strong defensive coach, which was attractive to the Lakers. Ilgauskas also said skepticism about Brown’s skills as an offensive tactician are unwarranted. What impressed James most about Brown was his drive.
“He coaches as if he’s on the court and he wants to play,” James said. “He loves to see us get better every single day. He never wasted an opportunity to get better and it showed.”
- The Lakers