Page 2 of 3
"I felt like I had a plan on both sides of the ball," Brown says, "and not only that, I felt like I had a plan off the court to help establish a culture here."
Which he did, in spades. Brown's tenure from '05-'10—ahem, the LeBron Era—was something of a golden age or pax romana for the franchise. Brown led the Cavaliers to five consecutive playoff appearances. In 2007, he chaperoned LeBron and the ugliest supporting roster in recent NBA memory—Donyell Marshall! Eric Snow! Drew Gooden! Larry Hughes!—to the only Finals appearance in Cavs' history. But because Brown never achieved the ultimate prize, even with LeBron, he was considered by many to be a failure.
Which is why many fans interpreted his rehiring as a mistake.
"I think the familiarity bred a little bit of contempt in this case," says former Plain Dealer Cavs' beat reporter and current ESPN writer Brian Windhorst in a phone interview. "But he's a high-profile free agent, and I don't think he ever got the credit he deserved for wanting to come back."
Given the coaching climate in the NBA—13 of the league's 30 teams will feature new head coaches this season—the demand is frequently much higher than the supply, and it's ludicrous to think that Brown's track record wouldn't stand out among the bushy-tailed former players, college coaches and longtime assistants all vying for top spots.
"So many of these teams are crapshooting," says Windhorst. "But Mike's a proven commodity. He could've probably had six job offers."
Jason Lloyd, who covers the Cavs for the Akron Beacon Journal, agrees.
"It was clear that Mike was by far the most qualified," he says. "If you're not gonna get Mike, you're gonna go with another rookie coach who's been waiting for his first job. With all that's at stake, they weren't in a position to go that route."
What's at stake, then?
It's not just Kyrie, if that's what you're thinking. Easy enough to transfer our anxiety about one franchise player to another, sure, but if we were merely trying to pacify our young stud, oughtn't we have stuck with Byron? The alleged point guard guru? Kyrie's "Basketball Father"? A man who stood with arms sternly crossed as he "coached" three of this generation's greatest: Kidd in New Jersey, Paul in New Orleans, Kyrie in Cleveland?
Just, no. No effin way.
More on Byron in a moment, but know that GM Chris Grant has spent three years tearing apart the team. ("Anyone can tear apart a team," says Windhorst. "I could trade away a team's best players and get nothing back.") In some respects the next two years represent a litmus test for his particular rebuilding strategy; it may determine whether or not he'll remain the long-term GM in Cleveland.
"If my job and my neck were on the line," says Windhorst, talking about Grant "I know I'd want a guy I knew I could work with and who's a proven commodity."
Byron Scott was supposed to be a proven commodity, by the way, the last-ditch trump card in Gilbert's effort to entice LeBron, as some saw it. Scott was not only a (mildly) successful coach. Much more importantly, he was a former player. And not just any player! A starter for the Showtime Lakers! A guy with three rings!
When it became clear that LeBron didn't much care about coaches at all—he wanted a roster optimized for a championship (and will again in 2015, folks)—everything went to hell.
At least that's how Windhorst sees it.
"When Dan woke up on July 10, 2010, and realized LeBron was gone, he might have regretted the fact that he just fired a coach who'd won 60-plus games in each of the past two seasons."
Ya think? (Gilbert admits as much, though at the time, he had this to say about jettisoning Brown: "I think it is clear that Mike Brown has been instrumental in contributing to the growth and progress we have experienced in recent years. We wish Mike and his family the best of luck in any future challenges that Mike chooses to accept going forward. After a long and deep analysis of all of the factors that led to the disappointing early ends to our playoff runs over the past two seasons, we concluded that it was time for the Cavaliers to move in a different direction. The expectations of this organization are very high and, although change always carries an element of risk, there are times when that risk must be taken in an attempt to break through to new, higher levels of accomplishment. This is one of those times.")
Scott Raab, Esquire editor-at-large and author of The Whore of Akron, was still hanging around the Cleveland Clinic Courts working on his book during Byron Scott's first year. He says Scott always treated the media with courtesy and professionalism—he was "masterful" at giving good quotes—but is certain the local media, in turn, gave him a free pass.
"At no point during his tenure am I aware of anyone calling attention to the fact that he was phoning it in night after night and season after season," Raab says.
Raab, who identifies himself as a fan first and a dabbling analyst second, says that Scott already had the reputation of being a head coach whose golf clubs were in the trunk, but that the personal drive simply wasn't there with the franchise in total rebuilding mode.
"I know he wasn't given a whole lot to work with, but the test of any coach is: Did he get the most out of what he had? And I don't think he even came close to doing that, and I don't think the media in Cleveland bothered to rouse themselves to even suggest that that was part of the problem."
Even Terry Pluto, who supports Brown, kicked off his column on the day of Brown's rehiring with the assertion that if he were GM, Byron Scott would still be head coach.
Raab, on the other hand, is fairly conclusive to the contrary: "There was no leadership that I ever saw during a game. After [the LeBron plan backfired], I don't think Byron Scott made a concerted effort to do anything but collect a paycheck."
Jason Lloyd, who admits to being a fan of Scott's, attests that there was a serious gap between what the coach said and what the players did.
"He always said the right things, always," says Lloyd. "We're gonna win with our defense, and all that, but there was never any proof. I think Byron kinda struggled to teach some of his principles, and quite honestly, I don't know what principles existed defensively."
As for Brown, he's the bona fide defensive specialist. That's always been the case, but fans can expect a complete transformation from last year's mess.
"It'll be a whole new approach," says Jason Lloyd. "Those leads they blew last season? 18? 20? 27 points? Yeah, you're not gonna see that under Mike Brown."
Lloyd jokes that he's been covering the Cavs' for three years, but this is the first chance he'll get to write about a professional basketball team. He went out to Las Vegas to cover summer league ball, and already he noticed a difference.
"On the summer league team, there's only four or five guys that even make the final roster," Lloyd says, "But Mike lined them all up on the baseline, and for the first 90 minutes of practice, they just stood there while Mike taught them defensive principles."
Imagining Brown pulling a guy out to demonstrate a position—where to put your hands, where to keep your eyes—sounds almost like CYO stuff, but Lloyd says it's teaching moments like that which are so crucial when you've got a young team. Even with the signing of veterans Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum (he of the golf cart clown car), the Cavs still will have one of the youngest rosters in the league.
Raab, too, suspects that Brown will be an improvement if only because he leads by example.
"Mike Brown will model the behavior he's looking for. He is as hardworking as any coach in any sport at any level. He didn't play on the Showtime Lakers, but he has an absolutely relentless work ethic. He'll walk the talk."
So what's different this time around? Brown says there was a special anxiety that came with being a young coach—an anxiety that fades with maturity—tied to the desire to be considered, by players and analysts and other coaches, "of age."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.