Will a second superstar run over Brown?
CLEVELAND — Mike Brown is a good man who understands how to manage personalities. That much was clear during his time as coach of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Whether Brown possesses the creativity to satisfy the Los Angeles Lakers is an entirely different matter. Remember, this is an organization that’s built on Magic and Showtime, Phil and Kobe, America’s biggest celebrities sitting in the stands and more.
According to a Los Angeles Times report, Brown has been offered the job of Lakers coach, and ESPN is reporting Brown has agreed in principle to a four-year contract. Although many in NBA coaching circles are secretly questioning the move, Brown certainly looks good on paper.
During his time in Cleveland (2005-10), he compiled a 272-138 record, including back-to-back seasons of 60-plus victories. He also took the Cavs to the Finals in 2007 and was named coach of the year in 2009.
His players always seemed to respect his dedication; his bosses always admired how he could be counted on as a “yes man” when handling James. That’s not a knock on the organization, either. Anyone who witnessed a young James knew he needed to be managed with kid gloves. Brown possessed the perfect personality to do just that.
But all was not well between Brown and his superstar at the end.
Early signs of tension began back in 2009, when the Cavs finished with a league-best mark of 66-16 but lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals. Brown had established a reputation as defensive specialist — a coach who got his players to buy into the idea that bending your knees and shuffling your feet would lead to more opportunities on offense.
But he came under heavy fire for his inability to slow the Magic’s European-style offense of driving, dishing and 6-foot-10 forwards knocking down 3-point bombs. Brown’s fault or not, the Cavs were overmatched and embarrassed. Surely, nobody was going to blame James.
Especially since Brown’s philosophy on offense seemed to be little more than getting the ball to James and getting out of the way. It was a lot of isolation and a lot of dribbling and heaving up questionable shots by LeBron. Whether that was the idea of Brown or James remains unclear today — but again, Brown was always guilty as charged in the eyes of Clevelanders.
Then came the 2009-10 season. The Cavs signed an aging but still effective Shaquille O’Neal. They still had Mo Williams at point guard, wild man Anderson Varejao at forward and veteran and James favorite Zydrunas Ilgauskas at backup center. They also obtained All-Star forward Antawn Jamison at the trading deadline, a move they figured all but secured the franchise’s first title.
The Cavs locked up the top seed in the East early. They rested their starters at the end of the regular season, yet still won 61 games. They swept the season series from the Lakers, overcame a double-digit halftime deficit in Boston and cruised past Chicago in the first round of the playoffs.
Everything, it seemed, was on course.
But something happened in the second round against the Celtics, something no one saw coming. Brown and the Cavs suffered a meltdown that will go down in NBA lore, experiencing the type of collapse that made the Orlando series look tame.
James began to question his coach. Not directly, but in a roundabout way. For instance, James suggested to the media that he believed young forward J.J. Hickson should receive more playing time. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened in the very next game.
That’s just one minor example of what was becoming a strained relationship between Brown and his star player.
A more telling sign came in what will forever be known in Cleveland simply as Game 5. And Cavs fans don’t just say it. They spit it.
The series with the Celtics was tied 2-2. Game 5 was in Cleveland. The Cavs had re-established home court two games earlier. This was their chance to keep it.
Instead, they were run out of the gym, almost from the beginning, in a defeat that clearly altered the course of the franchise forever.
During the game, James’ mother was overheard cussing out Brown from her seat in the stands. At halftime, Gloria James walked over to former Cavs coach Mike Fratello, working the game for TNT, and asked him if he wanted to coach the team — again blasting Brown.
A few weeks later, Brown was fired. His biggest supporter, then-Cavs general manager Danny Ferry, parted ways with the organization shortly after. And we all know what happened with James last July.
The Laker way
This type of drama, of course, is not unfamiliar to the Lakers. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant certainly had their issues in combining for five titles this decade, with Jackson even taking a one-year sabbatical and letting Kobe try to do it on his own.
Jackson also is retiring following what is widely considered his most disappointing season as an NBA coach. He and Brown have completely different styles, with Jackson displaying extreme confidence, and even downright arrogance, at all times.
Brown, however, is as humble as they come. Personality-wise, he is considerably more Midwestern than Hollywood.
Coaching-wise, he won’t ever rock the boat. He has experience supervising one of the game’s biggest stars, a player who appears set to rule an entire era and someday be mentioned in the “greatest player ever” debate.
Now, it seems Brown will get the chance to do it again. Only this time, he will likely manage a little differently. He likely learned from any mistakes in handling James. Plus, he will be overseeing a different Kobe, an older version who will need to alter his own game and rely more heavily on his teammates.
Brown will bring a delicate touch, never questioning or embarrassing his players publicly. It will be quite a contrast to Jackson’s occasionally gruff and sarcastic methods.
The biggest questions are the same ones that were asked of Brown in Cleveland. Can he get the Lakers to buy into his defense-first, second and last philosophy? Is he innovative enough when drawing up plays in the huddle, his team in dire need of a basket? Will his superstar take advantage of his laid-back approach?
Apparently, the Lakers feel comfortable enough with the answers, or are willing to learn them as they go.
At the very least, the Lakers seem to like the idea that Brown is a quality person with a winning resume, a relaxed leader who piloted a team with one of the game’s two best players and biggest personalities. Now, he gets a crack at the other.
Follow Sam Amico on Twitter @SamAmicoFSO