Monday, May 24, 2010

Mike Brown and the Problem with Coaching

The Cavs firing Mike Brown: life is unfair. It’s not Mike Brown’s fault the Cavaliers didn’t deliver a championship to Cleveland, but it’s also not not his fault either. The truth is that, in a league full of terrible coaches, Brown was adequate. Improvement beyond Brown, coaching-wise, is purely theoretical: we know better coaches than Brown exist because we have seen them with our own two eyes; what we don’t know is how to hire them with any reliability whatsoever.

What teams are looking for when they fire a coach and hire a new one is someone like Phil Jackson. Or someone like Pat Riley. Or someone like Gregg Popovich. They’re looking for a fortuitous accident. Because that’s what all three of these coaches are: fortuitous accidents. Jackson became an NBA head coach after Doug Collins got fired for being unable to carry his team to the championship (Mike Brown is the latter-day Doug Collins, perhaps), and before landing an assistant coach’s job with the Bulls, Jackson was a broke coach for the Albany Patroons and considering another career. Pat Riley became a head coach after a player insurrection against Paul Westhead, who had only won an NBA championship with them: previous to that, he was the sidekick to Chick Hearn, the Lakers’ famed announcer. Gregg Popovich was GM of the Spurs before firing Bob Hill and taking the head coaching job himself: previously, he was a well-respected assistant coach. Accidents, all three. Even a list of the very goods looks similar: George Karl bounced around the CBA and foreign leagues himself; Scott Brooks only became coach after P.J. Carlesimo was unable to make good use of the gifts of Kevin Durant, Westbrook, et. al. and was fired. Accidents. What this suggests is that the NBA really has no idea or programmatic plan behind hiring head coaches and only really guesses until it gets the process right. Perhaps this is the surest consolation to the teams struggling under the Mike Dunleavys and Don Nelsons of the world: eventually your team might stumble upon an all-time great.

The sheer dumb luck associated with hiring and retaining a great head coach should suggest this corollary: you don’t even really need a great head coach to win. Doc Brown is a very good coach, and he might well have two rings by the end of the season (no aspersions on Doc, but he’s not a great coach—a very good one, no question). Rudy Tomjanovich has two titles, and like Doc, is a very good but not great head coach. The great Celtics teams of the eighties deployed two coaches—Bill Fitch and K.C. Jones—neither of whom stands on the pantheon of all-time greats. The NBA isn’t football: talent trumps scheme.

You can certainly win the title with a coach as good as Mike Brown. But it’s advisable to acquire as much talent as you can—obviously the Cavs don’t have overwhelming talent otherwise. And so it’s quicker, easier and more convenient to hope for one of those nice accidents on your next coach. Because Brown did have his flaws: while he designed great defenses which remained potent well into the postseason, his offenses were always deplorably bad. Brown wanted to play an offense bastardized from the San Antonio Spurs, though the personnel—specifically LeBron—suggested one of the great running teams, ever. How you, in your mind’s eye, take an athletic force like LeBron and project him into an intricate, slow system (the offensive equivalent of a steamroller), is beyond me. Certainly it suggests blindness in that mind’s eye. But that’s a common failing in former Spurs: Brown and Ferry are blind; it took Kerr a few seasons to realize that he wasn’t turning Amare Stoudemire into Tim Duncan and Nash into Parker, much as he might wish it. A curious, moralistic stubbornness—it must be the “play the right way” moralism creeping in. At any rate, among the branches of the Spur management tree, only Kevin Pritchard and Sam Presti have resisted that dogmatism.

Brown was dogmatic, but he was also a panicker. His offense devolved into the worst stuff of the 90s: all isolations revolving around LeBron, turning one of the most wondrously versatile talents ever into a mere scorer. Brown didn’t have a great feel for the game in his adjustments or rotations.

It speaks for the lousy state of NBA coaching—or maybe, like refereeing, it’s a job that has always been done poorly and hence cannot be done well—that with these traits Brown was actually an adequate head coach. But he was. He has talents. He’ll find another job. He just might have wasted his best opportunity to grab a ring, is all.

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