Longtime NBA coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy often says that only a handful of NBA coaches truly make a difference. In his five years in Cleveland, Mike Brown clearly became one of those coaches.
Whether or not Brown made a difference in a positive way is certainly debatable.
Despite posting the sixth-highest winning percentage in NBA history, it’s easy to argue that Brown’s coaching had a minimal impact on the Cavaliers.
It is easy to argue that Brown’s in-game adjustments, or lack thereof, limited the Cavaliers postseason success and led to defeats at the hands of inferior competition.
Mike Brown failed to win with one of the greatest players who will ever play the game—a young player—but a winner of back-to-back MVP Awards.
Right or wrong, that’s how his legacy will long be remembered, even if he manages to coach a team to an NBA title someday.
Brown, who never played in the NBA and isn’t the son of a former NBA coach, began his career as a volunteer assistant with the Nuggets, and worked his way up the ladder one rung at a time. He eventually landed a assistant coaching position under Greg Popovich in San Antonio, and became a hot prospect after a couple of seasons spent primarily directing the Spurs’ defense.
He was a good hire for a Cleveland organization that had been in flux—a young coach hired to coach a young superstar. It made sense; almost too much sense.
Brown instilled his defensive principles in the Cavaliers’ organization, leading to an upset of the mighty Pistons and a somewhat-unlikely NBA Finals appearance in 2007. It slowly started to go downhill from there.
Ultimately, few coaches have done less with more than Mike Brown, who rode LeBron’s coattails all the way to a 272-138 record.
Many writers are blaming LeBron for Brown’s firing, saying he didn’t give it all for his coach, for one reason or another. The Cleveland Plain Dealers’ Bud Shaw wrote:
“I guess I’m not surprised James didn’t speak up for Brown the way Dwight Howard spoke up for Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy after the Magic went down three games to none. Clearly, James lost faith in Brown and turned the page on him.”
So what? It’s happened countless times throughout the history of the NBA, including when Michael Jordan grew tired of Doug Collins in Chicago. Like it or not, powerful NBA players are more powerful than coaches.
It’s not LeBron’s fault that Brown refused to play an up-tempo style throughout his career in Cleveland, even when the Cavaliers had a bevy of weapons. It’s not LeBron’s fault that Brown couldn’t adjust to cover the pick-and-roll against Hedo Turkgolu in the 2009 conference finals. It’s not LeBron’s fault that Brown gave the ball to him in a basic 1-4 set early in the fourth quarter of big games and completely stopped running an offense. It’s not LeBron’s fault that Brown benched J.J. Hickson, an integral part of the Cavaliers success in 2010, in favor of a 350 lb. washed-up center who could barely get up and down the court. It’s not LeBron’s fault that the Cavaliers’ rotation fluctuated more than the stock market.
The simply reality is that when Brown met coaches who matter, he rarely came out on top.
Mike Brown’s coaching career is far from over. He is still young, he still has time to learn how to run a fluid offense, and he still has time to develop the ability to make in-game adjustments that make a difference.
He just won’t be lucky enough to coach a difference-maker like LeBron.