Cavs' Defensive Focus Rooted in West
The braintrust of the Cleveland Cavaliers includes three hardcore basketball dudes who were part of the University of San Diego's program nearly 20 years ago -- head coach Mike Brown, his grizzled assistant Hank Egan and assistant general manager Chris Grant.
All three have deep roots at the small Catholic school that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, not to be confused with UC San Diego, where Cavs star LeBron James stages his summer basketball camp.
All three are devout believers in firm defense, tenets of which they learned in the West.
All three paid their hardwood dues in the NBA before reuniting in Cleveland.
Same as San Diego, Cleveland has gone four decades-plus without a major sports championship, and the San Diego Cavs know the heat is on.
"We feel like we've got to get it done," Egan told FanHouse by phone on Friday, a day before Cleveland defeated the Celtics in Game 1 of their second-round series. "No doubt about it. That's on our minds, for sure. But if you are in this business in the NBA, the pressure is on you all the time."
Brown was the NBA's coach of the year two seasons ago and has a strong relationship with James, but when the Cavs struggle, it's not unusual for Cavs fans, or even sportswriters who cover the team, to blame Brown. They question whether his offense is suitably diverse for the playoffs. They doubt him as a game tactician. A surprising number of fan comments on The Plain Dealer's website harshly assail Brown, depicting him as a bumbler despite Cleveland's NBA-best victory totals the last two regular seasons.
Here at West Coast Bias, we doubt that Brown can out-coach the Lakers' Phil Jackson. But who can?
Dumb Cavs fans blamed Brown for Cleveland's loss to the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals last year. No Cavs player could slow center Dwight Howard, let alone stop him. Hence the Cavs' offseason acquisition of Shaq. Cavs wing players such as Sasha Pavlovic, a hobbled Wally Szczerbiak and Tarence Kinsey -- none of whom are still with the club -- were incapable of guarding Orlando's skillful, tall wings. Appearing timid and soft, Cavs point guard Mo Williams disappeared on both ends of the court.
An offseason retooling boosted the team's athleticism and interior strength.
The Magic and the Lakers still have more elite talent than the Cavs. The Celtics, as the Lakers know all too well, are experts at subtle hip shoves and hand combat that often goes undetected by refs. Readers of Boston.com, casting thousands of votes, rated James and the Cavs' bench superior to their Celtics counterparts but gave the nod to four Celtics starters and coach Doc Rivers.
When West Coast Bias recently asked Bill Walton, the former UCLA and Portland Trail Blazers star, what he thought of Cleveland's chances in the playoffs, Walton didn't see the Cavs giving Cleveland its first sports title since the football Browns reigned supreme in 1964.
"A Celtics-Lakers Finals should be another classic," Walton replied by e-mail on Saturday morning. "Enjoy the ride."
If Walton is right, it'll be open season on Brown.
For the Cavs to go far, Brown will need to get more zest from his defense than it showed against the quick, energetic Bulls in the first round, or against Boston in the first half on Saturday.
Defense, though, is what Brown knows best. His Cavs clamped down on Boston in the second half on Saturday, allowing only 39 points.
Defense is at the heart of the Cavs' West Coast connection, some Cavs concepts being similar to what Egan taught at USD from 1984 through 1994.
"Sideline defense," is how Egan described it.
Egan, whose admirers include Bob Knight, learned sideline defense at the Air Force Academy under legendary coach Bob Spear. Later Egan would become Air Force's head coach and on his bench was Gregg Popovich, the defense-first coach who would guide the Spurs to four NBA titles, one with Egan on his bench.
"Sideline defense is the way we played defense," Egan said. "Now, it's called a bunch of names. We tried to keep the ball on one side of the floor and out of the middle as much as possible. Some coaches didn't want to give up the baseline -- we'd trap the ball on the baseline."
Egan said Brown played under superb coaches at Mesa Community College in Arizona, notably Tom Bennett, who never had a losing year in 19 seasons there. Bennett's son Randy, who coached under Egan at USD, led St. Mary's (Calif.) to its first Sweet Sixteen in March.
In two seasons at USD, Brown wasn't much of a ballhandler or a shooter. But the former military brat scrapped on the court and sponged off of it.
"He thought the game out," Egan said. "He wasn't just out there flying around. He wanted to know why we're doing this or doing that. He was building up a file of information to use down the line. The fact that he became a coach didn't surprise me. He's extremely organized. He's great at preparation. Attention to detail."
Brown moved into coaching as a graduate assistant under Egan. He reached the NBA as a video coordinator for then-Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff, a former USD coach. Later he apprenticed under esteemed defensive minds such as Popovich and Rick Carlisle, then with the NBA's Pacers, before taking over the Cavs in 2005.
It was Brown's good fortune to inherit James, then in his third NBA season.
But if Brown hadn't created a defensive culture within the Cavs, it's doubtful that his career win rate would be .663, or that Cleveland would've reached one NBA final and two Eastern Conference finals on his watch.
Brown made sure to learn well from the defensive wizards who coached him, said Grant, who played alongside him in 1991.
"Gregg Popovich is a future Hall of Fame coach," Grant said. "(Brown) had a unique opportunity from a pretty young age to be around some very good technical people from that side of the ball.
"Here," he added, "(defense) is one of our biggest staples. It's a priority and a lot of who we are."
Both Grant and Brown graduated from USD, Grant staying to get a graduate degree. Grant worked for nine years with the NBA's Hawks, rising to the assistant GM job. Cavs GM Danny Ferry hired him in 2005.
Grant recalled Brown as a popular teammate who communicated well.
"Along the way, he's grown so much." Grant said. "It's pretty amazing. A guy from a little place, the University of San Diego -- to go from that to this is pretty unique and special. Obviously he has done an outstanding job."