Mike Brown: Between 'The King' and a Hard Place
It also might be the most unenviable. Because if the Cavs win, it's because of James; if they lose, it's because ... well ... it's sure not going to be because of James.
Brown understands; he accepts his circumstances. But every time the Cavs lose a playoff game or move closer to losing a series, the hand-wringing grows more intense -- especially in a town starved for a title and edgy about the MVP's future. Every win or loss takes the team closer to a championship, or to James' free agency.
As a result, Brown's moves are scrutinized more closely and questioned more intently, and every game the pressure is ratcheted up exponentially. Working in that environment takes a personality that is centered, confident and secure. Brown -- an eminently good and humble man -- is all of that, and more. He will never turn himself into a self-proclaimed genius (don't expect Zen wisdom from him); it's simply not his personality or his style, and Brown is not the kind to make himself into something he's not.
That work environment also requires staunch support from the front office -- and Brown has had that from GM Danny Ferry and owner Dan Gilbert. But Ferry's contract is up this summer -- just like the two-time MVP's.
Consider the Game 4 loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals as case in point. After the loss, James intimated that Shaquille O'Neal should have played more in the fourth quarter. O'Neal evidently asked to go back in the game midway through the quarter, but Brown kept him on the bench. ESPN's analysts cried for Zydrunas Ilgauskas (no minutes the last two games) to get playing time. O'Neal didn't talk to the media after the game, and Monday neither James nor O'Neal spoke. Brown shrugged and said he'd expect a competitor like O'Neal to want to play.
Are these signs of fissures? Maybe, because the Cavs lost. All season O'Neal has accepted a secondary role, saying as long as the team is winning he's fine. He didn't play the final 11 minutes in Game 4 and the team didn't win. A win in Game 5 Tuesday night will quell disquiet -- if it exists -- but a loss turns the heat higher. Brown has had to to balance and juggle two gigantic egos and presences all season. He's done it adeptly. But in the playoffs, everything is magnified -- especially when the team he's coaching is the No. 1 seed for the second consecutive year.
Meanwhile, Brown watched his team get out-hustled and outworked in a vital game, to the point that Boston's 6-foot-1 point guard had 18 rebounds. A coach can do some things for his team -- maybe Ilgauskas should play and maybe the Cavs should run more high pick-and-rolls with Antawn Jamison -- but he can't change a thing if the players on the court do not make things work. Brown had nothing to do with the four turnovers and two blocked shots the Cavs had to start the fourth quarter, nothing to do with his team being out-rebounded and nothing to do with the fact that Boston ran by the Cavs like they were Usain Bolt.
When "the King" plays like one of his citizens, the Cavs will struggle. LeBron James was otherworldly in Game 3 but pedestrian in Game 4, with seven turnovers, poor shooting and one double-pump layup that hit the bottom of the rim. In the fourth quarter, James was passing on open shots to give the ball to teammates who were not coming through -- including one pass in a key late possession that resulted in James passing up a shot so Anderson Varejao could take a 17-foot jump shot.
James, though, will not be targeted with anger and blame after a loss; it's not tough to figure where those emotions go.
Part of Brown's problem now is the very reason the Cavs are in the playoffs as the East's top seed. In the 2009-10 season, the Cavs played long stretches without Mo Williams and O'Neal. Brown used different combinations and players -- even relying on Daniel Gibson to play point guard for a healthy stretch. He managed the roster deftly, to the point that the Cavs won more games than any team in the league. And yes, it certainly helped that James was a part of all combinations.
Those different combinations meant that for the first time in his career Brown went into the playoffs without a clear and defined substitution pattern. In past years, he would settle on a rotation two weeks prior to the playoffs, then go with it. He felt it was important that his players know their roles. This postseason, he was going to go by feel -- playing O'Neal if he needed size, playing J.J. Hickson if he needed speed and using different combos depending on how the game progressed.
Which, again, is fine as long as the team wins. When the team doesn't, the easiest thing to do is point to what Brown could have done. Or what the Cavs could have done. Their myriad possible combinations mean there is always another option that "could" or "should" have been used. Good luck with that reality.
O'Neal's situation perfectly illustrates the conundrum. O'Neal had a very good Game 4, but also missed some layups. He's also not a good free-throw shooter, so if he's on the floor in the final minutes of a close game the opponent will send him to the line. The lineup Brown used had chipped away at a 12-point Boston lead and had the the deficit to two with 4:34 left, so he stuck with it. It was logical, sensible, but it was questioned.
Brown is not stupid. He understands the reality in which he works. The Cavs love their coach, but should they lose to Boston it's anyone's guess what happens to the organization and the team -- to Ferry, Brown, James, O'Neal ... everyone.
The past two seasons, Brown has won more than 60 games. He took the Cavs to the Finals when they had Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic starting. He took Boston to seven games and the brink of elimination the year the Celtics won the title. He reached the East Finals last season, when he was the NBA's Coach of the Year.
He's a coach a lot of teams would love to have and would jump to hire. But with the Cavs, Mike Brown might not be able to win -- unless he wins.