Thursday, December 20, 2007

The King and his coach

Well into his third season with the Cavaliers, we figure we know a good amount about Mike Brown as a basketball coach.

He preaches defense above all else. He's a basketball bookworm well-versed in the X's and O's of the sport, a must for any successful coach. He realizes that the Cavs are a LeBrocracy and willingly takes a backset, adjusting his leadership style and temperament the best he can to suit his superstar.

Last year, Brown pushed enough right buttons to get a Cavs team with a less-than-elite roster to play elite defense for two months, enough to knock off the Pistons and reach the franchise's first-ever NBA Finals.

All in all, it would seem Mike Brown has most of the tools for success as an NBA coach. So as the 2007-08 Cavs season quickly devolves into a train wreck, we have to ask, "What gives?"

Everything Brown taught his players to believe in last year was lost over the summer. The Cavs departed Game 4 of the Finals as a scrappy bunch that played over their heads on defense. They arrived in training camp minus three major contributors -- two to contract holdouts and one to knee surgery -- but that doesn't offer much of an excuse for the remaining players who, outside of LeBron, showed that Brown's defensive principles of the previous spring had a retention rate of about two percent.

The Cavs are now one of the worst defensive teams in the league, serving up 105 points to the Nets and 108 to the Knicks, who are among the most stone-cold-awful offensive teams in the NBA.

it would be easy to chalk it all up to a terrible roster assembled by Danny Ferry. But it isn't quite that simple.

Yes, the Cavs have major flaws and an obvious talent deficiency compared to the NBA's true elite. That's an issue that goes back to the Jim Paxson regime and something I've addressed before. But the reason why this team plays with such mind-blowing inconsistency goes deeper than raw talent or lack thereof.

There is an apparent rift between Brown and his players, and it appears to be the sum of a coach with questionable teaching and motivational techniques pitted against a roster that follows the lead of their sometimes-moody, ego-driven superstar leader.

Brown is not a fool. Let's get that out of the way right now. He knows basketball, and he probably knows more about offense than anyone wants to credit him for. But there has been a long-standing question of if he can take his extensive basketball knowledge and make it palatable for his players.

Mike Brown is like Stephen Hawking lecturing you on the inner workings of quantum physics until your brain melts. That's not what a coach is supposed to do. A coach is supposed to take PhD-level basketball concepts and explain them in a short, sweet way that your garden-variety NBA jock can take and implement on the hardwood.

The best-laid plans do no good if all they do is bore the people who will carry out those plans to tears, or worse yet, fly straight over their heads in a flurry of five-dollar words and industry jargon.

The troubling this is, Brown has the right idea, but he might be presenting it in an unproductive way. Defense wins championships, and defense is the reason the Cavs made it to the championship round last spring. But Brown might have made a defense-first philosophy so unappealing to his players that they want to stick cotton in their ears to drown their coach out and run the floor.

Now, switch over to LeBron. He carries a lot of weight in the Cavs organization. I mean, a LOT. More weight than one player should probably carry in a healthy organization. But, by being leaps-and-bounds the best player in the until-recently-forgettable history of the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron is the strongest voice in the locker room, on the court and in the front office.

If he gets frustrated with his coach, the whole roster gets frustrated with their coach. If he doesn't see eye-to-eye with Brown, nobody in uniform sees eye-to-eye with Brown.

LeBron is quite possibly the most talented offensive player in the game right now. Obviously, he wants a system that plays to his strengths: Passing, driving and court vision. Brown has implemented that kind of system ... sort of. He erected a basic template that calls for LeBron to get the ball up top, utilize screens, suck the defense in and have the option to either kick the ball out or power to the hoop for a layup, dunk or foul.

But it's all predicated on expending loads of energy getting defensive stops, something LeBron doesn't always deem necessary. LeBron doesn't think every uptempo opportunity should have to stem from the transition game. Obviously, a roster of offense-minded players like Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas would be inclined to agree with their court leader.

LeBron wants a team that is as comfortable winning in the 110s as in the 80s, and might actually prefer to win on the plus side of the century mark. Brown wants no part of that; triple-digit scores make him cringe because they reflect a second-rate defensive effort. His ideal final score is something like 84-78, with the opposing team shooting 29 percent from the floor.

Almost two and a half years into Brown's tenure, and the rift never totally disappears. Temporary truces have been called, as one was last spring, but only to benefit the greater good of a playoff run.

The Cavs are now back to their default setting of offense-minded roster led by an offense-minded superstar butting heads with a defense-minded coach. The Cavs, under this current setup, will probably never truly embrace defense as their calling card, as so many great teams have in the past. And Brown will never accept a cold-weather version of the Phoenix Suns sprinting up and down the floor on his watch.

So the standoff continues. At some point, the Cavs might lose enough games that one side or the other will crack.

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