Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The right hire

You always think you can do better than Mike Brown. Maybe that’s why fans around town have been resistant to the idea of Brown returning as head coach of the Cavs, which reportedly will be made official on Wednesday. Brown and the Cavs agreed to a five-year deal on Tuesday.

Brown’s coaching style is far from Showtime, which is perhaps why his brief stint on the Lakers sideline seemed to have an oil/water dynamic to it. He preaches defense as the be-all, end-all in the game of basketball. In Brown’s system, the offensive opportunities you get are predicated on converting defensive stops into points. Offense is still the end, but defense is the means, and to Brown, the end justifies the means.

His offensive sets are generally lacking in creativity. He tolerates stand-and-dribble stagnation for way too long at times. He lets the offense stall out. He relies on star players to freelance their way to points, as opposed to running intricate play sets.

In short, offense simply matter less to Brown. He’s primarily concerned with keeping the other team off the board. He figures if that happens, it will lead to transition points, and the offense will take care of itself.

For five years, it was a maddening approach to basketball for a fan base that wanted to see LeBron James unleash the full wrath of his talents on the opposition. For a fan base that wanted to see what the most talented player in the history of the game could be like in the hands of an offensive visionary. Or at least a coach who would run the offense through a point guard and force LeBron to move without the ball.

That’s why you always think you can do better than Mike Brown.

In 2010, with the Cavs reeling from a stunning second-round playoff dismissal at the hands of the Celtics and LeBron’s free agency merely weeks away, the Cavs brass thought they could do better than Brown, too. They fired Brown, and Dan Gilbert set about wooing Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, a flirtation that lasted for about a week, before Izzo pulled back and returned to East Lansing, probably because he sensed that LeBron’s defection was likely.

Brown’s termination was a last-ditch effort to appease LeBron by attempting to hire a big-name coach – an effort that failed miserably, and was probably doomed to fail from the outset.

But even after LeBron made his departure official, the Cavs still thought they had an improvement over Brown. A week before “The Decision,” the Cavs hired Byron Scott, a coach who took the Nets to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003, a coach who is credited as a major influence in the development of Chris Paul into an elite point guard.

When the Cavs drafted Kyrie Irving in 2011, we all thought they had the perfect coach to groom him. Scott was a former star guard with three rings as a player, who had been in the huddle with the likes of Paul and Jason Kidd as a coach. If anybody could speak the same language as Kyrie, surely it was Scott.

Scott was fired last week after 166 losses in three years. Kyrie has begun to develop into an elite point guard, but his repeated injuries, lack of defensive intensity and early-season admission that he takes plays off at times would seem to indicate that he doesn’t yet have a full grasp of what it takes to become great in the NBA.

So where would the Cavs look to find the coach who can get the most out of Kyrie and the other youngsters on the roster? Nobody outside the Cavs organization wanted to look at Brown. The dreamers among us wanted the Cavs to go all-in on Phil Jackson. But Jackson reportedly doesn’t want to coach anymore, and even if he did, he’ll turn 68 in September and has proven everything he could possibly prove in his career. What are the odds the Cavs would get more out of him than the Browns got out of Mike Holmgren?

Fifty percent of semi-retired Phil Jackson for two or three years isn’t enough to vault the Cavs into contention. He was a “be careful what you wish for” candidate, no matter what the record-setting resume might say.

The Cavs thought differently about Brown. After having one of the best defenses in the league for the balance of the LeBron years, the Cavs -- albeit in a rebuilding phase with a much younger roster -- regressed mightily in the three years Scott ran the team.

Dan Gilbert and Chris Grant, always good friends with Brown, perhaps started to realize what they were missing. They were missing a defensive mindset, but more than that, they were missing a team identity. Brown, if nothing else, can forge that identity.

The irony is, as soon as the Cavs fired Brown and LeBron defected to Miami, the Cavs set about building the type of team that could have used Brown's steadfast focus on fundamentals. Brown, at his heart, is a teaching coach, and he's at his best when molding wet clay. That was the state of the team at the outset of his first tenure, and it's the state of the team now.

From 2005 to '08, Brown was the right coach for the Cavs. Thanks in no small part to Brown's tutelage, LeBron is now one of the league's best defenders. LeBron would never have become a dominant two-way player if not for Brown.

Brown's defense set the stage for the Cavs run to the Finals in 2007, with a roster that was nowhere near Finals-caliber. In subsequent years, he took an eclectic mish-mash of players who were anything but great on-ball defenders -- Mo Williams comes to mind -- and molded them into a top-three defensive team.

Under Brown, the Cavs were an excellent interior defensive team, despite the fact that he was working with the slow, aging and plodding legs of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace and Shaquille O'Neal. The special sauce to his interior defense was Anderson Varejao, who figures to be the only holdover from Brown's first tenure after Daniel Gibson most likely departs via free agency this summer. Varejao blossomed into one of the best help defenders within Brown's help-and-recover system, which Brown learned while serving as an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio.

Brown is simply one of the best defensive tacticians in the game. But the Cavs job evolved away from him over the final two years, highlighting another of his weak areas.

Where Brown has shown a shortcoming, other than in his offensive playbook, is in his management of large egos. He isn't a dominant enough personality to rein in the likes of LeBron, and he certainly didn't exert a commanding presence with Kobe Bryant, or any of the Lakers' complement of stars, during his year and five games at the helm in L.A.

By the 2009-10 season, the Cavs were full of veteran egos, and the coaching job was best-suited for a psychologist-coach -- one who could play politics, massage egos and rebuke challenges to his authority by world-famous superstars. Brown couldn't hold that type of team together. The same was true in L.A. It cost him both jobs.

But the idea of the Cavs getting back to that point, with a contending, veteran, star-laden roster, is strictly a matter of "if." If Kyrie continues to develop into a superstar. If LeBron at some point finds himself in a Cavs uniform again. If Grant can pull off a major trade to land impact veteran talent.

The Cavs have to hire a coach for the team they have right now. A team with a talented, but very young and still fairly raw backbone.

You always think you can do better than Mike Brown. But here's guessing Gilbert and Grant realized, over the past three years, that it's an assumption based on image, and a dash of familiarity breeding contempt.

Brown hasn't won a championship as a coach. But there are only four active coaches who have. What Brown does have is a virtually-unbroken record of success in six seasons as a head coach. He's won 65 percent of his games (314-167 career record), and has two 50-win seasons, two 60-win seasons and a Finals berth on his resume. His teams have finished with a winning percentage above .600 in five of the six seasons -- the lone exception being the 45-37 Cavs of 2007-08 (.549). You could try to give LeBron the lion's share of the credit for those numbers, but even LeBron can't lug a team that far without a system that works.

If you can do better than Brown, you can't do much better. And for a battered Cavs franchise still looking for post-LeBron daylight, Brown might prove to be the best possible hire they could have made.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Identity crisis

Byron Scott’s coaching record in three Cavs season was 64-166 – a .278 winning percentage. It is the worst winning percentage for any Cavs coach who patrolled the sideline for at least one full season.

It’s worse than Bill Fitch (.412), who presided over a half-decade of expansion-era futility in early ‘70s, before the Miracle of Richfield gave the franchise its first taste of respectability. It’s worse that Bill Musselman, a Ted Stepien hire (.287).

It’s worse than Randy Wittman (.378), John Lucas (.298) or Paul Silas (.473).

The NBA is a business driven by wins and losses, and if you’re a coach who has too much of the latter and not enough of the former, you’re not going to hang onto your job.

That’s the simplest explanation for why Scott was fired on Thursday.

Even though the Cavs were most definitely in a rebuilding mode, where talent acquisition and player development takes precedence over winning for winning’s sake, wins still equal progress. If a young team wins games, it means the players are doing enough right to get leads and hang onto them until the final buzzer.

Scott’s teams raced out to leads, but repeatedly fell apart in the fourth quarter – most infamously after holding a 27-point second-half lead against Miami in late March, a loss that certainly rubbed the fan base the wrong way, and probably didn’t win Scott any additional support in the Cavs inner sanctum.

Way too often, the Cavs were caught with a collective deer-in-headlights stare when the time came to prove their mettle and put a game in the win column. And if you peel back the onion layers on Scott’s tenure, that’s the real reason why the Cavs will be searching for a new coach this spring.

It’s three years post-LeBron, and the Cavs are still searching for an on-court identity. Scott tried to install some form of the Princeton ball-motion offense, but too often, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters were left to freelance. Tristan Thompson seldom, if ever, had plays run through him. The center position was an offensive black hole once Anderson Varejao was lost for the season.

Scott tolerated random barrages of three-point chucking, even when the shots weren’t falling. Big men seldom tried to establish position on the left block. In short, the playbook might have had plays worth running, but the offense lacked a rudder.

But the offensive woes were nothing when compared to the utter lack of defensive presence Scott’s teams exhibited. Even when Varejao was healthy and snagging 15-20 rebounds a game, the team defense was shoddy. The Cavs defended the paint with nary more than a swinging saloon door. Kyrie received ample flack for his lack of defensive instincts, but his problems were symptomatic of a larger condition. Perimeter players frequently used poor judgment, gambling on steals in passing lanes, playing off their man for fear of getting burned, but leaving way too much operating space in the process.

The defense was quite simply a fundamental train wreck. And it was getting worse, not better.

Mike Brown (who ironically might emerge as a candidate), understood the basic concept of defense creating a product that is better than the sum of its parts. A team with overall mediocre talent can win games, make the playoffs, and even advance deep into the postseason, if they play great team defense.  If you need any evidence, I present to you the 2007 Eastern Conference champion Cavs, with a starting lineup of LeBron James, Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Yes, that team got to the NBA Finals on the coattails of an epic Game 5 performance in the conference finals by LeBron, and Bucky Dent-esque performance from Daniel Gibson in the Game 6 clincher, but that team, with those players, won 50 games and three playoff rounds because they played defense at a high level. That was not a 50-win roster, let alone a conference championship roster.

You want the quickest way to return the Cavs to respectability? It’s probably by stopping the other team from putting the ball in the basket. And it’s something that Scott’s team simply wasn’t doing.

Everyone in the Cavs front office knows it. If Dan Gilbert’s statement to the media on Thursday is any indication, the next Cavs coach will be a defensive stickler:

“It has been our strong and stated belief that when our team once again returns to competing at the NBA's highest levels it will be because we have achieved our goals on the defensive side of the court.”

Of course, this isn’t all on Scott. Young teams are highly inconsistent and frequently stumble backwards as often as they stride forward. Compound that with injuries, which relentlessly assailed the Cavs over the past three years, and Scott wasn’t put in the best position to succeed.

But the basketball truism says defense travels with the team. So does a well-orchestrated offense. The backups play the starters in practice every day, so the guys coming off the bench are as grounded in the system as the guys who run onto the floor amid smoke and pyrotechnics during the opening introductions.

Maybe Scott was burned out by coaching the team through loss after loss. Maybe there was friction in the locker room. Maybe Scott’s personality is more tailored for coaching a self-starting veteran team instead of a young team that needs constant maintenance. Whatever the reason, if he had a grand vision for what the Cavs could become, it was never realized. It never really hatched out of the egg, for that matter.

The Cavs now embark on an extremely important offseason. They need to find a coach who can reach this team’s collection of impressionable young players and put them on a path to becoming a well-oiled offensive – and especially defensive – machine.

They need to add more talent, and not all of it straight from the draft. There isn’t much value in making this team even younger. GM Chris Grant probably needs to orchestrate at least one major veteran acquisition this summer.

When the Cavs take the floor with their new coach and their tuned-up roster next fall, they need to be a playoff team from the first game – and a fairly strong playoff team at that. At this stage, after three years of putrid basketball, squeaking in as the eighth seed on the last day of the season doesn’t cut it. The Cavs need to become an above-.500-and-rising team, capable of competing for a middle seed, and maybe even make some noise in the race for homecourt advantage in the first round.

And to do that, they need an identity. Dan and Chris, it’s your move.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In the back of your mind

Whoever plotted and carried out Monday’s bomb attack near the finish line of the Boston Marathon did their homework. If you’re going to attack a large sporting event, it’s hard to find an event more vulnerable than a marathon.

The vast majority of sporting events take place within the confines of a venue. Stadiums, arenas, even golf courses, have gates and gatekeepers. Security officials can keep a reasonably close eye on who comes in and who goes out. Bags can be checked, metal detectors can be installed, suspicious items can be confiscated.

Marathons take place in the streets. In the case of very large marathons, like Boston’s, hundreds of thousands of spectators line the streets to watch tens of thousands of runners. The crowd condenses near the finish line, as spectators pack into any available space to watch the winners break the tape, and watch friends and family members cover the final few hundred yards to the finish.

They stand five and 10 deep or more. They climb onto benches and light pole bases to get a better view. Children sit on the shoulders of their parents. It’s a celebration. It’s also a nightmare for anyone in charge of ensuring public safety.

With countless people packed into a small space, the opportunity is readily available for a person with nefarious intentions to hide in plain sight, plant a device, and slip away down an alley or through a building. That is reportedly what happened Monday, as the perpetrator (or perpetrators) allegedly dropped shrapnel bombs in garbage cans lining the race’s home stretch on Boylston Street, near Boston’s Copley Square. Two bombs detonated in rapid succession around 2:45 p.m., about an hour after the winner had crossed the finish line. Two more explosive devices were reportedly found nearby, undetonated.

The explosions injured hundreds of spectators, many critically or seriously. As of Tuesday morning, three people had died.

The attack was a manifestation of physical violence, but we know that terrorism is, at its bare essence, psychological warfare. It doesn’t matter if the perpetrator is of foreign or domestic origin, the intent is clearly stated in the root word: terror. And when we’re jolted out of our relatively peaceful American existence by an attack like this, the terrorists accomplish their mission. We may go on with our daily lives as usual, but our hearts beat a little faster, we tread into unsure situations with more caution, we worry more about the safety of ourselves and our loved ones.

You can’t fly on a plane anymore without the suggestion of 9/11 slithering around somewhere in your gray matter. It’s because you now know there are organizations out there capable of hijacking planes and flying them into buildings. Though you also know our national airline security procedures are much more sophisticated than they were prior to Sept. 11, 2001, the “what if” still lingers.

You can’t see your kids off to school without thinking, at least now and again, about Columbine or Sandy Hook. You can’t watch your college student depart for the new semester without remembering Virginia Tech, even if it’s only for a few minutes before you chase the thoughts away and get on with your day.

Now the same thing has happened in the sporting sphere, and to the running community in particular.

I am a runner. I’ve been running in organized races since 2009, and have six half-marathons to my credit since 2011. I’ve never run a full marathon and have no plans to, and even if I did, I wouldn’t come close to qualifying for Boston – a race prestigious enough that you can’t merely sign up for it. You need to post a “Boston qualifier” time at another sanctioned race in order to even toss your hat in the ring for the Boston Marathon.

But the shockwaves from Monday will almost certainly reverberate at races throughout the country from here forward. Next month, I’m registered to run the Flying Pig half marathon in Cincinnati, and two weeks later, the Rite Aid Cleveland half.

No other race has publicly responded to the events in Boston as of yet, but I’m anticipating much tighter security at next month’s races. I’m anticipating a much more prominent police presence, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs. I’m anticipating mailboxes, trash cans and other sidewalk collection devices to be locked down, removed or otherwise guarded.

I’m anticipating a zero-tolerance policy regarding unattended bags and coolers. If you want to see a pack of runners approaching from up the street, you had better take your belongings with you, even if you’re only moving 100 feet.

At the finish line, I’m anticipating far more stringent crowd control – security shooing people away before large crowds can develop and a drastic increase in the amount of restricted area. Metal detectors? Not out of the question.

Runners, usually herded through the finish-line corral quickly in order to prevent bottlenecks, might be sped along even faster, receiving a terse warning from race security if they linger for more than a few seconds.

All in all, I anticipate the runner’s high of the finish line to be replaced by something more white-knuckled, much like what has happened to the experience of flying. It used to be a luxury. It used to be a fun way to travel. Now, you proceed through the TSA checkpoint, proceed to your gate, get on the plane, fly, get the off the plane, collect your bags and get out of the airport as quickly as possible. Most people do not count flying as an enjoyable experience anymore.

Monday’s bombing was designed to shed blood and kill, and it did. But more than that, it was designed to plant the seeds of fear and doubt in our heads. And it did that, too. For runners and spectators alike, races will be more controlled, more policed, burdened with more procedures and more rules, more inconveniences, more things you’re not allowed to do, bring or say, and overall, deliver an experience that is all the less enjoyable.

That’s what the perpetrators of Monday’s attack have taken away from us. Terror attacks won’t make us hide under our beds, but they fill our lives with more fear and more rules. That contributes to the degradation of our society as much as anything. And that’s exactly what terrorists want.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Not time for the axe ... yet

No one needs to rehash the gory details of the Cavs’ performance over the past three years. Since LeBron departed in 2010, the team has lost a lot more than it’s won, and has seemingly found itself cornered by the injury bug at every turn.

Even with the constant injuries to Anderson Varejao, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and others, the losing is by design, for now at least. The Cavs have spent two years trying to build a nucleus through the lottery, and will add another lottery pick to the roster in a couple of months. You gather lotto balls by losing games, and you lose games by stripping the roster down, playing youngsters and packing the bench with low-cost (read: not very good) veterans.

When you have two rookies and two sophomores in the everyday starting lineup, the undrafted Alonzo Gee rounding out the starting five, and a bench that has, for the entire season, employed the likes of bald-treaded Luke Walton and chucker-extraordinaire C.J. Miles, it’s simply not a team designed to win.

The Cavs’ fortunes took a minor upswing when the team acquired Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington in January. Combined with December free-agent signee Shaun Livingston, they gave the Cavs their first real bench since the final years of LeBron, and the team ended February 7-5, its first winning month in a long time.

But the injury bug bit yet again, Speights’ attitude took a nosedive, and the Cavs are presently crawling down the home stretch of a third straight season that can’t end fast enough.

Through all of the post-LeBron teardown and rebuild, the man patrolling the sideline has been head coach Byron Scott. He’s now a man under fire, and many among the fans and media say deservedly so.

The team is losing. The losses aren’t giving way to wins with any consistency. The team’s defense has been lukewarm at best, nonexistent at worst. And the defense seems to keep redefining the reference point for “worst.”

As Jason Lloyd noted in the Akron Beacon Journal, an early February Dan Gilbert tweet about the Cavs reclaiming their defensive identity, and rumblings from the player ranks, have done nothing to increase Scott’s  apparent hold on his job.

This week, Tristan Thompson went public with emphatic support for Scott, but is his attitude indicative of the rest of the locker room, or is he a rogue loyalist? Outsiders can only speculate.

To an objective observer who hasn’t tried to root for this team the past three years, firing Scott is the pinnacle of injustice. When Scott agreed to become the head coach of the Cavs, LeBron hadn’t yet defected to Miami. He signed with the Cavs primarily because the job carried the possibility of coaching a contender.

When LeBron took his talents to Hurricane Alley, nobody could have faulted Scott for pulling a Billy Donovan and backing out a week later. Donovan was the coach of the Orlando Magic for less than a week in 2007, before backing out and returning to the University of Florida.

But Scott stayed. He embraced the rebuilding project. He stuck it out with a team that he knew had no chance of making the playoffs, let alone contend for a title, in the near-to-medium future.

The question is on the tip of any objective observer’s tongue: Who could have done better? Who could have taken this roster and put it in a position to win more games? Phil Jackson isn’t walking through that door. Nor is Gregg Popovich.

Irving and Thompson have improved – some would say dramatically -- from their rookie to their sophomore years. Prior to his knee injury, Dion Waiters had played his way into the outskirts of the rookie of the year conversation, winning rookie of the month honors in February. On an individual level, the players who were drafted to comprise the backbone of the future have improved on Scott’s watch.

But it hasn’t translated to wins. And wins are the barometer of success or failure in the NBA. As long as the Cavs keep losing, the individual improvement of young players will only matter to a point.

The stage is being set, but at some point, the curtain has to go up.

That time is next season. With up to four top-five picks on the roster by then, Irving and Thompson entering their third years, Waiters and Tyler Zeller entering their second years, and the cap space to make a major move, the 2013-14 edition of the Cavs should enter the season as a playoff contender. 

I’d go so far as to say, with a healthy Irving emerging as one of the league’s superstars, the Cavs should contend for a top four seed in the paper-thin Eastern Conference. It’s not too much to ask the Cavs to recover a lot of ground in one year. A jump from the 25-win range to the 45-win range in one year isn’t outlandish, given the teams they’d have to hurdle.

It’s not fair to make Scott the fall guy for the smoking crater that has been the last three years of Cavs basketball. But it is fair to pull the plug on the “losing for lotto balls” portion of the rebuild after this season. It is fair to demand a Cavs team that makes the playoffs with room to spare next spring. And if those things don’t happen, it is fair, at that point, for Grant and Scott to start facing a lot of questions as to exactly when we can anticipate this rebuilding project to start bearing fruit.

If Grant makes the moves he needs to make this summer, Scott deserves at least the 2013 portion of next season’s schedule before he faces a serious threat of losing his job. If Grant doesn’t make those moves, his feet should be the ones on the hot coals, right along with Scott’s.

The Cavs were put in this situation by the defection of one player. Digging out of the situation has been a team effort. If the Cavs are once again one of the league’s bottom-feeding teams next season, Scott might indeed get the axe. But if the Cavs are once again a league bottom-feeder next year, bad coaching is likely only the tip of the iceberg. The Cavs, at that point, would have much more serious and systemic problems on their hands.