For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that there are four equally important components to being a successful NBA coach: formulating good offensive strategies, formulating good defensive strategies, understanding how to deal with superstars and understanding how to deal with non-superstars.
Whether or not it’s fair to oversimplify coaching at the highest level of basketball in that way is debatable (there’s also dealing with media, expectations, ownership, etc.), but it happens to be the best way to understand why there is purportedly so much acrimony in the L.A. Lakers locker room when it comes to Mike Brown’s style.
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Following the Lakers’ most recent embarrassing loss to the Washington Wizards, Ramona Shelburne of ESPN dropped this bomb on Tinseltown:
“…sources told ESPNLosAngeles.com this week that there is growing concern among some Lakers players as to whether first-year coach Mike Brown and his staff have the X-and-O wherewithal to fix a Lakers offense that is averaging its lowest per-game point total (94) since before the advent of the 24-second shot clock in 1954-55.
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"Brown's effect on the Lakers' defense has been undeniable, but sources say the team's ongoing struggles on the road -- with L.A. dropping to 6-14 away from Staples Center following a loss in Detroit and blowing a 21-point lead to the undisciplined Wizards -- have some veterans longing for a return to the trusty Triangle offense preferred by Brown's predecessor, Phil Jackson."
There is a legitimate case to be made that of the four general things you need in order to to be a successful NBA coach, Brown fails on three of them.
His early goal of featuring an Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol-centric offense, the one that was supposed to be sort of like the San Antonio Spurs’ Twin Towers offense from back in the day, has been reduced to a disheveled mash-up of Kobe Bryant ballhogging, his two big men not getting enough touches, and everyone else getting in the way of the three aforementioned players. As it stands, L.A. is 21st in the league in scoring with a paltry 94 points per game and 30th in three-point shooting. This squad, on a nightly basis, essentially lives or dies depending whether Bryant is shooting above or below 40 percent from the field.
And, of course, this plays into the preconceived notion everyone had coming into this season about Brown not being a great offensive coach. The question is: How accurate is that idea? For that let’s go to John Krolik, who previewed what this year would hold for Lakers fans with ESPN as soon as Brown’s hiring was announced:
The Cavaliers were very good offensively in Brown's last two seasons -- in fact, they had a better offensive efficiency mark than the Lakers did in '09-'10, and finished one tenth of a point per 100 possessions in '08-'09.
Brown developed a reputation as a bad offensive coach when his starting backcourt was Eric Snow and Larry Hughes. Show me a coach who can run a good offense with that backcourt, and I'll show you a miracle worker.
In later seasons, Brown was criticized for having his offense be too LeBron-centric, but if LeBron wasn't being featured in every possession offensively in some way, that would have been idiotic. What was he supposed to do, rely on Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, or an ancient Shaquille O'Neal as his primary playmakers? As we saw this season, there was not a lot of offensive talent on that roster, and the loss of Shaq, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Delonte West didn't make a ton of difference, either.
Also, the Cleveland offense was more complex than most give it credit -- there were back-screen threes on corner dives, scissor-cuts out of the high post, post sets that involved LeBron drawing a double and passing back out to force rotation, and an unstoppable decoy pick-and-roll play I nicknamed "The Kracken." So Brown's offense wasn't actually simple, it was just built completely around LeBron, and the reasons should be obvious. The bottom line is Brown developed a bad offensive reputation when there was no shooting or playmaking around LeBron in his first few seasons as a head coach, and it stuck because reputations tend to stick. Show me the players who have become significantly better offensively after leaving a Mike Brown team...
If Brown was so bad at using the tools he had, why didn't any of those tools play better after escaping from his offense?
That last bit of logic can be applied to the here and now. If you were to take Brown out and replace him with any head coach in the league not named Phil Jackson – would the end result be any different? Could someone else effectively utilize Metta World Peace, whose career low 5.5 points per game are three points lower than the 8.5 points per game that he averaged in 2010-11 which were two and a half points lower than the 11 points per game he averaged in 2009-10? Peace’s career was on the decline when Brown came to L.A., and it would have been the same story under any other coach.
Similarly, could another coach possibly do more with the likes of Derek Fisher, Troy Murphy, Andrew Goudelock or Josh McRoberts than Brown is currently doing? Probably not.
And while the Lakers’ offensive production is noticeably down from last year, it’s also worth noting that the loss of Lamar Odom plays a pretty huge role in that. Odom was inarguably this team’s most versatile player and a key to making the offense run smoothly. When you couple his loss with the veteran players essentially having to learn a new offensive scheme, you see why there would be a dropoff.
Not that any of that is an excuse. The Lakers offense is broken, that much is certain. But the question of whether it’s an issue of personnel or play calling is very debatable. Unfortunately, whereas you could probably give Brown a pass if poor offensive strategizing was this team’s only major hole – it’s not the only major hole.
Beyond the Xs and Os, Brown has shown a certain inability to connect with both his superstars and his non-superstars.
Early on, he and Bryant were said to have developed some sort of fondness for one another because of their seemingly identical tireless work ethic; now it’s starting to look like the relationship is something entirely different. Really, the relationship is mostly just Brown being Bryant’s yes-man and sitting by idly as his superstar takes four more shots per game than the next closest guy (Kevin Durant) in the league, despite the fact that he shoots six percentage points less. This of course is eerily reminiscent of Brown’s relationship with LeBron James. You remember, the one where the superstar also got free reign to do as he pleased no matter what.
Just a reminder of James’ history with Brown, via Shaquille O’Neal’s book (from Hoopsworld):
"LeBron was a huge star. He was as big as I was in 2000 in L.A. when I was dominating the league. … Our coach, Mike Brown, was a nice guy, but he had to live on edge because nobody was supposed to be confrontational with LeBron. Nobody wanted him to leave Cleveland, so he was allowed to do whatever he wanted to do.
"I remember one day in a film session LeBron didn’t get back on defense after a missed shot. Mike Brown didn’t say anything about it. He went to the next clip and it was Mo Williams not getting back and Mike was saying, 'Yo, Mo, we can’t have that. You’ve got to hustle a little more.' So Delonte West is sitting there and he’s seen enough and he stands up and says, 'Hold up, now. You can’t be pussyfooting around like that. Everyone has to be accountable for what they do, not just some of us.' Mike Brown said, 'I know, Delonte. I know.' Mike knew Delonte was right..."
Granted, these circumstances are slightly different than those were, but the general concept remains the same: Brown doesn’t take an authoritative role when it comes to his big name guys. That would actually be O.K. if he had a Phil Jackson vibe to him where he could manipulate his stars into doing what he wants via Jedi Mind Tricks – but he doesn’t have that skill either.
Following the Wizards loss, after Bryant managed to shoot 57 times in his last two games, Brown finally put his foot down regarding the ridiculous shot selection on display. Too bad it came 39 games into this compressed season. Via the L.A. Times:
"'He took some difficult shots that allowed those guys to come up with long rebounds and push the ball down the floor and get some easy baskets,' Brown told reporters. 'He was one of those guys that I did not think took great shots in the second half.'
"The Lakers' coach set an unsettling precedent two months ago when he vehemently defended Bryant's six-of-26 clip in a New Year's Day loss to Detroit. Brown said he mostly remained fine with his shots, even though Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined to shoot 60% in that game. Brown pointed out Bryant's torn ligament in his right wrist -- not much of an excuse, considering Bryant could've chosen to pass the ball and get others more involved. Brown faulted himself for not setting Bryant up in his sweet spots along the post and elbows."
So Brown has been ineffective as it applies to offensive strategizing this year (though it’s debatable whether it’s a personnel or play calling issue) and he’s failed to effectively handle his superstar.
How has he done managing his other, non-superstar players? Not especially well. First, he and Peace had a pretty well-publicized tiff earlier in the year. A couple of the gems from that:
"His background is video coordinator or whatever. So he's all stats," World Peace told CBSsports.com. "But Ron Artest is all feel. [Brown] doesn't understand that. Having me in the game at the end, he was worried about me shooting bad from the free-throw line. And I was like, 'I could care less because I'm gonna get a stop [defensively] at the end of the game,'"
To which Brown responded:
"I said . . . 'If I was a stats guy, Metta, you wouldn't be playing at all. Look at your stats offensively. And then Synergy [Sports Technology] says you're the 192nd-best defensive player in the league,'" Brown said. "If I was a stats guy, the guy that should be playing at the small-forward spot is Devin Ebanks because he's shooting better than you and Matt.”
Beyond the problems with Peace, though, Brown has also been sort of unfair to Gasol and Bynum. By enabling Bryant to do whatever he wanted to do despite the fact that his two big men are far more efficient offensive options, he’s diminished his own stature with those guys. Bynum and Gasol aren’t superstars, per se, but they’re two of the more respected big men in the game and should probably be treated as such. And he hasn't exactly made any of the other roleplayers shine or play above their heads like you'd want to see a new coach be able to.
So when it comes to effectively handling the non-superstars this year, Brown has failed in that regard as well.
Undoubtedly his biggest achievement thus far in the season has been getting this Lakers group to play solid, ferocious defense. As it stands, this squad is 7th in points allowed per game, 10th in total defensive rebounding, second in opponents field goal percentage and fifth in opponents three-point percentage.
Brown has already proven that his defensive success back in Cleveland wasn’t just the byproduct of James being a freak of nature and everyone else falling in line; he’s actually an excellent defensive coach. Unfortunately, his performance when it comes to instituting a good offense (which again, may not be entirely his fault) and his inability to handle his superstars as well as his non-superstars has left a lot to be desired. And it’s also why this revolt or whatever it is being staged against him makes sense. It’s hard to trust a coach who hasn’t a.) proven himself or b.) earned your respect.
This guy has done neither.
Things could change in a heartbeat in L.A. With or without a trade, the Lakers’ style is actually far better suited for the grind-it-out tempo of the postseason than it is for the regular season. With even a minor tweak at point guard (which will probably happen) and maybe the addition of another scorer off the bench, this team could legitimately compete to come out of the West and eventually get clobbered by the Miami Heat this year.
For now, though, a cloud hangs over the Lakers’ locker room. And when a cloud hangs over your locker room the media feeds into it and makes the problem ten times worse.
If L.A.’s fortunes change, everyone will adjust accordingly. But in order for them to change Brown has to be the one to change them. Calling out Bryant for shooting too much was a good start.
More of that, please.
There is still time to right this ship – let’s see if Brown has what it takes to make that happen.