The Cleveland Cavaliers and head coach Mike Brown have been here before, if only because the franchise has unfolded in the exact same fashion only eight years prior.
An outgoing coach in former head coach Byron Scott, who arguably underwhelmed with a roster of young talent. A team defense that occasionally seems to hemorrhage points amidst abject confusion. A relatively new front office trying to reshape the face of the franchise in new directions.
Yep, we've been here before, even though the only constant has been Anderson Varejao's abundant 'fro.
Leading the bench hub toward the incoming NBA season once again, Brown's rehiring has been a topic of unwarranted divisive discussion. The scrutiny has been frequent and clear—that he's unable to orchestrate a functioning NBA offense, that he simply rode his superstar during his first stint in Cleveland and again in Los Angeles, that he couldn't win a title etc.
The Cavs did not hire Brown to be an offensive savant, nor is their roster as superstar-centric as it was before. Let the record show that Brown is no more guilty of the supposed vices of NBA head coaching than any other head coach in NBA history, and that, despite missed opportunities at raising a championship, Brown does understand how to create the one thing that Dan Gilbert and the rest of the Cavs community has sorely missed—a winning environment.
Without further ado, a breakdown of why Brown's hiring makes perfect sense for the Cavaliers.
One of the perceptual knocks against Coach Brown has been for his acumen (or lack thereof) for young player development.
Coming into the 2014 season, the Cavs look to start three under-25, top-four lottery picks—Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson—while bringing another No. 1 overall pick, rookie Anthony Bennett, off the bench as their sixth man. By comparison, Brown's first venture with the Cavs coincided with the arrival of exactly zero potential All-Star rookies. And of the players not-named-LeBron that Brown inherited outside of the draft, only one made any All-Star teams—then-26-year-old point guard Mo Williams, whose 2009 All-Star credential can be easily debunked.
However, in Brown's defense, the transactional history of the Cavs under general manager Danny Ferry was not exactly pristine. Trapped within the playoff race and a win-now mentality from upper management, the Cavs made liberal use of draft picks as trade bait for middling veteran journeymen and role players. The long road, as championed by the Oklahoma City Thunder and the current iteration of the Cavs, was never a considerable option; in fact, the highest the Cavs drafted under Ferry was 19th in 2008, for current-Denver Nugget power forward J.J. Hickson.
With that said, Brown nonetheless worked with what he had. He made remarkable strides in importing the Spurs' defensive system, on both the team and individual levels (as detailed below). He also enabled the Cavs' contributing rookies appropriate shares of playing time, rather than taking the curmudgeonly approach associated with his mentor.
For example: In 2007, Brown entrusted the 42nd overall pick, rookie Daniel Gibson, with 16 starts in lieu of veteran point guard Eric Snow. During that stretch, Gibson averaged 8.8 points on 53.9 percent shooting, and finished the regular season as the rookie leader in three-point shooting percentage at 41.9 percent. Brown's work with Gibson ultimately paid off in the playoffs, when he appeared in all 20 of the Cavs' postseason games, including a heroic stat line in the clincher over Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals: a career-high 31 points, including 5-of-5 shooting from behind the arc, 6 rebounds and 2 assists off the bench.
And then you have such endorsements as the following, with regard to Brown's return, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst:
'I'm happy for him, very happy for him,' [Lebron James] said Tuesday before Game 2 of the Heat's first-round series against Milwaukee. 'I think he's a really good coach, very defensive-minded coach. It'll be good for the young guys they have.'
If nothing else, Brown can claim to be the only head coach in the NBA with experience alongside both LeBron and Kobe Bryant.
To say that the Cavs' defense has suffered in the post-Decision era would be an understatement. Their defensive rating (DRtg for short)—a standardized measure of points allowed per 100 possessions—nosedived without any semblance of an orchestrated defensive scheme under former head coach Byron Scott, finishing 29th, 23rd and 26th in the league during Scott's three-year tenure.
Enter Mike Brown.
While the defense wasn't necessarily terrible in the two years under predecessors Paul Silas and Brendan Malone—DRtg's of 104.2 in 2004, 105.7 in 2005, good for 13th and 11th in the league respectively—it was Brown who developed the Cavs into a destructively effective two-way team.
Immediately, Brown earned the team eight more wins and the franchise's first trip into the postseason in eight seasons, where they were eliminated in a tough seven-game series vs. the Detroit Pistons. The following season, 2006-2007, the Cavs submitted arguably their most impressive defensive feat of the Mike Brown era—a DRtg of 101.3, good for second in the league, without a single All-Defensive member and limited rim protection from a rapidly declining Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The season doubled as the first (and only) time in franchise history that the Cavs won the Eastern Conference, following LeBron's coming-out party against the Pistons.
On the macro level, the Cavs were finally developing a sense of defensive unity. On the micro level, however, Brown's arrival also coincided with an immediate defensive growth in LeBron which didn't come into public recognition until three years later with his first election onto the NBA All-Defensive First Team. Per 82games.com, player efficiency ratings (PER) for small forwards opposite James dropped from 18.2 to 14.6 between the '05 and '06 seasons.
To put that 3.6 PER drop in perspective, the PER difference between LeBron and OKC's Kevin Durant last season was only 3.32 points. Extrapolate what you will from the possibility of Brown getting in the ears of Irving and Thompson.
Given the NBA's current personnel landscape, Brown's pedigree as a former assistant Coach Popovich should automatically qualify him for nearly any head coaching position. In fact, Brown's return to the Cavs marks one of five head coaching positions this season to be occupied by a student of Popovich's school of hard knocks—a fraternity which includes first-time head coaches Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks (assistant coach, 1996-2013) and Brett Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers (assistant coach, 2007-2013), New Orleans' Monty Williams (player, 1996-1998, and staff intern, 2005) and Orlando's Jacque Vaughn (player, 2006-2009, and assistant coach, 2010-2012).
But Brown is much more than just another Popovichian prodigy. Using the NBA's most archaic statistical measure of team success—i.e., wins—Brown's resume reveals some surprisingly elite company.
In his first go-around as Cavs head coach, Brown sported a win-loss record of 272-138 during the regular season and 42-29 in the postseason. His regular season win percentage of .663 would rank him fifth in NBA history among coaches with a minimum 400 games—ahead of such coaching legends as Red Auerbach (.662), Pat Riley (.636) and Chuck Daly (.593)—and his postseason percentage of .592 had him ranked 10th, minimum 25 games (he's since been leapfrogged by Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra).
Was rehiring Mike Brown the right choice?
Simply put, Brown knows how to win, even if his brief stint with the self-combusting Los Angeles Lakers suggested otherwise. He remains the Cavaliers' leader in playoff victories and playoff win percentage, with five consecutive trips past the first round in five years.
Considering the roster (talented but raw), fans (insert "God hates Cleveland" jokes here) and ownership (unhappy veteran of the NBA lottery), if Brown can bring back even a fraction of his former success, he will have been the perfect hire for the Cavs.