There are probably hundreds of reasons why LeBron James will never return to the Cleveland Cavaliers when he hits free agency this summer, but Mike Brown's presence on the sidelines is probably the biggest one of all.
The T-shirts are a nice idea, but in sticking with the apparel theme, it's really the guy in the suit who'll keep James from considering a return.
At a very basic level, the fact that Brown is currently coaching the Cavaliers can only remind James of the struggles he faced during his time in Cleveland. Admittedly, it's odd to say LBJ's time under Brown was difficult when all five of the years in which the two were part of the Cavs included playoff berths.
But compared to the success James has enjoyed in Miami, and the comparative ease with which he has achieved it, the designation fits.
Having seen the other side, James won't want anything to do with rehashing a past experiment that ultimately resulted in his departure from Cleveland.
Brown's presence makes James' return little more than a pipe dream.
Brown has earned a reputation as a competent defensive coach, but nothing on his resume indicates that he's anything close to decent as an offensive mind. This year, the Cavaliers have posted an offensive rating of 94.9 that ranks third-worst in the league, per NBA.com. Basically, we're seeing what happens when Brown can't lean on a superstar like LeBron to generate points.
Kyrie Irving is one of the most talented, dynamic scorers on the planet, and he's got useful pieces around him. Yet for all that, Brown's Cavaliers look like a total wreck on offense.
James single-handedly kept Cleveland's attack afloat under Brown, but even back then, it was obvious that the Cavs lacked a cohesive scheme. Grantland's Bill Simmons asked a pertinent question way back in 2009:
Just watched Celts highlights. 1 on 5 Cavs offense yet again. Poor LeBron. When is Mike Brown's house going on the market?— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) October 28, 2009
A few short months after that, the Cavaliers cut ties with Brown in a clear effort to appease a frustrated James.
LeBron James didn't need to call for Mike Brown's firing in private meetings with owner. His public second-guessing in playoffs did the job.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 24, 2010
Unfortunately for Cleveland fans, Brown's firing wasn't enough to keep LeBron in town.
Nowadays, James is showing real maturity and class when faced with questions about his former coach. The fact that he can endorse a man who basically ran him into the ground for five straight years is an indication of LBJ's growth as a person.
LeBron on Mike Brown to Cavs: "I'm happy for him, very happy for him. I think he's a really good coach."— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) April 23, 2013
But let's not mistake James' magnanimity for a willingness to suffer through another few years under Brown.
James went to Miami because he knew he'd be surrounded by top-end talent. And now that he's won a pair of championships alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he surely appreciates the importance of having multiple superstars on a roster.
This presents another problem when it comes to Brown, who has never shown the ability to manage multiple marquee talents.
When he had to juggle Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, Brown lost his job after five games. Maybe it's not fair to cite his premature, panic-drive firing as the best evidence against his ability to manage egos. But the fact is that Brown has never demonstrated anything in his other coaching stops to refute the idea.
And now Brown is allowing the Cavaliers' locker room to fall apart as well.
So, now that James has come to the realization that multiple superstars are a necessary part of any real championship chase, why would he ever align himself with a coach who can't manage one—let alone two or three?
If James had followed up his disappointing tenure in Cleveland with another difficult one in Miami, maybe he'd be more willing to entertain the idea of giving Brown another shot. But because LBJ has thrived under the much more capable Erik Spoelstra, he'll never want to go back to the way things were under Brown.
"Coach Spo" has expertly morphed the Heat into a team that maximizes James' talent. He has managed egos, thought outside the box and generally made things easier on LBJ than they've ever been.
It's impossible to ignore the disparate tactical styles of Brown and Spoelstra. Where the former desperately leaned more and more heavily on James to sort out his team's struggles, the latter tailored a brilliant scheme to reduce pressure on James.
As a result, Spoelstra unlocked the next level in LBJ's game.
Instead of dribbling around the perimeter with three defenders chasing him (often the case under Brown), James now gets the ball in one-on-one situations in the post, as the result of terrific ball movement and in transition. Life has never been easier for LBJ, and his efficiency has spiked to historic levels as a result.
There's absolutely no way LeBron would ever sign up for Brown's exhausting, ineffective program after playing for Spoelstra. It'd be like trading in a Ferrari with a push-button start for a Model T with a hand crank.
Perhaps some of James' growth under Spoelstra has to do with added maturity. Maybe LeBron wouldn't have ever bought into a system under Brown, even if there had been one. We can't really be sure.
But what we know for certain is that Brown didn't maximize James' talent, and he hasn't gotten the most out of the big names he's coached since he and LeBron parted ways. Spoelstra "reached" LeBron, earning his respect by showing legitimate tactical skill and a knack for juggling the competing interests of multiple stars.
Because of that, James has a terrific rapport with his current coach. It's based on mutual respect, and, more importantly, an understanding that Spoelstra clearly knows what he's doing. The same could never be said for the relationship between James and Brown.
The Bad Old Days
LeBron James just wants to win championships. So, above all else, it's highly problematic that Brown hasn't done anything to show he's a coach with the skills to lead a title-worthy team.
More broadly, Brown stands as a symbol that Cleveland is still stuck in its old ways.
James left the Cavs because the front office couldn't surround him with an adequate supporting cast, or provide him with a coach who could maximize his skills. If he looks to Cleveland in free agency, he'll see that things haven't changed.
He'll see the same fans who once burned his jersey in the streets, the same lack of elite talent (Irving excluded) and the same petulant, vindictive owner in Dan Gilbert.
Worst of all, he'll see the same coach.
Forget about LeBron, Cleveland. As long as Brown is on the sidelines, James isn't coming home.