Those two qualities are what you want in just about every job.
When it comes to being an NBA head coach, it needs to be different.
The ongoing failures of Mike Brown as Cleveland Cavaliers head coach after his bust as Los Angeles Lakers coach are a reminder that no matter the size of the market or the star talent, there are certain basics you need in a head coach to maximize the chances of getting what you want.
Someone asked me the other day who was better, Mike D’Antoni or Brown—and I’d never really thought about it in that context.
Considering both come up pretty short in the leadership sense, there’s not an immediate answer—but D’Antoni overall has more going on while keeping things fresher. Brown is the consummate nice guy who works epic hours, but he bangs guys over the head with so much stuff they invariably tune him out and lose focus.
Where you can see both Brown and D’Antoni needing more spine—sadly so often the case with limp NBA head coaches fearful of being fired—is in being decisive.
The best example of that is establishing the playing rotation, which is the predominant aspect of the job.
Players need to have their roles clarified for teams to flourish, so coaches need to evaluate quickly and commit to their preferred plans. Instead, they’re afraid to “lose” guys they might not use or stars they might not satisfy, so coaches waffle and dole out inconsistent opportunities in hopes of maintaining full morale.
All that stuff is so inconsequential to the gist of a team being established to move forward with a plan. Yet Brown is all about “search mode,” as he called it countless times with the Lakers, not wanting to leave any stone unturned instead of trusting his talent evaluation, charging forward and handling the egos as is necessary.
Brown has gone through his same old routine with Cleveland, flipping through a photo album of small forwards and now even considering shifting rookie disaster Anthony Bennett from power forward to there.
Brown has only recently learned he has to commit to playing Andrew Bynum in a very strict role as post-up player and nothing else because of how much easier it will make the game for everyone else. Brown has cluttered Kyrie Irving’s creative mind—same as so many other players Brown has coached, including Steve Nash early last season—instead of freeing Irving to unleash his personal power.
But that’s what happens with a guy who really is better suited to being a video coordinator than a head man: Brown wants to work hard and do good things, which isn’t the same as developing a viable vision for team growth and insisting players adhere to it and learn to get comfortable in their roles.
D’Antoni hasn’t shined in this regard either this season, being too soft with guys in his first Lakers training camp.
D’Antoni did what could be perceived as the righteous thing in giving veteran Chris Kaman the first chance to be the Lakers’ power forward, but it was wholly predictable that Jordan Hill’s defensive energy and Shawne Williams’ three-point shooting would be better fits.
The Lakers wasted a lot of time letting Kaman showcase his individual offense, and now he’s healthy but out of the rotation completely after a minor injury gave D’Antoni an excuse to move him to the side.
That sort of thing is why leadership will always be more important from a coach than X’s and O’s. Sure, it seemed like the complacent old Lakers team in 2011 and the passive young Cavaliers team in 2013 both really needed what Brown is all about: defensive intensity and unyielding effort. But when you’re hiring the guy to run the whole team, it’s about so much more than improving past weak spots.
The guy should be hired for his overall vision and skill, regardless of who is on the roster and what the team’s style should be. And just to be clear: Confident leadership you might’ve had as a player does not automatically translate into confident leadership as a coach.
Jason Kidd is proving that right now with the Brooklyn Nets, and it’s why Phil Jackson urged Brian Shaw to take a year off upon retirement as a Lakers player to find a new identity to wear as an assistant coach.
The Lakers fell for the concept of Brown’s work ethic and hired him instead of Jackson's disciple Shaw or Rick Adelman in 2011.
And Brown did just get a much-needed victory Wednesday night with Shaw’s Denver Nuggets in town— though it was more a victory for the NBA schedule maker than anything Brown’s side did. Denver, 11-7 in the rough West during Shaw’s first year as a head coach, was playing its third game in four nights in a different Eastern city and was satisfied with already beating Toronto and Brooklyn.
The Cavaliers got the victory in large part because Denver’s Ty Lawson had a fluky 1-of-13 shooting night. But a 6-12 Cleveland team with seven losses by double-digit margins will take it as a sign.
“We truly believe we haven't played our best basketball," Brown told reporters, per Yahoo! Sports, in Cleveland after the game. "Contrary to what anybody believes, I do feel like we're getting better."
It’s the same tortoise pace of progress that Brown was selling in Lakerland before the Buss family abruptly booted him five games into last season.
Life might move more slowly in Cleveland than L.A., but the NBA is a place for strong decisions and stronger leaders. It’d be so refreshing to see more of both in the league’s head coaches.