Low expectations are no stranger to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but this season was supposed to be different. Instead, head coach Mike Brown is faced with an all too familiar disconnect between expectations and reality.
It took just one season and five games for Brown to be canned from his last gig with the Los Angeles Lakers. Should he fail to get this iteration of Cavs to the postseason, a similar fate may await him.
It certainly should.
Exiled general manager Chris Grant actually did a pretty good job assembling a roster with the right combination of veterans and young talent. While signing Andrew Bynum was a misstep, making up for it by trading for Luol Deng was a good move.
Now Cleveland has veteran leadership in Deng and sixth-man Jarrett Jack. It has one of the league's very best point guards in Kyrie Irving. And it has a smattering of impressive young talent including third-year power forward Tristan Thompson, second-year guard Dion Waiters and rookie forward Anthony Bennett.
With Spencer Hawes added at the trade deadline to a front line that already featured Anderson Varejao, the Cavaliers are looking increasingly like a complete package.
Grant took the blame for Cleveland's failure to gel, fired early in February with owner Dan Gilbert admitting, "We have severely underperformed against expectations" (via ESPN's Brian Windhorst). At some point, however, the blame will rest squarely on Brown's shoulders.
It's his job to make rosters like this work.
Instead, Cleveland sits in the standings three games removed from the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. That's not going to cut it—not for Brown or anyone else.
Ordinarily it might be worth extending some patience to a coach who's made it to the NBA Finals, but there's an important difference between these Cavs and the ones Brown coached from 2005 to 2010. The first time around he had LeBron James on his side.
Irving is no LeBron, but he's a reason these Cavs should be doing better. Something's not right, not clicking, not panning out the way it should. From our outside purview, it's difficult to point fingers—except for the fact that there's been plenty of that going on within the organization, from the top all the way to the locker room.
In November, ESPN's Chris Broussard cited locker-room "dysfunction" as one of the principal reasons for the club's slow start, noting a team meeting in which grievances began coming to the fore:
Irving called the meeting after the game, and every player spoke. When Waiters was given the floor, he criticized Thompson and Irving, accusing them of playing "buddy ball'' and often refusing to pass to him. Thompson took umbrage with Waiters' words and went back at him verbally. The two confronted each other, but teammates intervened before it could escalate into a fight.
In this instance, the brutal-honesty approach doesn't seem to have done much good. By all accounts, things have only gotten worse in the subsequent months.
As February rolled around, wrinkles that should have been ironed out were on the brink of becoming full-blown dissension. Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd offered a disheartening synopsis of everything gone wrong:
The rumbles within the Cavaliers locker room have been growing louder for weeks. Players who initially didn’t want to talk about what is plaguing this team are beginning to open up, and most of the issues are pointing back to guards Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, along with an unhappiness with Mike Brown and his staff.
Among the complaints directed at Brown, according to Lloyd, was that his "coaching staff, with at least seven assistants, is too big"—a gripe most of us can appreciate even if seven different bosses aren't checking on those TPS reports at work.
Setting aside the incomprehensibly massive staff and its propensity for mixed messages, there's little doubt this is a locker room in utter disarray. Even if you blame Grant for laying a flawed foundation, it's Brown's responsibility to avert all-out disaster—which is precisely what he has on his hands.
Recent winning streak notwithstanding, things should never have been this hard for the Cavs. Thus far, that streak has come against the likes of the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and Washington Wizards—not exactly the NBA's best.
And prior to the winning streak, Cleveland lost six-straight, unsurprisingly against much better teams.
Give Brown credit for holding on to his job this long, but there remains work to be done—perhaps work that should be shared and democratized.
The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto argues that "Irving and Brown need to combine to set that agenda," and he has a point. Maybe this job is too big for the even-keeled Brown. Maybe the players need to take ownership over their collective mess.
In the interim, though, Brown should be kept on a short leash. By all accounts he's a nice guy and a solid coach. He comes from a winning culture as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs. He has experience winning playoff games, even if James deserved the lion's share of the credit.
None of that places Brown beyond reproach, however. At the end of the day, this isn't a referendum on whether he's a good coach. It's a question of whether he's the right coach for this particular job, whether this is the right fit.
If he doesn't turn things around permanently and take this squad to the playoffs, odds are he isn't. There's no time for Brown to earn capital—the Cavs' time is now.