Despite a 24-40 record, Mike Brown has the Cleveland Cavaliers still fighting for a playoff spot.
Okay, so maybe "fighting" isn't the best word to use if one has managed to watch a Cavs game recently. More like just playing, like, without a pulse.
Still, the Cavaliers sit just three and a half games back of the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Brown has made improvements to the team's defense, which is precisely what he was brought back to do.
While Cleveland has vastly underperformed this season, an 8-7 record over the past 15 games have helped keep its playoff hopes alive.
Is this enough for Brown to keep his job, or do the Cavaliers have to make the postseason to justify his return?
How Brown Can Keep His Job
The biggest thing that Brown has going for him is the owner's support.
When Dan Gilbert fired Chris Grant and named David Griffin acting general manager, he publicly backed Brown, telling The Cleveland Plain Dealer:
"We’re going to see Mike Brown succeed this year,'' said Gilbert. "I think he will be able to do good things in the next 30 games or so. I think this team is going to be able to do good things. They’re going to look at each other, look in the mirror, and they’re going to rally. We’re going to do everything we can to give them the air cover they need."
Now, it's also worth noting that Gilbert has fired Brown once before. He'd likely be more hesitant this time around, given that Brown is still in the first of a five-year, $20 million deal. The last year is a team option, which means the Cavs would owe Brown roughly $12 million should they fire him after this season.
Money has never been as big of a concern as winning is to Gilbert, who's still paying the remainder of Byron Scott's deal. Still, $12 million is a lot of money to pay someone to stop working.
Of course, how the rest of the season unfolds will have the most impact on Brown.
So far, it's not looking good.
Considering the schedule Cleveland is facing, one has to assume the playoffs are a long shot.
Cleveland's next six games are against the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. If the Cavs can't beat the Knicks on their home court behind 20,562 passionate fans, how are they going to fare playing teams like the Warriors and Clippers on the road?
Yet if Mike Brown can somehow turn things around and clinch a playoff berth by knocking off some of these top teams, he may just save his job.
Why Brown Will Be Fired
Oh, where to start?
Let's begin with that offense, or whatever one can call it.
Perhaps the most telling tale of how pathetic Brown's offense is comes from some quotes from Brown himself. After the Cavs dealt for center Spencer Hawes from the Philadelphia 76ers, Brown talked to his new addition on the phone. When Hawes said that he already had a good idea of what the Cavaliers did on offense (after playing one game against them a few nights prior), Brown actually agreed.
“You probably do,” Brown told him, via Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. “What you went over in your scouting report is all we do.”
Umm, is this middle school or the NBA? I've never coached in the latter, but my guess is when a single scouting report can completely cover an opposing team's entire offense, there might be an issue with said offense.
Brown went on to say in the article that, “Our offense is not complex at all."
This certainly isn't a big secret, but why come out and say it?
Wouldn't one rather leave some mystery as to whether the Cavs are stashing some hidden offensive plays for key moments of a close game? From a coaching standpoint, this makes no sense.
Despite having one of the best offensive players in the NBA in Kyrie Irving, Cleveland has struggled mightily to score the ball. Even with players like Dion Waiters, Luol Deng, C.J. Miles, Jarrett Jack and now Spencer Hawes, the Cavs are at or near the bottom in almost every offensive category.
Because Brown rarely calls plays and instead forces players into isolation while the shot clock runs down, guys are forced to take a lot of bad shots. Instead of creating an offense that gets players to their best shooting spots on the floor, we've mostly seen Cavaliers just standing around, watching whoever has the ball try to beat his man off the dribble.
The result is the worst field goal and effective field goal shooting percentages in the entire NBA. Seriously, every single team in the league is shooting at a higher clip than the Cavs. This includes notable tankers like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz.
When talking free agents, what big name would want to play in a system that limits their offensive abilities?
Several complaints about Brown and his staff have also come anonymously from the Cavaliers locker room.
Players have privately complained that Brown’s coaching staff, with at least seven assistants, is too big. An assistant coach will tell a player one thing, then Brown will come back and yell at that player because he wants it done another way, says Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal.
“We’re getting too many mixed messages,” one player told Lloyd. “This isn’t very much fun. We were losing last year with Byron, but at least we were having fun.”
Guys who have previously thrived under other coaches are now struggling to produce in Brown's system.
Take Luol Deng, for instance.
In 23 games with the Chicago Bulls, Deng was averaging 19.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 45.2 percent shooting from the field.
In 28 games with Cleveland, those numbers have fallen off to just 14.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists on 40.1 percent shooting.
Deng is a player who thrives on cuts and moving without the ball. He struggles in isolation, where Brown's offense often leaves him. At this point, there's just no way he'll re-sign in Cleveland as long as Brown is still coaching.
Some of the biggest voices in Cleveland media are now turned against Brown, as they should be.
Terry Pluto of The Cleveland Plain Dealer writes, "Mike Brown keeps talking about the need for accountability from his players. Agreed. But this question also must be asked: What about the Cavaliers coach? The fact is that Mike Brown's offense—and it's his offense—is a mess. When the team needs to score, too often it's hand the ball to Kyrie Irving and hope for the best."
Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio had this to say following the recent loss to the Knicks, one which all but likely ended Cleveland's season.
Plenty of questions remain about why things are the way they are. Most folks, both locally and nationally, assumed this would be the season the Cavs made a real run for the postseason—or if not a real run, at least a believable one. Instead, the ball too often stops on offense, the energy and enthusiasm are nowhere near where they should be, and hey, so much for Mike Brown bringing something resembling defensive tenacity in his second go-round.
Both make great points that cannot be ignored.
The team doesn't play hard, has no offense whatsoever and even young players like Irving, Waiters and Tristan Thompson have all taken a step back in their development.
The case for firing Brown is strong, even if it means a third head coach in as many seasons.
So, Does He Go?
Barring some miracle playoff run over these next five weeks, Brown will likely be fired this offseason.
There's just too much stacked against him.
Be it the locker room drama, his stagnant offense or failure to develop young players, Brown has arguably done more harm that good this season.
Say what you want about Dan Gilbert, but the man cares about winning. Ultimately, he'll do what's in the best interest of the team and worry about the financial impact later.
Brown will latch on somewhere as a defensive assistant where he could still be very effective.
His days as a head coach, however, should soon be coming to an end.
All stats via NBA.com/Stats unless otherwise noted.