Among the many decisions the Cleveland Cavaliers will face this offseason, the fate of Mike Brown may be the most important.
Brown returned to the Cavs last April by signing a five-year, $20 million contract that includes a team option for the final season. Brown had previously coached in Cleveland from 2005-2010 and with the Los Angeles Lakers from 2011-2012.
While Cleveland finished the year just 33-49, it was clear the team made some major improvements by the end of the year.
The question is, did it make enough to justify bringing Brown back for next season?
The Argument for Brown
If Brown needs to convince owner Dan Gilbert to keep him around, he has some good numbers to refer to.
The first and foremost of these being opponents' field-goal percentage. In 2012-13 under Byron Scott, the Cavs' opponents shot 47.6 percent from the field, the worst mark in the NBA. This season under Brown, teams were held to 45.2 percent, the 12th-best rate in the league.
Cleveland was 15-2 this season when holding teams to less than 40 percent shooting, according to Rick Noland of The Elyria Chronicle-Telegram.
Brown was brought in to fix the defense, which was significantly better than a season ago. Here's how Cleveland's defense improved under Brown in six key categories, followed by the league rank.
|Cavs' Defensive Stats||PTS||FG%||3FG%||DRtg||DReb||DReb%|
|2012-13 (Scott)||101.2 (25)||47.6 (30)||37.2 (25)||109.4 (27)||31.3 (15)||72.6 (25)|
|2013-14 (Brown)||101.5 (16)||45.2 (12)||36.2 (22)||107.7 (19)||32.3 (22)||75.8 (6)|
Although Cleveland didn't make the playoffs, it did see a nice increase in its win total from 24 to 33. The Cavs were playing meaningful basketball all the way into April, something they hadn't done in four years.
Now that the season has concluded, various players are offering their support for Brown's return.
“I’d like to see Coach come back,” Waiters told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. “We’ve been together for a year. The ups and downs, he stuck with us, we stuck with him. … I don’t think we need any more changes right now.”
Some continuity would be welcome, as a new coach would mean three in the last three years for Cleveland. Teams with this much turnover rarely experience success.
"It's hard to build a nucleus when you have a revolving door. If you keep the team together, it will help with the team's success," guard C.J. Miles told Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio.
It's worth noting that Miles will become an unrestricted free agent this summer and may not even be back in Cleveland. One player widely regarded to be back is point guard Kyrie Irving, who told Lloyd: “I’m pretty sure Coach Brown will be back, which I’m happy about. Until anything happens, I’m not worried about any coaching change or any organizational change, players leaving or anything like that.”
Brown, who has at times battled to get consistent effort from his players this season, now appears to have their support.
While the Cavs may have finished 16 games below .500, they did end the season 17-16 in their last 33 games.
The team improved over the course of the season under Brown. The defense was better, and players seem to be supporting his return.
Will all that be enough?
The Argument Against Brown
This could get lengthy.
While he certainly did some good things in his return to Cleveland, many of Brown's old habits remained.
Let's start with the offense. It was terrible, just as we saw the first time he was in town. The Cavaliers ran far too many isolation plays, especially at the beginning of the year. The trade for Spencer Hawes did wonders for the offense by spacing the floor and adding an outside shooter, but Cleveland was just in too big of a hole to climb out of at that point.
Part of this could be a power struggle. During his first go-round with the Cavs, the offense was so horrid, even with LeBron James, that Cleveland hired John Kuester to take over play-calling duties from Brown.
This was a change Brown initially resisted but ended up going along with. In between 2007-08 and 2008-09 when Kuester took over offensive responsibilities from Brown, the team's offensive rating went from 20th in the NBA to fourth overall.
This season, the Cavs' offensive rating dropped back down to 22nd in the league. Despite an improved roster, this was worse than their 19th-ranked offense a season ago.
Why were the Cavaliers so bad on that end of the floor even with guys like Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Luol Deng, Jarrett Jack and Hawes? Probably because Brown was back to running the offense. Assistant coaches offered their insight, but it was ultimately Brown who called the plays.
Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain Dealer tells us more:
Mike Brown readily admits the Cavs offense is pretty basic. Anybody who has scouted the team more than once probably knows what they're going to do 95 percent of the time. Given the sophistication of scouting these days, the Cavs are not going to fool anyone on offense. Perhaps the best thing they have going for them is that their players often don't do what they're supposed to offensively. Maybe that will throw off some teams.
The Cavs just faced the Sixers a few days ago, so when Brown and Hawes spoke by phone Thursday night, Hawes said he had a pretty good idea what the Cavs do. “You probably do,” Brown told him. “What you went over in your scouting report is all we do. Our offense is not complex at all."
Maybe it's just me, but this seems ridiculously embarrassing to admit as a professional NBA coach. This is the league where the world's best players all flock to and millions of people watch every night. When the team's offense is at its best when players "don't do what they're supposed to do," what does that say about Brown and the Cavaliers franchise as a whole?
This poor offense has limited the players trying to execute it. Kyrie Irving averaged 22.5 points on 45.2 percent shooting last season. This year, those numbers dropped to 20.8 points on 43.0 percent shooting.
Luol Deng was averaging 19.0 points on 45.2 percent shooting with the Chicago Bulls this season before being traded to the Cavaliers. With Cleveland under Brown, these stats sank to 14.3 points on 41.7 percent shooting.
Players like Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao and Alonzo Gee all saw their efficiency numbers drop, while Dion Waiters (13.7 PER to 14.0 PER) barely had an increase in his.
The locker room was a disaster all season long with rumors, meetings and suspensions dominating the headlines.
The Cavs had a players-only meeting just nine games into the season. Andrew Bynum was messing around at practice for weeks before Brown disciplined him. Rumors involving Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving wanting out served as major distractions as well.
While many pegged the Cavaliers as a playoff team this season, they consistently dropped winnable games and lacked effort on both ends of the floor.
The case for Brown returning is certainly there, but the one for his firing appears to be even stronger.
Should Dan Gilbert re-fire Brown and eat the remaining three guaranteed years on his contract? Absolutely yes, assuming he wants what's best for the team.
While continuity is important, so is being a good head basketball coach, which Brown is not. The Charlotte Bobcats are also on their third coach in three years with Steve Clifford and are now in the playoffs after winning just seven games two seasons ago. Cleveland needs to find the right guy and not worry so much about turning over coaches so often.
This is a critical time for the Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving can sign a max extension this summer. The free-agent class is rich and deep. Cleveland needs to find a leader who will attract guys to Cleveland, not make them afraid of what kind of locker room or poor offense they'll be playing in.
Mike Brown is a fine defensive coach. He'll fit in well with a veteran team as an assistant, building a defense that's championship-worthy.
As a head coach, however, the Cavaliers could do a lot better.
Cleveland needs to part ways with Brown and not bring him back for a second year.
All stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.