The Cleveland Cavaliers made a mistake—several of them, in fact—and someone needed to shoulder the blame.
For the second time in four years, Mike Brown was Cleveland's fall guy.
He was a victim of circumstances well beyond his control. Again.
In 2010, he was jettisoned during the Cavaliers' ill-fated attempt to appease an obviously restless LeBron James. Brown's first five seasons on the job included five playoff trips, eight postseason series wins and an Eastern Conference title in 2007.
Concerned with his legacy as a ring-less great, James jumped ship and joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach. Brown took the hit for James' exit before the King had officially vacated his crown. The sins of Cleveland's front office—James had no help around him—were pinned on Brown's shoulders, as if the coach was the one thinking Mo Williams and a well-past-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal would be enough to deliver a ring for the King.
The Cavs eventually saw the error in their ways. While welcoming Brown back to the fold last April, team owner Dan Gilbert labeled the coach's original dismissal "a mistake," via Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. "When you get the benefit of hindsight, it was a mistake."
Well, history has repeated itself. Mistakes have been remade.
After completing just one season of his five-year contract, Brown was relieved of his coaching duties Monday. He was victimized by unrealistic expectations (both for himself and his team) and more missteps by this executive staff.
After the Cavs leapfrogged two teams while winning the 2013 draft lottery, a confident Gilbert declared, "We've got a pretty good chance of this being the last one for a while," per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
Landing a lottery pick figured to certainly help, but Gilbert seemed overconfident in what he already had. The Cavaliers had averaged just 21 wins over the previous three seasons (including the shortened, 66-game 2011-12 campaign), collecting top lottery picks but never doing a lot with them. Considering the 2013 class was seen as weak at the top before presumed No. 1 pick Nerlens Noel tore his ACL, Gilbert's declaration seemed overly optimistic if not outright unfounded.
Perhaps spurred by Gilbert's obvious desire to win sooner than later, Cleveland passed on Noel. The Cavs opted to go well off the grid and select Anthony Bennett, a tweener forward with more boom-or-bust potential than should be allowed so high up on the draft board.
It was tough to set a standard considering Bennett had no obvious position or clear path to consistent minutes. Regardless where the bar was set, though, he managed to lower it over the course of the season (more on that in a minute).
Bennett's selection was shocking (ESPN analyst Bill Simmons' "Whoa!" was an instant classic reaction), yet not all that surprising. The Cavs have made an unfortunate habit of blowing top-tier draft choices, which fortunately surfaced after they grabbed Kyrie Irving at No. 1 in 2011.
What has transpired since has been nothing short of a comedy of errors.
|Pick, Year||Player||Could Have Had...|
|No. 4, 2011||Tristan Thompson||Jonas Valanciunas, Kawhi Leonard|
|No. 4, 2012||Dion Waiters||Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond|
|No.1, 2013||Anthony Bennett||Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams|
Name the itch, Cleveland could have scratched it.
Perimeter defense? Kawhi Leonard or Victor Oladipo. Three-point shooting? Klay Thompson or Damian Lillard. (Before assuming the Cavs couldn't use a second point guard with Irving, realize they gave $25 million to Jarrett Jack to fill that exact role last summer). Post offense? Jonas Valanciunas. Interior intimidation? Andre Drummond.
Instead, they found a guard who can't share the floor with Irving in Waiters and a pair of power forwards, one of which isn't great (Thompson), the other isn't good (Bennett, whose 4.2-point, 3.0-rebound, 35.6 percent-shooting rookie campaign was historically unimpressive for a top pick). It would be tough to toss three darts at a list of top-four picks and come away with less than Cleveland found.
It's not just the draft picks that are puzzling. The roster pieces as a whole never fit well, particularly not under Brown.
Never a great developer of talent, he inherited too many players who still needed seasoning. What's worse, those players weren't interested in the type of seasoning the coach demanded.
Even with the lackluster response, Brown still delivered results. The Cavs finished the season tied for 17th in defensive efficiency, nearly 10 spots higher than they set after the 2012-13 campaign (tied for 26th). After the All-Star break, Cleveland had the 11th-stingiest defense.
The offense wasn't good (23rd in efficiency), but that was the case before Brown returned (23rd). If the Cavs had half the roster they thought they did, that problem would have corrected itself (somewhat, at least).
Yet, this was largely the same group responsible for the 24-win season that preceded his arrival. Jack had a forgettable year (9.5 points, 4.1 assists), Earl Clark had one he'd like to forget (5.2 points on 37.5 percent shooting) and Andrew Bynum was simply disastrous.
Financially, Cleveland safeguarded itself when signing the oft-injured big man. His $24 million contract carried only a $6 million guarantee.
The damage that wasn't done to the financial books, however, surfaced on the hardwood. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports described the catastrophe:
Bynum never made it to the early January guarantee date for his full $12.5 million salary in 2013-14, and self-destructed. He stopped trying on the floor, and became a disruptive presence in practices. Before Bynum was thrown out of his final practice and suspended, he was shooting the ball every time he touched it in a practice scrimmage, sources said – from whatever remote part of the court he had caught the ball.
Forget the obvious problems of having a veteran go haywire on such a young team, but consider what that had to do to the team's psyche. Bynum was a risky acquisition, but with that risk came hope. If he had panned out, Cleveland would have had a dynamic inside-out combo with him and Irving ranking among the NBA's elites.
That, of course, never happened. The Cavs had dreams of winning, but a losing roster whose only significant additions were a reserve point guard, a seldom-used forward and an unplayable rookie.
Oh, and there were chemistry issues. Major ones at that.
The Irving-Waiters feud simmered to the point that the latter was reportedly put on the trading block, according to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. Waiters wasn't dealt, but he did disappear for a two-game stretch in November after a heated players-only meeting.
Irving, the de facto face of the franchise, beefed with Brown as well.
"It's also an open secret in certain circles that people close to Irving weren't happy with Brown's coaching style and often made their opinions known," The Beacon Journal's Lloyd wrote. "...Irving ignored him during an early season game in Chicago, walking past Brown and heading to his seat on the bench after he was pulled from the game."
No matter how Gilbert and Co. tried to spin it, they had given Brown a roster he couldn't win with—then asked him to do just that. This team had the talent to compete in an anemic Eastern Conference, but never showed the mental makeup of a playoff contender.
"The locker room turned toxic at times and seemed to tune out Brown, similar to the way this same collection of players tuned out [Byron] Scott during the final weeks of his tenure," wrote Lloyd.
It should be noted the man responsible for so many of these front office miscues, former general manager Chris Grant, was axed in February. Still, the damage done during his tenure fell onto Brown's lap, and the coach never had the chance to clean it up.
"Over the last several months it has become clear to me that the Cavaliers are on the cusp of reaching the higher level of success that we all want and our fans so greatly deserve," new Cavs GM David Griffin said while announcing Brown's dismissal, via Cavaliers.com. "At the same time, it has become apparent that certain changes are needed."
If the team was in fact turning a corner under Brown's watch, why ditch him before the race is finished? Could it be that he was never the right coach to lead this team to begin with? Might the front office have "rectified" one mistake by making another?
Or, was it simply that Cleveland needed a scapegoat to shoulder the blame for the transgressions done outside of Brown's influence? You know, exactly how it went down the last time this team fired this coach.
So, Brown will take his career .616 winning percentage (ninth-highest in league history among coaches with at least 500 games) and wait for his phone to ring with his next NBA opportunity. Hopefully, for his sake, the Cavs aren't on the other end of the line.