With the in season firing of Paul Silas in 2004, the Cavaliers head coaching position became vacant. The following offseason, Mike Brown was named head coach, and experts from coast to coast praised his hiring as one of the young up and coming assistants available.
From 2005-2008, the Cavaliers got by on LeBron James' individual brilliance and the Cavalier's defensive identity forged by Mike Brown. Their roster was laden with marginal talent like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Hughes, Eric Snow, Sasha Pavlovic, Drew Gooden and Wally Szczerbiak. This was their rotation, and incredibly, they won.
Despite having an All-NBA caliber star like LeBron James on the roster, it was perceived that Mike Brown was overachieving based on the remainder of his roster muddling in mediocrity.
Pushing perennial contender Detroit to 7 games in 2006, knocking off a much better Pistons team in 2007, willing a very limited roster to the 2007 NBA Finals, and fighting tooth and nail with the eventual champion Boston Celtics in 2008 all gave NBA analysts and fans alike the notion that Mike Brown is one hell of a basketball coach.
An enormous change in philosophy took place after that loss to the Celtics. Cavalier's owner Dan Gilbert and Cavalier's GM Danny Ferry sensed that they were imminently close to a championship. They became much more aggressive in seeking talented individuals to fit alongside LeBron James. The first of these moves was the addition of sharp shooting point guard Mo Williams, who would make defenses pay for leaving to help on LeBron.
The following season, after claiming his Coach of the Year trophy and leading Cleveland to an impeccable 66-16 mark, Mike Brown's Cavs came out throwing haymakers the first two rounds of the playoffs, eliminating Detroit and Atlanta. The only thing that stood in the way of a Kobe-LeBron NBA Finals duel was the Orlando Magic, a team that went 59-23 during the regular season.
Orlando humbled the Cavaliers, shocking them in six games. Mike Brown's adjustments were tardy and irrelevant. Dwight Howard had his way down low, Mike Brown failed to find anyone to slow Rashard Lewis or Hedo Turkoglu and the Magic as a team shot very efficiently from the 3 point line. For a coach who's calling card is defense, it was an extremely disappointing ending to a promising season.
Afterwards, multiple transactions were completed to again revamp the Cavalier's roster. Shaquille O'Neal was acquired during the off-season. The hope was Shaq would be a major presence defensively as well as an individual who could score effectively in the post when defended one on one. In February, despite having the league's best record at the time, Antawn Jamison was snagged from Washington to provide for Cleveland exactly what Rashard Lewis does for the Orlando Magic. Jamison's expectations were to knock down 3's and defend the small forward and power forward positions.
In Mike Brown's defense, the Cavaliers didn't get a great opportunity to gel with one another. A right thumb injury to Shaq on February 25th caused him to miss the final 29 games of the season. Consequently the Cavalier's regular starting five of Shaq, Jamison, LeBron, Parker & Williams were limited to only four games together.
As it turned out, four games wasn't nearly enough. A Cavaliers roster that was ironically conceived specifically to beat the Magic was matched up against a suddenly healthy Celtics team. It was a déjà vu of sorts for the Cavaliers, as matchup nightmares across the board ruled the day. Jamison had no answers in defending Garnett in the post, and Rajon Rondo completely obliterated Mo Williams. Kendrick Perkins held Shaq in check. LeBron was LeBron for the most part, averaging 27, 9 & 7 for the series. But as has so frequently been the case in his short career, his teammates offered sparse help.
Mike Brown failed miserably in the area of making adjustments. His lone adjustment was switching Anthony Parker on Rajon Rondo, but assigned him to defend Rondo the same way. Go under every screen (smart, dare Rondo to shoot) and play way off of him in isolations (dumb, give him free reign on court vision to set up Pierce, Garnett & Allen).
He declined the chance to start Varejao over Jamison. In my eyes, this simply wasn't Jamison's series. The 6'9" Jamison couldn't check the 7" Garnett. I'd argue this was the single most important element in the Boston-Cleveland series.
There are plenty of problems with the All-NBA Defensive team. It's based largely on reputation. But Anderson Varejao's inclusion on the All-NBA Defensive 2nd team didn't happen by mistake. Varejao had the wherewithal, and more importantly, the length to challenge Garnett's offensive mastery. Remember how Gregg Popovich would always put Bruce Bowen in to defend Kobe Bryant and/or chase around Steve Nash in the playoffs? It's a damn shame Mike Brown didn't heed that strategy, or Cleveland would still be playing right now in my estimation.
Brown force fed it to Shaq far too much. I'm all for establishing a presence down low. When used effectively, it forces wing defenders to sag into the post to help, creating open shooting opportunities for guards and forwards. Shaq, however, didn't create double teams. Doc Rivers announced even before Game 1 that they wouldn't double team Shaq. They mortgaged that Kendrick Perkins could do an admirable job one on one, and they were correct.
Shaquille O'Neal was an atrocious pick and roll defender way back in 2002, when the Sacramento Kings ran it to death against the Lakers. Imagine how unequivocally awful he must be at defending it now. The stat sheet indicates Shaq had a solid series against the Celtics. However anyone who watched the series knows that a boxscore doesn't measure how much he bogged down the Cavaliers once high-flying offense.
J.J. Hickson was the starting power forward/center for 73 games during the Cavalier's triumphant regular season. Hickson logged just 9 minutes per game against the Celtics, and didn't even get on the court during their Game 6 coronation. Hickson shot an astounding 65% from the field in his limited chances, could've changed the tempo in Cleveland's favor over the aging Celtics, and also offered another athletic big with size to match up with Garnett. Additionally, J.J. is only 21 years old and is one of the few young building blocks this roster has. Regrettably, Brown rejected the opportunity to play Hickson with any regularity in the depressing upset to the Celtics.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had the talent 1-12 to win a championship. Brown has the MVP two times running on his roster. He had home court advantage sewed up throughout the playoffs. Winning the championship requires a lot of things, and one of them which is consistently undersold is a coach's championship mettle. Mike Brown didn't do LeBron any favors with his unimaginative offensive sets and conservative nature.
Maybe Mike Brown didn't get enough time with his core unit. Maybe the Celtics' championship pedigree wanted it more. Maybe LeBron's elbow was more hurt than was widely believed. But I look to Game 3, when the Cavaliers handed the Boston Celtics a 29 point beatdown, reminded all of the fans that Boston doesn't stand a chance, and that it is their destiny to win the 2010 NBA Championship. It is my opinion that when both of these teams were playing their best, Cleveland's best was better.
You always hear the playoffs are about matchups, and that's certainly true to an extent. But I am of the school of thought that the playoffs are about adjustments, and Mike Brown failed at that miserably. Would Gregg Popovich or Phil Jackson have won the title this year with these same Cavaliers? I feel very confident both would.
This is a league of what have you done for me lately. Four of the last five Coach of the Year's lost their job within two years of being recognized as "Coach of the Year" (Byron Scott, Sam Mitchell, Avery Johnson, and Mike Brown sometime this off-season). Although Mike Brown boasts a profound .663 winning percentage as the Cavaliers head coach, it will not be enough for him to keep his job.