NBA @ 2: Time to Judge LA Coach Mike Brown
The Los Angeles Lakers have a unique history in the NBA. The bar isn’t making the playoffs or advancing to the second round. The Lakers expect to win titles.
Since 1980 (32 seasons), they’ve won 10 championships in 16 NBA Finals appearances. That’s an absurd level of sustained success.
Leading the way through many of those campaigns were two Hall of Fame coaches, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
Now at the helm is Mike Brown, a former video coordinator who served as an assistant to Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle. Brown helped take the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals with LeBron James in 2007, only to be swept by mentor Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.
Through six regular seasons, Brown has a career-winning percentage of 66.3% including the Lakers current run at 41-25.
The numbers say he’s an elite coach but then he had LeBron James. He has Kobe Bryant.
The verdict is still out on who exactly Mike Brown is.
Does he manage his stars or do they manage him? As thorough as he is defensively, does he have the vision to guide his team offensively?
Brown’s defensive philosophy proved to have a quick impact on the Lakers this season but too much Kobe-ball had the team (and Bryant) bristling. The addition of Ramon Sessions (replacing Derek Fisher) has since given LA’s scoring a significant boost (although the defense has slipped some).
Not every coach can run an offense without a true point guard.
Mike will never be confused for Jackson (who came in with the triangle) but over time in Cleveland, the Cavaliers’ offense got better each year to the point that they were eventually top five on both sides of the ball.
This season Brown has been asked to replace a legend in Jackson without the benefit of a full training camp; without the benefit of a normal practice schedule.
Before the season Brown admitted he had no idea how he’d be able to put in everything he wanted to in year one. The team had to learn on the fly and yet the Lakers finished sixth in the overall standings.
Winning the Pacific Division is an afterthought for the Lakers, who judge their coaches in May and June, not April.
Now that the postseason is here, Brown is on the clock.
From a personal standpoint, Mike comes across as a genuinely nice guy.
Is that important? Where on the list would “nice guy” be the used to describe Riley or Jackson?
Was Mike too lenient with LeBron? In LA he unabashedly defended Bryant after a high-volume, low-percentage shooting night saying Bryant has more experience winning championships than Brown . . . and as such, the Laker coach is willing to defer to his star.
Eventually Bryant came to be known as Coach Kobe, primarily for helping his team on the bench while recovering from a shin injury. Bryant has played a major role in guiding the team this year – more vocally than he ever managed through the Jackson era.
To that end, Brown is a collaborator. He’ll turn to Assistant Coach John Kuester to draw up an out-of-bounds play that gets Kobe a game-winning shot and then, instead of taking the credit, makes sure the media gives full credit to “Kue.”
It may be a strength, especially when the end product is a win, but does a head coach who gives his whiteboard to an assistant with the game on the line earn the kind of respect he needs from his players?
Another mark on Brown’s record that he can’t fix is that he never played in the NBA. Players have a natural appreciation for those who have gone through the rigors first-hand.
Andrew Bynum, perhaps more than any player on the team, has had a lot of trouble accepting Mike as he is. Bynum rebelled to a point against Jackson but Andrew has asked outright, how is it that someone who hasn’t played can tell him how to do so in the NBA?
The three-pointer that led to Bynum getting benched for a second half? That was Andrew expressing a lack of respect for Brown.
Of course Andrew is having a career year. Whether he credits Mike for that in any way, it’s difficult to separate what part is the individual players’ growth and how much it’s a coach putting that player in the position to succeed.
Did Popovich ever play in the NBA?
When Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, Vice President of Basketball Operations Jim Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak interviewed Brown over the summer, they were impressed by how well prepared he was.
Now that the compressed, shortened schedule this season is over and the Lakers can focus on just one team, Brown can finally play to his strengths as a coach.
“It’s different. It’s more detailed,” said Brown. “We watched personnel tape in different groups with bigs and smalls. We gave our players game plans, which we didn’t do for the whole year. We give players shot charts on every single one of the players on the other team – where they shoot the ball from so they know where the player is, where they shoot well from.”
“We do personnel books that have in detail what each guy does,” continued the Laker coach. “We get tape of game four, game three [of the regular season]. We gave them another DVD that showed all of Denver’s play sets multiple times, so they had different looks at it. I can go on and on but it’s a lot different in terms of preparation now then what it is in the regular season.”
Judging by his team’s Game 1 performance, holding the Nuggets to just 35.6% shooting from the field in a 103-88 victory, Brown had his team ready for Denver.
“Very thorough,” said Bryant of Coach Brown after the victory. “We knew what was coming. [He's] very detail oriented – our practices were very specific and we knew exactly what we wanted to do.”
Of course a Game 1 win loses value if the Lakers drop Game 2. Brown will have to show an ability to adjust on the fly to counter whatever Denver runs at his team.
The path is only going to get harder for Los Angeles, assuming they can advance beyond the Nuggets. Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Miami HEAT and any other number of contenders could prove problematic for this postseason.
What Brown has done to date in LA doesn’t really matter. He’ll be judged by how far the Lakers get this postseason. Is a Western Conference Finals bid enough to call the year a success?
Not by the Laker standard.
Still, Mike doesn’t feel he has anything he needs to prove. He doesn’t contemplate such things. Instead Brown just immerses himself in the job.
“I’m not trying to show anybody what I can do,” said Brown. “In the true regular season I like to establish a foundation on both sides of the ball and I like our guys to be confident enough to know . . . this is how we play we don’t need to adjust to anybody during the regular season”
Of course the postseason is all about adjustments. Brown never returned to the Finals with LeBron and the Cavaliers. How much of that was James, the pieces around him, and how much was Mike to blame?
With the Lakers he has a far-more experienced roster but the road to the title will be treacherous.
“Our guys had a heck of a regular season and I said this before you look at everybody above us and finish what we did with all the changes that we had is a testament to the 14 guys in that locker room,” said Brown.
Brown may not feel he has anything to prove but he still has everything to prove.
Nuggets Want to Run
There’s a cliché that basketball slows in the playoffs which works against teams that like to run.
Certainly Coach George Karl’s game-plan of speed didn’t happen in Game 1 against the Lakers.
“They stopped us from doing what we wanted to do. We’ve got to do a better job of executing and running a little faster and running a little harder,” said forward Al Harrington. “We’re about the fast break and playing fast. Whenever we don’t do that we struggle. We’ve got to put our track shoes on next game and try to out run their bigs.”
Given the Laker size advantage, running may be the only way for the Nuggets to win but is that sustainable in a series?
Denver was the highest scoring team in the regular season at 104.1 points per game. The Lakers, although far more defensive-oriented than the Nuggets, have been prone to giving up leads all year. That alone gives Denver a chance on any given night.
“Our game plan is to get out and run,” said Arron Afflalo.
But the Nuggets also have to find a way to slow down the Lakers defensively. They sent multiple defenders at the Laker tandem of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Neither was a major scoring threat in Game 1 but the role players took advantage of their open looks – guys like Steve Blake and Devin Ebanks.
Is that something the Lakers can rely on, especially as the series turns to Denver?
“We’re going to have to handle the double-teams very well in order for us to have a chance offensively,” said Brown.
Karl said his team is the one that needs those unexpected performances if his team is to win.
“I think we’ve got to be careful of giving the Lakers a wild card because they’ve got three studs,” said the Nuggets coach before Game 1. “Most of our priorities and preparation is on Bynum, Kobe, and Gasol. But we can’t give them a wild card. Now the [Jordan] Hill kid we’re a little nervous on Hill is he going to them an Oklahoma City game. We’ve got to pull the wild cards we’ve got a lot of guys who could be wild cards. We’ve got to win the wild card game.”
Hill, in essentially his third big-minute game with the team, would notch a double-double (10 points and 10 boards) with two blocks.
Defensively the Nuggets can handle 31 points from Bryant. That’s not why they lost Game 1.
Afflalo is one of the better defenders at his position in the league. Corey Brewer off the bench can put in some good minutes on Bryant. The goal is single coverage on Kobe, forcing a lower field goal percentage while doubling inside and letting the role players get their looks.
Defensively the Lakers focused their coverage on point guard Ty Lawson.
“I feel as if the Lakers had him as their number one guy to take out in their pick and roll coverage,” said Karl. “The way they covered the paint was very impressive. We need him to be much, much more assertive.”
The loss on Sunday was obviously a disappointment to the Nuggets but a split in LA would be a momentous shift in the series.
Karl has enjoyed coaching this year’s version of the Nuggets.
“The guys have done a great job of hanging in there and fighting and I don’t care what you say the last 10-20 games of the season we’ve been a good basketball team,” said Karl. “Players are getting better. The confidence of the young guys from [Kenneth] Faried to Kosta [Koufos] has been pretty impressive. I didn’t think Faried could get where he is today at the beginning of the year and Kosta Koufos, they don’t pronounce his name around the country, but he does a good job for us even though he plays 15-20.”
“Al [Harrington] then comes in gives us 20 and the next 25 min is a coin toss. [Danilo Gallinari] could get some of that. [Timofey Mozgov] could get some of that – [Chris Anderson] could get some of that. Everybody is ready to play and when you’re playing two All-Star centers, maybe two of the top five centers in basketball? Gasol doesn’t like to be called a center but he sure looks like a center to me.”
Harrington is gutting out the rest of the year with a torn meniscus [knee]. Karl left out JaVale McGee, possibly an oversight, who got 17 minutes on Game 1 against the Laker bigs but struggled.
Denver isn’t favored by many in this series but expect a much better performance out of the Nuggets in Game 2.
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