Friday, November 9, 2012

Instant Trade Reaction: Mike Brown to the Unemployment Office

Los Angeles Lakers get: A new coach (TBD)

Mike Brown gets: A pink slip

In what's been the seventh or eighth shocking announcement from El Segundo in the past twelve months, the Los Angeles Lakers dismissed head coach Mike Brown this morning, just five games into the NBA season. After a 1-4 record, a winless preseason and a gentlemen's sweep at the end of the 2012 season at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the front office decided that Brown simply wasn't up to the challenge of making the Lakers into a title contender.

Ultimately, the main question stemming out of this is: was this the right decision, or a hasty panic move?

Sadly for Brown, this was the right move. I've written time and time again that the Lakers' now former head coach needed time to implement his offense and ultimately gain the team's trust. What I overlooked was that perhaps he never had his team's respect in the first place.

Most of the reasons I've preached patience is because nearly every step of the way is because Brown's had the odds stacked up against him ever since he took the job almost a year and a half ago. The list includes, but isn't limited to:
  • A lockout that restricted contact with players the entire 2011 summer and into November, when the season was reinstated
  • The Veto, which stunted the chemistry of the team, Pau Gasol's early performance and ultimately sent Lamar Odom packing
  • A two-week shortened training camp
  • A compacted regular season, that gave his team only a handful of practices for most of the season
  • Midseason trades for Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill, while exporting veteran Derek Fisher
  • Integrating in two superstars in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, and several new role players
  • Coaching a new offense in a training camp that largely featured a limited Howard and an injured Kobe Bryant 
  • Losing Steve Nash to injury just two games into the season
The truth is, we never got to see what Mike Brown could truly do with a stacked deck, which is exactly what he had on two 60+ win teams in Cleveland. I inference I always made, was that the Lakers believed that with his tough defensive acumen and a team where he finally had more than one star, the coach would be able to gain the respect of his skeptical team. I still contend that the Princeton offense, while complicated, was a good tool to be used within the context of an offensively limited bench, especially seeing as Nash would be kept to around 30 minute a night. Given more time, I believe that an intelligent team would have picked up the nuances of Brown and assistant coach Eddie Jordan's scoring attack, and used it to full efficiency. I still put forth that the Lakers could have succeeded with Mike Brown as head coach, and that he could have eventually won over his players' confidence. Had they stayed the course, LA could have been the 2012-2013 NBA Champions. I really believe that.

But probabilities and percentage chances aren't how the Lakers operate. As GM Mitch Kupchak admitted in his afternoon press conference, "Going back to the two main reasons we made a change: it was the win-loss record and the fact that we didn’t see improvement. I guess we didn’t see a consistent performance because there was a game or two where we did pretty good offensively." Essentially, the front office didn't feel that there was a good enough chance that the Lakers would be able to seriously compete for a championship this year with Brown at the helm, or at the very least, instill confidence in the players that even in the event of defeat, that they were close to winning.

I might disagree, but the Lakers didn't feel that the team was going to be able to win eventually, and that Mike Brown wasn't going to be able to win over his players. The lack of improvement from day one of training camp was pretty glaring, as the first preseason game looked as just a passionless mess as Wednesday's loss against Utah. In that sense, now was the time to fire Brown. The team wasn't playing hard for him, which indicated that perhaps they didn't a) buy into what he was selling or b) care enough if he was relieved of his duties. The key to Brown's success in Cleveland is that all 15 of his guys played their asses off for him, bought into his schemes and defended like hell. A month and a half isn't a lot of time to evaluate someone, but the feeling is that the Lakers weren't sold on Brown after his first season, and were willing to see how well he could start coming out of the gate. Firing him over the summer could have been a prudent move, but as I just listed, there were too many caveats to last season to effectively judge someone who is a good coach. Overall. But the fact that the team didn't look any better, if not worse, since day one, is a strong signal of doom, especially considering the stakes.

What exactly are the stakes? In Lakerland, every year the biggest stake is obviously not just to win the Western Conference, not just to go to the Finals, but to win the whole damn thing. Any sign to the contrary is grounds enough for dismissal, especially when talking about a 34 year-old Kobe Bryant, a 32 year-old Pau Gasol and a 38-year old Steve Nash. The window to compete with this known quantity is only two or three years. They had to make this move if they didn't believe Brown could get this team to play hard and win today. 

But what a lot of us were taking for granted, especially in light of the James Harden trade, was that Dwight Howard is a free agent in eight months. Besides being able to offer an extra year at $20 million dollars, the Lakers would have to show enough to Howard that this new regime was capable of making the right decisions regarding his future. At the end of the 2013 NBA Finals, Dwight Howard will have Mark Cuban and the 2011 Champion Mavericks offering him the maximum contract available, as well as his friend Chris Paul calling and asking if he's interested in teaming up in Atlanta. The case for D12 to sign up for another five years in LA isn't quite as open and shut as it may seem, especially with an incompetant coach at the steering wheel. The Orlando Magic showed a willingness to fire a coach that Dwight didn't like, but at the end of the day, Howard didn't want to stay with a program that displayed poor decision making over and over. The Lakers have a huge lead on a buffoon in Magic GM Otis Smith, but a disastrous season from Mike Brown could be  Dwight's only hands-on LA experience. The front office simply couldn't risk that in the face of molding the franchise's future.

The speculation is running rampant, but understanding the reasons why Brown was fired, I'd venture to guess that only Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Stan van Gundy, Mike D'Antoni and Mike Dunleavey are the serious candidates. Former Portland head coach Nate McMillan also has had his name bandied about, but seeing how ignominious his departure from the Blazers, I can't imagine that he'll be a serious consideration. Brian Shaw and Kurt Rambis are nice thoughts, but it's not the time for nostalgia. If they were going to hire either Jackson disciple, they might as well pony up for the real thing. I'd be foolish to venture a guess as to who will eventually be the coach, but at this point I'd be most comfortable with Jerry Sloan. His flex offense is similar to the Princeton and even elements of the triangle, but simplistic enough for anyone to pick up quickly. Sloan's experience with the Stockton-Malone pick and roll should excellently equip him for life with Nash and Howard. Most importantly, he's a hard-driving, well respected coach who is more than capable of lighting a fire underneath a team that hasn't felt the need to play hard for a staff.

What we all have to consider now, is that maybe this team isn't all that good. The team's stunning lack of wing athleticism has really hurt the team, and though Dwight Howard's improving conditioning should greatly help the team's defense, the Lakers were going to be hurt every night by the age on the perimeter. The bench again hasn't found it's groove, and though the season is young, there's a lot of reasons to think they'll never come around. Mike Brown could very well just be a casualty of unfair expectations for a team that could never meet them to begin with. 

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