Coach Mike Brown and the Cavaliers’ Un-Fired-Upness

If a seventh grade boys basketball team isn’t bringing the pain in the playoffs, parents will blame the coach.  (And the tall, lanky kid with no coordination who can’t play basketball . . . but is, as previously mentioned, tall.)

But if an elite NBA team isn’t bringing the pain in the playoffs, should fans blame the coach?

Every now and then, the tenuousness of Mike Brown’s job security comes up in Cleveland . . . generally after losses.  Bad losses.  And sadly, but not surprisingly, it’s being talked about again now.

The Cavaliers second round series against the Boston Celtics is tied-up at 2-2.  That isn’t necessarily unexpected (although, I did have Cleveland in five, which, obviously, is no longer mathematically possible) . . . but the Cavs’ lackluster effort has been surprising.  And alarming.  And confusing.

It just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So last night, my friend Sam Greenspan and I had a conversation about Mike Brown and the Cavaliers’ energy, and I thought I’d share it.

Here it is in hopefully-easy-to-read interview format:

W&GR:  How much do you pin the Cavaliers’ apparent effort / intensity lapses on Coach Mike Brown?  Some say it’s his job to make sure the team is in peak form mentally, physically, and strategically for the games, yet others say that there is only so much a coach can do when his team is failing to bring it for a playoff game.

J.D.:  Rather than wasting time trying to make sense of this, I’d rather just pin it on Coach Brown and hope that he can rally the team in time to ensure that the Cavs don’t accidentally boot this series.  But in order to do that, I have to consider what Brown could have done . . . that he didn’t.

 

And I don’t know.  I don’t know what you do or say to motivate a team for a playoff game against a supposed rival during a supposed title march.  Do you say “Let’s go, guys!  Let’s crush the Celtics!”  Or do you say “Let’s do it, guys!  Let’s destroy the Celtics!”  It’s Coach Brown’s responsibility to get the Cavs up for an away-away back-to-back game against a team like the Indiana Pacers in November.  It seems reasonable for him to leave the players to get fired up on their own in the playoffs, so that he can deal with more pressing matters . . . like what the hell to do with Rajon Rondo, so that he doesn’t look significantly better than the Cavs ordinarily make their opposing point guards look.

Feel free to roast Mike Brown for gameplan-oriented issues – and if we fall short of our goal, plenty of people will – but from what I’ve seen, the inconsistent effort is the #1 thing keeping us from beating the Celtics right now, and I’m not sure I can put that on Brown.

No matter what glasses / tie combination Brown utilizes, his work isn’t sexy.  If the team wins, LeBron and X and X role players get the credit.  If they lose, Brown takes the heat.

Sam:  I really don’t know how much to pin on Mike Brown, but I do think it’s do-or-die for his career right now.  My issue with Mike Brown centers far more on his ability to make in-game adjustments.  It’s seeming more and more like the Cavs come up with a pregame plan.  If they execute it properly and the opposition doesn’t throw anything in the mix to screw with it, they win.  As soon as something starts going wrong it takes Brown a half or a full game before he adjusts.  It’s painful to watch . . . you know that if the game starts going poorly, the only chance at a win is LeBron having a superhuman game.   That’s not going to win championships.

As for the lack of intensity, I just don’t know what to make of it.  No one in Cleveland can possibly understand it.  Did they become complacent because, since February, they’ve been able to play games where they slacked off for three quarters, turning the ball over, missing free throws, watching passes
bounce off J.J.’s hands, and then been able to win by turning it on in the fourth quarter?  Did the habits they developed become more overwhelming than we thought?  I just don’t know.  We’re nine playoff games in.  They’ve had their proverbial “punch in the mouth” — an epic blowout loss at home.  They responded great for one game, then went right back to dogging it the next game.  Can anything light a sustained fire under them?  I have no idea.

What I do know is that I’ve found myself in “tempering expectations” mode.  Orlando is playing some of the best basketball in history.  The Cavs are letting Rajon Rondo put up numbers that Jordan wasn’t putting up in his prime.  Other than Game Three of this Boston series, has there been a single sign that the Cavs should truly be considered contenders at this point?  If they do win this series — which is REALLY no guarantee — will anyone in the world pick them to get past Orlando?

W&GR:  One of the problems with the Cavs’ offense appears to be a lack of premeditation.  Typically, the Cavs have (mostly) lived and (rarely) died under LeBron James’ freelancing hand at the reins of the offense . . . but in times like these, should Mike Brown assert himself and attempt to overrule LeBron on the running of the offense?  He may not be an offensive-minded coach, but with input from his staff, they could draw up an actual play for each possession.  Or, do you think this would upset the apple cart even more?

J.D.:  It’s unclear just how much freedom Mo Williams and Delonte West have to call their own plays, but it seems like they have too much.  Mo looks great when he cuts with the ball – baseline or through the paint – because it’s a more defense-disrupting way of getting the ball to Shaq, another big, or even an on-the-move LeBron James.  But it doesn’t happen enough.

Mo runs a lot of simple plays . . . soft lobs inside, or two-man pick-and-rolls . . . without much movement on the weakside or through the paint.  That, and/or he gives the ball up to LeBron too quickly.  He needs to push the ball more, and look for opportunities to get the defense on their heels.

Delonte, however, used to be great at mixing things up by denying LeBron the ball when LBJ was 26-feet from the basket, and pushed the offense ahead, until LeBron and/or the other gears were in better position.  But Delonte wasn’t good in Game Four.  He did a lot of dribbling, didn’t seem to have any idea what to do with the ball, and ended up taking some bad shots.  He had one assist in 20 minutes.

So yes, I think more calls from the bench – if they aren’t already coming regularly – would instill some creativity in the offense, and remind the Cavs of plays that have been successful in the past.

As for LeBron, I don’t know, man.  There are so many possessions where he creates a sweet shot for a teammate.  Sometimes they finish, sometimes they don’t.  There are also a lot of frustrating, aimless possessions where LeBron just does some stationary dribbling, and then takes a contested, unnecessary 20-footer.  Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t.  Those kinds of things need to be cut, but you do want LeBron looking out for opportunities.  Maybe there should just be more communication . . . so the rest of the guys on the floor can move off-the-ball to try to free themselves.

Sam:  I think Brown has to do something at this point.  It comes down to his inability to do in-game adjustments.  Sunday, it was clear LeBron wasn’t going to get any easy paths to the basket.  The Celtics were collapsing on him and causing either turnovers on bad interior passing, kick outs to the ice-cold jump shooters or, most frequently, LeBron complaining about not getting a call and failing to get back on defense.  In that case, something different needs to happen.  Send LeBron to the post.  Get Mo Williams the hell out of the game and put in Gibson — his defense can’t be any worse than Mo’s — and maybe he’ll make a shot.  Do anything.  Anything.

 

W&GR:  Considering the staleness of the Cavs’ offensive and (at times) defensive effort, should Mike Brown have a quicker trigger on bringing in some of his deeper bench depth?  Would utilizing Zydrunas
Ilguaskas, Leon Powe, Jamario Moon and Daniel Gibson more give the Cavs a spark and/or the potential for a successful new look, or again, would that just exacerbate the problems?

J.D.:  Jamario Moon feels like a no-brainer at this point.

I think I’d also like to see Z a little more.  Yes, he may be a liability on defense, but who hasn’t been?  It’s not like we’d ask him to guard Rondo or Garnett.  I think we could bring him in, and see if he can get his pick-and-pop shot going.  Maybe he could get some open looks against Boston’s defense.  If not, we can move on to the next thing.  Plus, it wouldn’t be horrible to have Z in the game to get a few offensive rebounds / tip-ins.  Also, he’d be another big obstacle Rondo would have to work around if he makes it to the rim or tries a floater.  I can’t believe I’m thinking like that, but oh well.  I’m not feeling Powe.  Like Z, Boobie’s shot would be so huge if we could get him going . . . without him being any more of a liability on defense than what we currently have.

Sam:  I don’t know that Powe has a place in this series but Moon’s lack of playing time is mind boggling.  He’s a long, athletic, motivated defender who’s actually been hitting his shots in the playoffs. Why not give him some of Mo’s minutes and put him on Rondo for a different look.  (As much as people are praising Anthony Parker, he’s getting murdered out there.  Make Rondo have to guess what’s going to happen.)  Mo Williams is giving the Cavs nothing at this point.  Nothing.  I’m not saying to bench him completely, I recognize how ridiculous that notion is and how he has potential to get hot and change a game like Game One, but at least throw Gibson out there to see what happens.  I don’t know about Ilguaskas.  I have a bad feeling about him being out there.  But why not?  Somebody has to do something.  Again, just do anything.  Somebody please.  Anything.

In Game Four the Celtics had Tony Allen step up.  Tony Allen!  It was a gift that he was on the floor and he ended up being one of the heroes.  Unbelievable.  A few games ago, it was Rasheed Wallace.  It’s one of those things that happens against Cleveland teams but never FOR Cleveland teams.  But Varejao hasn’t looked like himself all playoffs, joining the super erratic play of Mo, Delonte, and even Jamison.  I want to type “at some point, someone’s going to have to step up” — but we’re nine games in.  It’s just hard to look at this situation and see that happening.

This is all extraordinarily pessimistic, and I hate being that way.  But, at some point, you have to stop wondering when the Cavs are going to wake up and play like champions and switch that to IF the Cavs are going to wake up and play like champions.  It’s not a 2-2 series that has driven me and so many others to this extreme.  The Celtics are playing great and we didn’t expect the Cavs to sweep their way through a much more difficult bracket this year.  But, after watching nine games and seeing exactly ONE where the Cavs had a start-to-finish championship-caliber effort — versus, say, Orlando’s eight start-to-finish championship-caliber efforts — this 2-2 series sure doesn’t feel good.

I hope I’m wrong.  And deep down, I still have hope — the same hope that was there when the Cavs were getting murdered by the Spurs in the Finals, the same hope that was there when the Indians let the 3-1 lead slip away against the Red Sox but seemed to have a chance in Game 7.  But if the Cavs players can’t muster the energy to really care, I have to remind myself that I shouldn’t either.  We’re getting closer and closer to the most disappointing postseason in Cleveland history and not a single player — not even LeBron — really seems to have any sense of urgency when it comes to changing that.

 

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