Amid the caterwauling from fans outside the Bay Area and northeast Ohio disenchanted by a third consecutive Warriors-Cavaliers NBA Finals, spare a happy thought for Mike Brown.
He passed through the head coaching crucible and survived, more or less, for this unlikely moment. This looming series provides him a chance to not merely achieve glory, but to grasp an even more sought after sports theme: revenge.
Three years after Brown’s second doomed marriage with the Cavs ended prematurely, he is coaching against them in the Finals, at least for the time being, against the very stars he helped develop — and he’s doing so at the helm of an all-time juggernaut. And here’s the real twist: he’s still cashing checks from the Cavs, while trying to rip their hearts out.
Golden State Coach Steve Kerr, still tormented by complications from back surgery that have led to his indefinite absence from the sideline, has created an unusual opportunity for his assistant-turned-stand-in. Since Game 3 of the Warriors’ first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Brown has dutifully steered the ship. Sure, some claim the culture built and implemented by Kerr is already so stable that it’s more about pressing autopilot than steering — Luke Walton, of course, famously navigated the team to a 39-4 record last season with Kerr out with the same ailment. But the results are impressive nonetheless: a sparkling 10-0 playoff record under Brown with a 14.1-point average margin of victory entering Thursday’s Game 1.
Coaching is a fickle trade. This season marked the first in 46 years in which we didn’t witness at least one in-season head coach firing, which tells you pretty much all you need about how NBA coaches view their job security. (Yes, this is a journalist, well familiar with constant professional uncertainty, somehow conjuring sympathy for multimillionaire coaches under the guillotine.)
Not that he’s likely to say so, but pretty much any way you slice it, Brown endured a painful grinding of the coaching carousel: hired as a head coach three times over his career, fired all three times, with two of those layoffs coming in Cleveland in the span of four years.
In 2005, Brown was first tasked with taking a team constructed around a young LeBron James from promising playoff contender to legitimate title threat. He largely succeeded — coaching the Cavs to the Finals in his second season, only to be swept by the veteran San Antonio Spurs — except in the one critical area that matters most in the league: championship rings.
If you’re looking for reasons for the high turnover rate, that about sums it up, especially when James is on your team. The NBA is a players’ league, not a coaches’ league, and the compressed timelines created by stars’ contract situations and athletic peaks create a rush to produce immediate on-court success. Combine that with the fact that the Cavs were at the mercy of James, both then and now willing to move mountains to satisfy their homegrown savior, and it’s somewhat amazing Brown lasted five seasons during his first go-round in Cleveland.
Rings matter, and those five seasons netted zero. Brown got his team close to the finish line, but he just wasn’t the guy to take them all the way. Maybe no one could have with that roster. That happens. That’s coaching. It can be as much about time and place as it is about fit, and the fit never felt completely right either. Fans worried about the team’s offensive flexibility. Bill Simmons later jabbed Brown as “the only person who ever figured out a way to stop LeBron James.” The Cavs, seemingly desperate to keep James happy, fired Brown in May 2010 ahead of their star’s impending free agency. Six weeks later, James left anyway.
One could contend that after that successful head coaching run, Brown has never again been granted a similar opportunity. His next two lead stints — one with the Los Angeles Lakers and then another with the Cavs — were cut off at the knees. That’s where the real indignity lies.
Brown spent two underwhelming seasons struggling to get Kobe Bryant’s Lakers to perform like the superteam they considered themselves to be. Two seasons is actually a stretch — his first season was truncated to 66 games, due to a lockout, and he only lasted five games into the following year, even after the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
In 2013, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert tapped his former coach to once again lead the franchise, now bereft of James but featuring a promising young guard, Kyrie Irving, and a big man lottery pick, Tristan Thompson. At the introductory news conference, Gilbert publicly deemed dismissing Brown in 2010 “a mistake.” That feeling didn’t last long. Just one season into Brown’s second tour of duty with the Cavs, following a shake-up of the team’s front office, the coach was again let go, despite a nine-game improvement over the previous season. Weeks later, an older, wiser James surprisingly returned home with his sights locked on bringing a title to the region. Brown had four years and $20 million remaining on his contract.
He sat out the first two championship bouts between the Warriors and Cavs, watching from his couch as Golden State triumphed two years ago and then as James finally brought his long-suffering city a title last season. Brown even kept his house in the greater Cleveland area, which he still maintains.
“The longest I’ve lived in a house is in Cleveland,” Brown told the Mercury News in January. “So technically my boys think of Cleveland as home.”
Then last July, on the same day the Warriors locked up a commitment from free agent Kevin Durant, Brown joined Kerr’s staff as lead assistant, replacing the outgoing Walton. The plates quietly began shifting for this moment, this opportunity. Fans everywhere knew Warriors-Cavs Part III was a real possibility even before Durant’s move; who thought Brown would be the coach patrolling the sideline against his former team?
The NBA is a small club. Bumping into old friends and foes is inevitable. Brown simply calls it the “circle of life” (and yes, he is referencing “The Lion King”). Look no further than the man Brown just ousted to reach The Finals: Gregg Popovich, the legendary coach of the Spurs, with whom Brown won his first and only championship ring as an assistant in 2003. It was Brown’s defensive wizardry in San Antonio that made him a popular prospect for head coaching vacancies at the time, and ultimately landed him the first Cleveland gig two years later. Popovich has been an ardent Brown supporter, criticizing the Lakers firing in 2012 as “quite premature, it would seem, to any logical and objective observer.” And yet here we are, 14 years after they won a title together, with Brown’s killing-machine Warriors sweeping Pop’s hobbled Spurs from the playoffs last week.
Just as Brown had to get past Popovich to reach these Finals, he’s going to have to best some other ex-coworkers to collect his second ring. He remains the coach who accompanied James to his first NBA Finals, the man who imparted strong defensive principles on the highflying face of the league and was named coach of the year in a 66-win campaign. His fingerprints remain on this Cavs team, particularly on the defensive end, and especially on their most important player’s performance there.
If he does come out on top in the coming weeks, perhaps a once-unimaginable fourth head coaching chance awaits Brown.
If it’s all part of the NBA’s “circle of life,” Mike Brown must feel reborn.
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