Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown began his NBA career in 1992 as an unpaid video intern with the Denver Nuggets. He parlayed that into five seasons with the team as a video coordinator, then as a scout. Brown’s success as a scout got him noticed by the Washington Wizards, where he got his first taste of coaching as an assistant under Bernie Bickerstaff. As things would have it, good work rarely goes unnoticed, especially under the watchful eye of Greg Popovich from the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs moved Brown West to serve as an assistant coach under Popovich. Brown’s Spurs had a combined record of 177 wins against just 60 losses, with the Spurs winning the NBA championship in Brown’s final season in 2003.
Good news in the NBA travels fast. After winning the championship in San Antonio, coach Rick Carlisle of the Indian Pacers pursued Brown to move East to help him coach the Pacers. Once again, Brown rose to the task, reaching the playoffs for his fifth consecutive season, including three conference finals appearances. Unfortunately for the Pacers, they lost the opportunity to go to the NBA Finals against Detroit in 2004. Brown finished his five-year stint as an assistant coach, going 341-201 for a remarkable winning percentage of 62.9. Having proven himself, Brown was ready to take on the role of head coach.
Being recognized as one of the league’s brightest coaching prospects, with strong defensive coaching skills, Brown was a hot commodity. On June 2, 2005, Brown finally agreed to accept owner Dan Gilbert’s offer to become the head coach of the Cavaliers, replacing Brendan Malone. With the explosive LeBron James on the roster, I imagine that it wasn’t a difficult choice for him to make. Brown was now the second youngest NBA coach behind Lawrence Frank of the New Jersey Nets. His first season, Brown led the Cavs to a 50-32 record and second place in the Central Division, but fell to the Detroit Pistons in the second round.
The following season, with Brown’s system firmly in place, James led the team to another Central Division second place finish with an identical 50-32 record. However, this year the Cavs rolled through the playoffs, defeating the Washington Wizards and the New Jersey Nets with a combined 8-2 record. Next up was the Detroit Pistons, who had eliminated the Cavs in the previous season’s conference finals. Much to the dismay of Cleveland fans, the Pistons won the first two games of the series, even though Cleveland had held the lead for most of both games, falling at the very end. Brown took charge and regrouped his troops, motivating them to even the series at home in Cleveland 2-2.
Game 5 was a nail biter, going into double overtime, with the Detroit fans screaming bloody murder the entire way. Brown pulled James aside and told him that this was the time to take his team to the promise land and put the Pistons down. James responded, scoring the Cavaliers’ final 25 points of the game, including all 18 points in overtime, stunning the Pistons on their home court. With the series returning to Quicken Loans arena back in Cleveland, Brown pushed all of the right buttons, with Daniel Gibson hitting five three pointers to win the game and the series.
Next up was a major emotional moment for Brown. Not only were the Cavs advancing to their first NBA Finals in franchise history, but they had to face Brown’s friend and mentor, Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio had gone 58-24 in the regular season and had disposed of the Denver Nuggets, the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz, going 12-4 on their way to the Finals. Unfortunately for Brown and the Cavs, San Antonio swept the series, giving them their fourth championship in the last eight seasons. There is just no substitute for experience when it comes to the playoffs.
The following season, the Cavs placed second in the Central Division for the third straight year under Brown, with a 45-37 record but lost in the semi-finals. In 2008-09 the club rebounded to win 66 games — most in franchise history — good for first place in the Central Division. The Cavs started out the season with 10 consecutive victories and just kept winning. Cleveland roared into the playoffs sweeping their first two series but unfortunately lost to the Orlando Magic 4-2, ending their impressive run.
The 2009-10 season was the beginning of the end for Brown in Cleveland, in spite of the team dominating the league with 61 wins. The team lost in the conference semi-final series against Boston, with LeBron disappearing for much of the six-game series. On May 24, 2010, Gilbert fired Brown in a desperate attempt to keep free agent LeBron James with the team.
Brown took a season off to clear his head, volunteering as an assistant coach of his son’s team, Westlake Lee Burneson Middle School. It wouldn’t last though, as in May, 2011, he agreed to become Phil Jackson’s successor as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson retired, seeing an NBA lockout looming and wanted no part of it. The team offered Brown a three-year deal to become head coach, with an option for a fourth season.
With training camp cut drastically short by the lockout, Brown had no time to install his Princeton offense. The team acquired All-Stars Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, but the Lakers struggled to adjust to the changes in both system and personnel, going winless in eight preseason games and losing four of its first five regular season games. On November 9, 2012, Brown was fired, as team management felt that Mike D’Antoni’s long-time coaching of Nash would lead to instant success. In spite of Brown’s dismissal, the team struggled throughout the season and was the focus of failing to live up to the high expectations of the media and fans.
Perhaps Brown’s firing could be viewed as a positive event for him, as he was able to escape the constant circus surrounding Dwight Howard and the unrealistic expectations of the ravenous media. Dan Gilbert rectified the mistake he had made years earlier, by rehiring Brown to lead the Cavs’ young team, built mostly thru draft picks in the aftermath of the LeBron James defection. Cleveland had put together some interesting and talented young players thru relentless scouting and smart drafting. With the city crying for a winner, Brown may be just the ticket for the Cavs to return to their previous winning ways. I wouldn’t bet against him, as Brown’s 655-368 record (64.1 percent), shows that he has been a winner throughout his coaching career.