Wine and Gold (Re)United

April 24, 2013
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Less than one week ago – and just hours after the frustrating 2012-13 season wrapped up – the franchise faced a critical decision: Which head coach would lead the young Cavaliers into their next era and, more importantly, back to the postseason promised land?

That decision turned out to be easier and more obvious than originally expected. And on Wednesday afternoon in Independence, owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Chris Grant announced their choice – (re)introducing Mike Brown as head coach of the Wine and Gold.

“You get the benefit of hindsight right now, and in hindsight, (firing Brown) was a mistake,” said Gilbert. “As you all know, that summer that we went through three years ago … was a unique time for us as a franchise; there was a lot of uncertainty on all levels. And we’re very happy we get to rectify any position we took back then by Mike being available right now.

“Maybe he’s meant to be here, but we’re just very excited about today and the future,” continued the Cavs owner. “To me, it just fits perfectly. It’s like a puzzle that fits perfectly together. Mike Brown, and what he brings, is what the franchise needs right now.”

When Brown was introduced, he immediately struck media, fans and team personnel (including Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas) as a different guy. And he wasted no time laying out the team’s philosophy moving forward.

“Our mantra this year is going to be ‘Commitment to the Journey,’” began Brown. “And what that means is we’re going to have players around us that are selfless, that are accountable and that have a blind trust in the group. Once we establish that culture, once we establish that foundation within our group – and this is from ownership on down – then we will be able to start crafting our identity.”

Brown continued: “Our identity will be one of a tough-minded, physical, defensive-first group that is smart in all aspects of the game on both sides of the floor. Our guys will feel it, they will breathe it, they will touch it, and they will see it from myself and my staff on a daily basis. I say daily because this is a process – and I can’t wait to get started.”

Brown was the last man to preside over a Cavaliers club that reached the postseason. And his bona fides are inarguable. He’s not just the winningest coach in team history; he was hands down the best candidate for the current vacancy.

In five seasons with the team, Brown accumulated a 272-138 mark and a winning percentage of .663 – .112 points higher than Cleveland’s second-most successful head coach, Lenny Wilkens. In his five campaigns with the Cavs, Brown made the playoffs in each, winning 42 postseason games and at least one playoff series every year – leading the Wine and Gold to their only Finals appearance in 2007.

After being let go after the 2010 season, Brown took a year off before returning to the Lakers. In his first year in L.A., Brown led the Lakers to another Pacific Division title and advanced them to the second round of the playoffs.

He was fired five games into the 2012-13 season and the superstar-laden Lakers clawed their way through the remaining 77 contests – reaching the final playoff spot in the Western Conference on the final day of the season.

The 43-year-old Brown, who was born in Wurzburg, Germany and played his college ball at San Diego State, was easily the top coaching candidate among the names Cleveland considered. In fact, when Chris Grant laid out the job qualifications at Cleveland Clinic Courts six days earlier – seeking a “worker,” “teacher” and a ‘grinder” who’s had “proven success” with “proven defensive systems” – it was as if he was describing the Cavaliers former coach.

“We certainly knew, going into (Thursday) afternoon and even when we huddled the next day, that we had things that were extremely important to us,” said Grant. “We talked all along how important defense is. We know that no team has ever won a championship without finishing in the top 12 in field goal percentage. We knew the characteristics and the culture and foundation that we wanted in place, and obviously Mike has all of those, if not more.”

The process of hiring of Cleveland’s new (old) head coach moved quickly on both ends. Brown was in Los Angeles, at an AAU event with oldest boy, Elijah – who will be a freshman at Butler this fall – when Grant reached out to him.

(Brown’s younger son, Cameron – who was in attendance at CCC along with Brown’s wife, Carolyn – will be a junior at Westlake High School.)

“When I had this opportunity come across my table, initially it was a shocker,” recalled Brown. “But I got back to what I thought was the foundation of what (Gilbert and Grant) have done and what they believe. And once that happened, for me, it was easy.”

The Cavaliers closed out the season as the worst defensive team in the league and were obviously seeking a new bench boss to remedy that situation. Enter Brown, who seared a defensive mentality into the squad during his previous five-year stint with Cleveland.

The Cavaliers showed immediate improvement under Brown in 2005-06. LeBron James – then the league’s most prolific offensive weapon – became one of its toughest defenders, named to the All-Defensive First Team in 2008-09 (and every year since). Anderson Varejao – previously dismissed as a “flopper” – earned Second Team honors in Brown’s final year with Cleveland and is still viewed as one of the NBA’s smartest and stingiest defenders.

“Everybody, I believe, wants to win,” said Brown. “And in this league you have to defend in order to win. You can’t be mediocre in that area, because if you are, you’re not going to get the results you hoped for.”

Dan Gilbert echoed those sentiments. “We’re very excited to get a defensive identity back with the Cleveland Cavaliers which, as you know, is part of what Mike’s philosophy is all about. We think he was, by far, the best option as head coach for our organization. He’s a grinder, he’s a worker. He’s a guy with integrity and character and, once in a while, he’s even kind of funny.”

Despite Brown’s record on the defensive end, critics cite the Cavaliers’ struggles on the offensive side of the ball. But even that critique has its holes. The Wine and Gold were a top-10 scoring team in 2009-10 (while ranking 4th defensively). In his final two seasons, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s most efficient offensive teams, statistically ranking higher than explosive teams like Phoenix, Orlando and the Lakers.

And Brown readily admitted that, since his last successful stint in Cleveland, he’s grown as a coach.

“I don’t think this is different than any other business,” Brown began. “The longer you’re in it – as long as you’re willing to say ‘I don’t know everything’ – knowing that every time you step out of your house that you’re going to learn and grow every day and get better. I’ve matured more off the court, I’ve matured more on the court. I’ve improved my people skills.

“Generally, it’s a natural process that happens to anybody in any field that’s not close-minded in terms of learning and feeling like they can get better.”

There will be a lot of talk on what happened three seasons ago, where it went wrong and why Brown was released in his first go-round. But the three men who sat on stage at Cleveland Clinic Courts seemed to be focused on the future – one that features a young squad that has a budding superstar, four of the first 33 picks in the upcoming draft and a ton of cap space to work with.

The pundits have an entire offseason to rehash the past. But Mike Brown looked and talked like a man who’s ready to move forward.

“I don’t think I felt bitter about the situation,” concluded Brown. “It was done, it happened. I appreciated the opportunity. I felt we had a nice run. And I was ready to move on, because it doesn’t do any good for myself or anyone else, in my opinion, to dwell on the past. I prefer to stay in the present and look ahead to future – like we’re going to do right now.”