One-on-One with Cavaliers Head Coach Mike Brown

On June 2, Mike Brown was named the 17th head coach in Cleveland Cavaliers history, but perhaps none of the 16 men before him have had the pressure that will greet Brown when he coaches his first game for the Wine and Gold in early November.

The second-youngest coach in the NBA, Brown, 35, has served in various roles in the NBA for the past 13 seasons. Most recently, he was the Associate Head Coach of the Indiana Pacers for the past two seasons. Brown began his career in 1992 with the Nuggets and as an assistant coach in the NBA; Brown’s teams have compiled an overall record of 341-201 (.629).

The rookie coach and defensive specialist took time from his busy schedule preparing for the upcoming season to talk with about a myriad of topics including LeBron James' role, the pending free agency season and the interview process that landed him the job with the Cavaliers. So what have you done so far to get yourself assimilated to the area and the team?
A lot of it is just getting used to this building! (laughs) This is by far the trickiest building to get into and out of. I’ve almost gotten locked in a few times. I’ve definitely taken some walks around the perimeter around the inside.

Besides that, I'm just getting acclimated to the area and organized around the office. And with the uncertainty of the general manager spot and the president’s spot I’ve gotten myself as educated with the draft and free agent market as I can. You mentioned at your introductory press conference that you'd already spoken with LeBron James. Have you had a chance to speak with any of the other players?
I’ve had a chance to speak with all of them. I spoke to most of them over the phone and there’s about four or five that I’ve seen face-to-face on a couple of occasions.

Eric Snow and I have a long relationship and Ira Newble and I have a relationship from when I coached him in San Antonio, so there are a few guys that I’ve had a history with, but for the most part I’ve talked to all of them over the phone instead of face-to-face just because I need to be here and they’re kind of scattered about to all points. That’s the life of a player. (laughs) As a former coach of a Central Division club, what were your impressions of the Cavaliers from afar?
We’ve always respected this team and the job that was done here by Paul Silas and his staff. We just felt that they were a talented and dangerous team. They had weapons inside, they had weapons outside. Of course, they had the superstar in LeBron James.

So this is a team that we respected and we were happy to get any win, however it turned out – one point, ten points, half-a-point. Whenever you played the Cavaliers, that’s what you hoped to get. LeBron James is one of, if not the most well-rounded players in the game. Is there any part of his game that you'd like him to work on for next year?
Well I’m excited because I think there’s a lot of things I’m going to learn from him, not just this year but in many years to come, hopefully.

I think one of the areas I’d like to see him play in is the post-up area. With his size, speed, strength, athleticism, dexterity…I mean I could go on and on with positives that describe his physical talents, but with all those things, I think he’d be an excellent post-up player. So I’d like to pull him in closer and see what he can do. At the end of last season and at various points in his rookie year, LeBron was handling the ball in the offense. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m not going to speculate on whether he’s going to be a ‘point forward’ just yet, but this is a guy who can play multiple positions and depending on the size or what the other team has on the floor, I think he can play positions one through four.

I know what we’d like to do in our early offense is we don’t necessarily always want it to be in our point guard’s hands. Maybe our two will bring the ball up. Maybe the three will bring it up. And, you know, the guys who don’t have the ball – for instance the other perimeter players – they’ll know their spacing and where they should be on the floor.

But I have no problem with LeBron or anyone else initiating our offense from time-to-time. What's your take on the point guard situation as it stands now?
There were two pretty good point guards here last year in Jeff McInnis and Eric Snow and they’re in the process of getting evaluated now and we’ll figure out what’s going to happen after the draft and after the free agency period. The Cavaliers are obviously a team "under construction." But is there a facet of the squad, besides James, that you feel is solid?
Well you certainly can’t discount that Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a very talented player and he is a difference-maker in ballgames.

The last two teams that I was involved with, we had a big guy in the middle and that made a tremendous difference with us, with Tim Duncan and David Robinson and Jermaine O’Neal, Antonio Davis and Jeff Foster in Indiana. Any time you have a guy of Z’s size and ability, you have to try to build around that. And, hopefully, if things work out this summer, we’d like to have him back in a Cavaliers uniform. He’ll be part of this thing for a while. It took you 13 years to get your first head coaching opportunity in the NBA. Had you been making a list of things that you'd do when you got that shot?
Not necessarily a list, but what it is, is going through the grind, I guess, or what I went through to get to where I am, you get to experience this business from all different levels and angles. So I’ve been where a lot of people are. And I can feel compassion for somebody that’s not in the same position that I’m in or the assistant coaches are in. I’ve been there and I know what people go through.

And this business is not that lucrative if you’re not a player or a head coach or a general manager. People are in this business because they love being around pro sports. I think that as long as you make everybody comfortable or like they’re needed or welcome, that I think you’ll get a lot of mileage from people.

My biggest thing is, I want make sure that I treat people the right way no matter who they are. What will be the signature of a "Mike Brown team"?
The most important thing is we have to defend. Everybody in this league got to this league because they have talent. Most of these guys have the ability to put the ball in the hole and that’s not going to happen every night. It doesn’t happen on the road a lot and it doesn’t always happen at home. There are times where, defensively, you’re going to have to win some ballgames.

What I’d like to instill is a defensive mindset from these guys and a mindset that we’re going to give it as much effort as we can for as long as we can. And I think the team that does that for closer to 48 minutes wins. No team plays hard for 48 minutes, but that should be everybody’s goal. And it’s going to be our goal. And I think if we do that, we’ll continue to get better and our wins and losses will come out the right way at the end of the day. Last year, the Cavaliers often had a hard time getting their engine started at the beginning of games. What do you plan to do to combat this problem?
It’s not necessarily that you need to come out of the gate like gangbusters, and take a lead. In fact, I’m always uncomfortable when we come out against a team and go up 20-10. NBA games are too long to have a blowout from the beginning of the game. And that goes for the second quarter, third quarter or start of the fourth.

What I’m more inclined to do is say, let’s go out and do what we do best and as the game goes on we’ll make our adjustments as we need to. What we really need to focus on is closing quarters the right way.

The really good teams – you look at teams like San Antonio and Detroit – they close quarters the right way. The game seems like it’s close, close, close and then you look up and they’re up 15 at the end of the third quarter and it’s not necessarily that they blew the team out from the beginning, but at the end of those previous quarters, they close up with a 7-0 run or a 9-4 run and at the end of each quarter those four or five points start to add up. And before you know it, you’re going into the fourth quarter up by 15. Is tough team defense a mindset or is it a gameplan?
It depends. Because I’m a “system” guy. I don’t think you can guard anyone in this league one-on-one. Even your “bad” offensive players can find a way to get fouled or find a way put the ball in the hole on any given night.

So what I like to do is to make sure that as a team – those five guys on the floor – that we defend the basket first and the ball second. And that is done system-wise. If one man moves or reacts to the ball, then the other four are moving. Everybody has to have communication, everybody has to have trust in one another, and everybody has to help one another. And if you can get those three things instilled in your team, then you’ll be a pretty good defensive unit.

Combine that with wanting to give effort – it doesn’t necessarily always have to an intense effort – but it has to be a hard effort every time on the floor. That will translate into a good defensive team. You said at your press conference, "I don't discipline players because players are grown men. I discipline my children. I work with men." Can you expand on that?
Everyone has to be held accountable. I’m going to hold myself accountable, too. So, there’s a difference between holding someone accountable and disciplining someone. Disciplining someone means that you’re an authoritative figure and in a way, whether it’s good or bad, you’re demeaning them a little bit to get them back in their place and I’m not trying to do that with our guys.

Our guys want to win and from that standpoint, if they do something wrong, it will be pointed out and if there’s something wrong there will have to be consequences to help get that corrected.

But I’m all about that this is a working environment and you’re the players and I’m the coach, but we’re in this together. We’re in this to win ballgames and just as I think they’ll learn from me and my coaching staff, we’ll learn a lot from them, too. Does being one of the youngest head coaches in the league help you with the players?
Yes, I am young. But I feel like I’ve been in this business on every level and I’ve had a chance to interact with the players on different levels, so I think, if anything, the ability that I have in terms of relating to the players is a positive.

And one thing I know that I’m going to do is give them respect and with it you get respect back. That’ll happen if they’re good people. And I think they’re good people. Can you take us through the interview process of how you ended up as the new Cavaliers head coach?
Obviously, being in Indiana with Rick Carlisle, I was given a lot of exposure in terms of just being able to go out and coach. He literally said, ‘Mike, you have the defense and I have the offense.’ Not only that, whenever there’s a timeout, in the huddle I’m the first one to address the team in the huddle. Then he addresses them. In the locker room, I’m the first one to address the team at halftime.

So, he allowed me a lot of freedom to grow as a coach. My title was Associate Head Coach and he really let me have that much authority to take on that title. Being with him for the two years and getting that experience, along with Popovich and Bernie Bickerstaff, prepared me for this situation.

From what I understood, I was getting watched during our Pistons series. And that’s not something you think about. When I’m in the game, I’m in the game. I’m not thinking about who’s watching and listening. But apparently the new Cavaliers owners did some homework and some research and came up with my name and they were intrigued in who I was as a possible candidate.

So they started watching me at games and because of the freedom Rick gave me that I mentioned, it really cast me in a different light in contrast to other assistant coaches.

As soon as our series against Detroit ended, I got a call from Donnie Walsh and he said the Cavs are interested in talking with you but I’d like to talk to you first. I said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ Of course, Donnie was great. He gave me some great advice and then gave me permission to talk to these guys.

I flew out that afternoon and spent the evening at David Katzman’s house with Dan Gilbert, David and Steve Cicurel, and we were supposed to watch an Eastern Conference Finals game between Miami and Detroit, and were going to do the interview process the next day.

We got our dinner, and somebody – I can’t remember who it was – asked me a question and then it just snowballed from there. So we basically started talking and, man, I can’t even remember who won that game. We hammered away at it for maybe three or four hours, and about 11 o’clock. I ended up going back to my hotel.

The next day they gave me a tour of their offices – Quicken Loans – and got after it again. We stayed in a room and hammered it out until about an hour-and-a-half before my flight. The next thing you know, they called me back and said, ‘Mike, you’re our guy.’ They said they knew we don’t have a permanent GM and a president in place now, but we feel we’re on the same page, philosophy-wise and we’d like to get this done right away. I was in agreement.

My agent and them worked out a contract and the next day I flew up to Cleveland for the press conference. With the free agency period almost upon us, what are your thoughts on the people you'd like to see brought to Cleveland?
Well the biggest thing is that we have a franchise player on this team in LeBron James. And we need to make sure that we put the right pieces around him. Everyone says, ‘LeBron can do this and LeBron can do that’. We know he can he can do those things, be we have to make sure that we put him in the best possible environment to succeed and help the team win ballgames.

First thing we want to do is make sure we put the right character people around him. And once we find those type of people, we’ll assess their basketball talent.

We need guys who can space the floor, especially if LeBron works in the post, or if he wants to drive and kick. We need people to take pressure off him on the defensive side of the floor so that he doesn’t always have to defend the best offensive player. There’s definitely players out there that fit those categories and it’s just going to take some time for us to weed them out and target who we’re after.

We want to make sure before we do anything that we address the situation with Z; and we’ll go from there. The last two seasons, the Cavaliers missed the playoffs by a single game. What can you do to make sure that the Cavaliers don't fade down the stretch and be on the outside looking in.
In this business, if things are going bad, you’re not that far from things turning around a going good. And when you’re going good, you’re not far from things going bad.

So I just try to keep an even keel throughout the season and that’s why I said what I said earlier: If you give effort, and you play hard for as close to 48 minutes as possible, you’ll put yourself in a position, throughout and at the end of the season, to win some ballgames and not where you’re depending on the last game or two. And that’s what my philosophy has always been.