The Cavaliers’ first preseason game this past Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Quicken Loans Arena marked the official return of Mike Brown to the Cavs’ bench. Brown coached the team from 2005-10, when he led Cleveland to its most successful stretch in franchise history.
With LeBron James anchoring the roster, the team made the most playoffs every year, going 272-138 during that five-year period. Most notably, LeBron single-handedly carried the team to the one of the most unlikely NBA Finals appearances in 2007, where the Spurs eventually obliterated them. (Seriously, just look at the box score from that series to remind yourself how bad that team was. No team has any business playing in the Finals when they allow STARTER Sasha Pavlovic to play nearly 32 minutes per game, while also letting Eric Snow play 10.3 minutes off the bench.) The Cavs never reached the Finals again, and the team fired Brown, despite having the highest winning percentage of any coach in team history, after a loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Conference Semifinals, with LeBron also leaving Cleveland that offseason for the Miami Heat.
In 2011, the Lakers hired Brown to replace the legendary Phil Jackson as head coach. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Brown’s Lakers reached the Western Conference Semifinals, where the Oklahoma City Thunder throttled them on their way to their first Finals appearance. The Lakers spent that offseason acquiring superstars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. The goal for the Lakers was simple: title or bust. It was supposed to be fun. It wasn’t. After a winless preseason and a 1-4 start, the Lakers went into panic mode. With their backs against the walls and an angry mob, armed with pitchforks and torches, banging on the Staples Center’s doors, the team decided to fire Brown after just five games.
Now Brown is back in Cleveland, replacing Byron Scott, who in his three years with the franchise, managed to bring in two No. 1 overall draft picks. The Cavaliers brought Brown back for his defensive dexterity, something the team struggled mightily with under Scott. After hiring Brown, owner Dan Gilbert stressed that Brown will instill a defense-first mindset into the team’s young core, something that will be a necessity as they look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010:
“I am more than excited about Mike Brown’s return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Mike has done nothing but win in this league since he was a first-year assistant many years ago. He is going to instill a much-needed defensive-first philosophy in our young and talented team that is going to serve as our foundation and identity as we continue down the path of building the kind of franchise that competes at a championship level for many years to come.”
Under Scott, the Cavs were absolutely horrendous on defense. The team was often in the top 10 or at least on the cusp in several defensive categories under Brown. With Scott leading the team, they ranked near the bottom of these same categories. The table below shows how the Cavaliers compared in Brown’s five-year tenure to the past three years with Scott leading the team. (NBA rank in parentheses.)
|Year||Opponents’ PPG||Opponents’ FG%||Defensive Rating|
|05-06||95.4 (10)||45.5% (18)||105.4 (14)|
|06-07||92.9 (5)||44.8% (8)||101.3 (4)|
|07-08||96.7 (9)||45.5% (11)||106.4 (11)|
|08-09||91.4 (1)||43.1% (2)||102.4 (3)|
|09-10||95.6 (5)||44.2% (4)||104.1 (4)|
|10-11||104.5 (23)||47.5% (27)||111.8 (29)|
|11-12||100.2 (26)||46.7% (27)||108.9 (26)|
|12-13||101.2 (25)||47.6% (30)||109.4 (27)|
Clearly, the Cavaliers performed better defensively under Brown, and since rejoining the team, he has stressed defense over everything. With Kyrie Irving leading the way, rising scorers in Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, and potentially Andrew Bynum, the team will score plenty of points. Defensive will decide if the team makes the playoffs after three straight years in the Eastern Conference’s basement.
Earl Clark, who spent time briefly with Brown while with the Lakers, has noted Brown’s strictness and commitment to defense. Irving and Waiters will both greatly benefit from Brown’s coaching, as the two guards have struggled defensively during their young careers, seeming completely lost on that side of the ball.
In the first preseason game against the Bucks, the Cavs already seemed to make strides defensively. While the Bucks are sure to be mediocre this year, the Cavaliers still held them to only 37.7 percent from the field and forced 23 turnovers in a 99-87 victory. Obviously, it is silly to proclaim the team solved its biggest issue after one meaningless preseason game, but the Cavs still showed signs of vast improvement.
Irving appeared more aggressive on defense, forcing several double teams and gathering two steals, while playing just over 23 minutes. Anderson Varejao played as if he was fighting for a roster spot, also collecting two steals, while interrupting many passes and diving on the ground, as he fought for loose balls and generally disrupted the Bucks’ offense. The team was aggressive overall, getting in the face of shooters and snagging 31 defensive rebounds, while only allowing 12 offensive rebounds.
It’s simple. Buy into Mike Brown’s defense-first philosophy and the team will make massive improvements. In an Eastern Conference where many teams are embracing the tank in hopes of landing Andrew Wiggins, the Cavaliers have enough talent to not only sneak into the playoffs, but maybe even steal a few games–or even a series–like the Golden State Warriors did last season. It’s all riding on the defense.