Mike Brown has been fired by the Cavaliers despite consecutive seasons of 60-plus victories and the best winning percentage of any coach in franchise history.
Brown was 272-138 (.663) in five seasons, but couldn't get the Cavaliers out of the Eastern Conference in either of the last two postseasons despite boasting the league's best regular season record both years. The Cavs were eliminated in six games by Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals this month and criticized nationally for their lethargic play following a 61-21 regular season. They were eliminated by Orlando in six games last year in the Eastern Conference finals after winning a franchise-record 66 games during the season.
“After a long and deep analysis of all of the factors that led to the disappointing early ends to our playoff runs over the past two seasons, we concluded that it was time for the Cavaliers to move in a different direction," owner Dan Gilbert said in a statement. "The expectations of this organization are very high and, although change always carries an element of risk, there are times when that risk must be taken in an attempt to break through to new, higher levels of accomplishment. This is one of those times.”
The Cavaliers were never able to recapture their success of 2007, when Brown took a patchwork rotation to the NBA finals, but were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. The Cavaliers' talent and payroll have increased dramatically in each of the last two years. The payroll neared $100 million this year, among the highest in the league, following the acquisitions of Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison. But postseason success never followed.
Brown's firing is the first step in what could be a tumultous summer as the franchise braces for LeBron James' pending free agency. James is expected to opt out of his contract on July 1, although the Cavs are still hopeful of retaining the league's MVP from each of the last two seasons. According to reports, the Cavaliers had to fire Brown by 11:59 p.m. on Sunday in order to avoid paying him his full salary for next season. Brown will instead earn about half of his $4 million. James' relationship with Brown seemed to deteriorate this season, leaving many to speculate that Brown would have to go in order for James to consider returning.
James was critical of Brown's decision to bench Zydrunas Ilgauskas on the November night when Ilgauskas was to become the franchise leader in games played.
When Brown tore into his players publicly following a loss to Boston in Game 2 of the conference semifinals, James dismissed Brown's anger by saying "I've been here before. Now's not the time to panic." It cast Brown as panicked and insecure, even though Brown had "been there before" right alongside James. Then with the series against Boston tied at 2, James seemed to speak for Brown when he offered to defend Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo for an entire game.
"I would love to," James said. "Maybe it's something we should explore."
Brown was hired — and ultimately fired — by good friend and team General Manager Danny Ferry. The pair came from the Spurs during the same offseason. Brown was Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's top assistant and prided himself on defense. The Cavs ranked in the top 10 in fewest points allowed per game in each of Brown's five seasons. They led the league in fewest points allowed last season, but their defense collapsed amid surprisingly sloppy performances in the series loss to the Celtics. Brown directed the Cavaliers to their first Eastern Conference championship in history and an NBA finals appearance against Popovich and the Spurs in 2007, but San Antonio swept the series in four games. The Cavaliers only made it to the conference finals once over the next three seasons.
“I have truly enjoyed working with Mike Brown. Mike has played a huge role in turning around the Cavs organization,” Ferry said. “Over the past five years, Mike established a work ethic, defensive identity and culture of winning that was not here previously.”
Brown was the 17th coach in franchise history. An 18th likely won't be named for awhile, since owner Dan Gilbert is expected to give James input into the hiring of the next coach — should James choose to remain with his hometown team. James spokesman Maverick Carter said last week James has no interest in hiring his next head coach, but the Cavaliers surely wouldn't make a hire without the superstar's approval.
If James stays, the list of candidates would have to include Kentucky coach John Calipari, a known James confidant, and perhaps Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who coached James and the rest of Team USA to a gold medal two years ago.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson might be another possibility, depending on how their season ends. Owner Jerry Buss is tired of paying $10 million for a coach, but Gilbert has never let money stop him before. If Jackson became available, Gilbert would pay $10 million — and more — to secure the coach who has won championships with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and O'Neal.
Should James sign elsewhere, the Cavaliers' job suddenly becomes much less appealing. By extension, so would the interested coaching candidates.
Brown's firing was first reported by ESPN.com.
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