INDEPENDENCE: It was a stunning admission, even from a man as emotional as Dan Gilbert.
“Yeah, it was a mistake. For sure it was a mistake. In hindsight it was a mistake,” the Cavs owner said Wednesday.
He was talking about the May 2010 decision to fire coach Mike Brown in a desperate attempt to keep free agent LeBron James.
Gilbert doesn’t keep a lid on his feelings. He’s infamous for his outrageous tweets and post-Decision email. But it still seemed rare for a billionaire businessman like Gilbert to fall on his sword.
He was expected to express some regret as he reintroduced Brown as the replacement for Byron Scott. But even those who have spent time around Gilbert were surprised at how far he went during a news conference at the Cleveland Clinic Courts.
“That summer we went through three years ago, which in NBA years is about 60 years, it seems that long ago, it was a unique time for us,” Gilbert said. “The franchise, there was a lot of uncertainty on all levels. We’re very happy we get to rectify the position we took back then. Maybe it’s meant to be.”
A rush to judgment cost Brown his job after the Cavs lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Cavs were torn about whether to keep Brown, the 2009 NBA Coach of the Year. When the season ended, they had a 10-day window to make a decision before they owed Brown the full $4 million for the remaining year of his contract. They asked for an extension, but Brown said no, worried that letting the situation drag out would jeopardize his chances of finding another job.
On Wednesday when Brown was asked if Gilbert admitted that firing him wasn’t his greatest idea, Gilbert jumped in to banter with General Manager Chris Grant.
“Chris, didn’t you fire him?” Gilbert said. “Who fired him?”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Cavs took the impatient route. Gilbert showed the world that trait in full Comic Sans glory two months later.
Such impatience seems to cling to Brown. The Los Angeles Lakers dumped him five games into his second season last November even though he had a reported $11 million remaining on his contract.
But giving Brown the boot wasn’t the only mistake Gilbert made during James’ seven seasons in Cleveland. Five of those seasons (along with two months of the 2004-05 season) came under Gilbert. The owner might regret the franchise’s laissez-faire attitude toward James that led to a lack of accountability for the then-two-time MVP. He might wish he hadn’t given James’ entourage such access. Gilbert might also approach the free-agent puppetry James put prospective employers through differently if he had the chance.
Gilbert’s knee-jerk reaction in what he referred to as “Mike Brown 1.0” set the team back defensively, even as it found itself forced to rebuild after James’ departure. Scott was fired after three seasons with the worst winning percentage of any Cavs coach with one full season. Surely that percentage would have been higher if Brown had been guiding the young Cavs and emphasizing defense.
As unimaginative as the Cavs’ offense was in Brown’s first installment, I don’t believe the Cavs’ decision to embark on “Mike Brown 2.0” will cost them a chance to lure James in free agency in the summer of 2014. Brown has to have learned something about offense — or at least learned the value of an offensive coordinator — from his time with the Cavs and Lakers.
James should have realized Brown helped him become one of the league’s best defensive players. James might have come to regard Brown in the same way he looks at his former St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Keith Dambrot, now at the University of Akron. James admitted in March how hard Dambrot was on him as a youngster, but said he now understands why Dambrot pushed him so hard.
The question of how the rehiring of Brown might play with James was danced around Wednesday, with James referred to only as “the elephant in the room.”
“In NBA terms, there’s so much that happens in a year,” Gilbert said. “You can’t speculate in the next 12 months what’s going to happen and where we’re going to be and where everybody else is going to be. You focus on right now. You can’t get too far ahead of yourself because you don’t control certain things.”
Rather than worry about where the relationship between James and Brown stands, Cavs fans should be more concerned with how Brown will get Kyrie Irving to buy into his defense-first philosophy after showing no interest in it in two years. Should Irving become disenchanted with the Cavs and start planning his departure, there’s no way James would return.
But as Gilbert brought back Brown, he showed a desire to get it right eventually. He sucked it up and hired the best candidate available who was willing to come to Cleveland. He showed he’d learned from his mistake. It could bode well for the future, even when it comes to that far-from-anonymous elephant.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.