LAS VEGAS: On the first day of practice inside a glittering high school gymnasium, Mike Brown became a teacher. Even though only four or five players from this summer league roster are expected to be on the team, Brown lined up every player along the baseline and taught his defensive principles over and over.
One by one, he called players out to the court and walked them through a drill, then returned them to the baseline and called out someone else. This went on for two hours of the three-hour practice.
“I knew right then he was very detailed-oriented as far as what he wanted us to do and how he wanted us to do it,” Dion Waiters said. “It’s going to be different.”
Brown is returning to a Cavaliers organization that looks much, much different than the one he left. Although assistant coach Jamahl Mosley is running the summer league team, Brown wanted to set the tone early, so he directed the first four practices. He used the opportunity to show guys like Waiters, Tyler Zeller and rookie Carrick Felix exactly what he expects from them, particularly defensively.
As a result, Brown estimated the players scrimmaged for less than 3½ minutes total out of those first four practices.
“It’s something that has to be drilled on a daily basis, has to be preached on a daily basis,” Brown said. “And the guys have to understand how important it is to you and the rest of the staff and the organization. They have to understand there’s going to be accountability if the smallest of small details doesn’t get taken care of on that end of the floor.”
Waiters became an illustration of the Cavs’ defensive problems last season, particularly when he continuously left shooters open in the corners. It happened against Ray Allen and the Miami Heat, then it happened again in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs when Kawhi Leonard made a wide-open 3-pointer to win the game because Waiters never got close to him.
Waiters remembered that play vividly on Wednesday, even recalling how he spun a complete 360 degrees because he got caught watching the ball instead of Leonard.
“In the long grind of a season, even though you’re not supposed to take games off, mentally you’re just not there,” Waiters said. “I think we had a lot of mental lapses last year. We’d play great defense, then the last five or six seconds on the clock we’d give up buckets. Mentally, it would drain you.”
The Cavaliers are 2-1 through the preliminary round of games and are seeded seventh entering the playoff format. They will face the San Antonio Spurs today at 4 p.m.
Waiters is struggling with his shot through three games, but the focus right now is on defense. The Cavs’ perimeter defenders were among the worst in the league last season. Some of that can be attributed to youth, but not all of it.
“I just locked in on one guy, that was my mindset,” Waiters said. “That was the biggest thing was falling asleep on the defensive end.”
For that, Brown has set the alarm clock this week in the desert. The Cavs were a bad defensive team last season, allowing opponents to shoot a league-worst .476. That is expected to change with Brown back.
“You can have a great defensive team if your guys give effort, if they communicate, if they trust that help will be there,” Brown said. “If you do all those things and you have some physical toughness and mental toughness, you can be a great defensive team.”