Good guys not always good coaches

November, 10, 2012
11/10/12
6:27
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
Archive
Here’s how Mike Brown spent his penultimate night as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers:

The Lakers plane landed back in L.A. just after midnight Thursday following the team’s 95-86 road loss on Wednesday night in Utah that dropped its record to a Western Conference-worst 1-4.

The loss was not sitting well with Brown, so, true to his workaholic reputation, the coach made his way from the airport to the team’s practice facility in El Segundo to break down his squad’s latest lackluster performance by watching film.

The hours ticked by and Brown decided it was time for some shut-eye. He kept a bed at his office in El Segundo for such occasions, but he didn’t have any pillows.

Brown, weary from the start to the season, figured he had better get the best sleep he could -- pillows included -- and decided to check into a hotel. Only problem was, Brown went to not one, but two hotels in the area and both were booked solid.

It was the middle of the night and Brown knew he needed to be back in El Segundo for an early coaches meeting Thursday morning, so he figured the 45-minute drive down to his house in Anaheim Hills that would include another hour drive back in the morning with traffic on the roads wasn’t an option.

Brown drove to Staples Center. His office there had a bed, too. With pillows.

Mike might not have been in L.A. long, but there were plenty of stories like this one.

“Very hard working, maybe one of the hardest-working coaches that I’ve ever been around,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said at the news conference to announce Brown’s firing Friday.

It’s an earnest quality of Brown’s. He’s dedicated. He’s prepared. He pays attention to detail.

But you can work all you want and still not be the right man for the job.

Back in 2009, when I was writing a feature on Phil Jackson, he told me about a note that former Marquette coach Al McGuire once sent to him.

“It said, 'If you can't get it done in eight hours, you ain't gonna get it done,'" Jackson recalled. “So that was one of the things that I try to remember about basketball.”

That concept never sunk in with Brown. He beat the odds in coming from being a mediocre player at a mediocre college basketball program (University of San Diego) to work his way up from intern to video coordinator to scout to assistant coach to head coach of the league’s glamour franchise.

He couldn’t rely on his legendary playing days or nepotism connections or flashy good looks and personality to get him coaching jobs, like a lot of his peers do in the industry.

He did it by working hard. Or by “working his tail off,” which is one of Brown’s favorite phrases.

It was a remarkable journey Brown embarked on, no doubt. But somewhere along the way, his worker reputation became more of an annoyance to his players than an inspiration.

During last year’s lockout-shortened season, when rest was at a premium because of the compressed schedule, Brown would sometimes conduct contact practices on game days instead of simple, low-impact shootarounds. He picked up the nickname “All Day, Every Day” from his players for his reluctance to take a break.

The joke continued on Friday morning, Brown’s last day on the job.

"Me and Jordan Hill kind of were joking a little bit while we were doing therapy and said we might have a five-hour shootaround today,” Kobe Bryant said.

Many believe there is an argument to be made that Brown got a raw deal in L.A.

He joined the team when the league was about to enter its first lockout in 12 years. Pau Gasol, the team’s second-best player, was nearly traded on the eve of Brown’s first training camp, and it sabotaged the Spaniard’s psyche. Lamar Odom, the team’s emotional bellwether, was shipped out of town -- just as Derek Fisher, the team’s truest leader, was later in the season. Brown’s truncated Year 2 was marred by injuries to his key players (Dwight’s back, Kobe’s ankle, Nash’s leg) and he captained only five regular-season games to form his team before management pulled the plug.

But even in ideal circumstances, there’s still doubt about Brown.

One league source asked me on Friday night, “If Brown was always so prepared, how come he let his assistant coaches take over his huddles?”

Indeed, Brown often ceded control of the plays being drawn up during timeouts to his staff. It could be interpreted as trust. One source close to Brown said he had no problem doing it because he was “egoless.” But it could also be interpreted as weakness.

There’s a certain charisma that one needs to be a head coach in the NBA, especially for a team like the Lakers with more outsized personalities on it than the cast of “Modern Family.”

Everyone who knows Brown thinks of him as a good man. There’s little he cares for in this world outside of basketball and his family. But good guys don’t always make good coaches.

Even if you took away all the adverse circumstances that Brown had to contend with in L.A., he made mistakes that were his own doing.

Last season, he spent what little practice time the team had hammering away at his defensive concepts, and the Lakers’ offense suffered greatly because of it. Brown was smart enough to focus his efforts on offense this past offseason. He approached Bryant in the postgame locker room in Oklahoma City after L.A. was bounced from the playoffs in Game 5 of the second round to get his blessing to pursue a new Princeton-style offense. But when the Princeton was sputtering early on this year, he refused to keep it simple during the adjustment period.

He’ll look back at that decision as his biggest failure during his time with the Lakers. But there were others.

He vowed to cut Bryant’s minutes down last season, then turned around and kept Bryant out on the floor for 40-plus minutes with regularity. His first major adjustment to the lineup, bringing Metta World Peace off the bench, was abandoned just a handful of games into the season. He shuffled his rotations seemingly haphazardly. Sure, it paid off with his instinct insertion of Jordan Hill into the lineup late last season. But the same unsettled rotation pattern also rendered free-agent signee Josh McRoberts virtually useless last year, and it appeared Jodie Meeks was headed toward the same fate.

Even having said all that, it surely wasn’t an easy decision for the Lakers’ front office to let Brown go. Even though his players rolled their eyes when he’d plant a kiss on their forehead to punctuate his appreciation and even when media members would tune him out when he’d break out his hokey act of actually tapping his fist against his forehead when he said the phrase “knock on wood” (and he did that a lot), you don’t root for genuinely nice people to fail. You just don’t.

But winning has nothing to do with being nice. It just doesn’t.

So when Kupchak, executive vice president Jim Buss and Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss laid their heads down on their pillows Friday night after a whirlwind day, you have to think they were able to get a good, guilt-free night’s sleep.

The hard worker just wasn’t working anymore. They made the right call.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0