Tuesday, July 26, 2005
Updated: July 28, 10:40 AM ET
Larry loves a challenge? Congrats, Coach Brown
By Marc Stein
Did someone say Dream Job?
Coaching a team that can only hope it has the chance to lose to the Detroit Pistons in the first round of next spring's playoffs?
Let's clarify matters. Coaching the Knickerbockers of yesteryear would have been a dream for Brooklyn-born, Long Island-reared Larry Brown. Coaching the Knicks of Pat Riley's years, or even Jeff Van Gundy's years, would be a lot closer to dreamy than this.
This fast-moving marriage of Larry Brown to Isiah Thomas, so soon after Larry joined Isiah in exile from Detroit, is really only a dream sequence for the Knicks.
Just like the Lakers with Phil Jackson, Isiah's Knicks are getting the only free-agent name out there who (a) can make them 10 wins better immediately and (b) they could actually get.
(Hint: It ain't Jerome James.)
Brown, in return, is getting the biggest reclamation project he's ever undertaken, in a career full of them.
That's right. This will be an even tougher job than resurrecting the Clippers, who missed the playoffs for 15 consecutive seasons before Brown arrived and who have made it only once since he left in 1993. Pressure and expectations were never factors in Clipperdom, even after Larry took over, and there isn't a GM on the planet who wouldn't swap the Knicks' current roster for the Clips' deep 1991-92 crew fronted by Danny Manning and Ron Harper.
Yet you sense that New Yorkers aren't hearing any of that and will expect a bit more than those 10 extra wins.
You sense that New Yorkers have been too dizzy from a week of Larry Fever to notice that even the No. 8 slot in the East might take more than a 10-win spike.
There is little question Brown's arrival can indeed lead to that sort of improvement right away. For all the drama he generates and that history of wearing on his stars -- and his bosses -- Larry's résumé says so. Brown has taken every NBA franchise he has ever coached to the playoffs, all seven of them.
That's a league record.
There can also be no dispute that, just by signing a contract, Brown makes the Knicks relevant again, for maybe the first time this century. It's bad enough that one of the league's flagship franchises has been so toothless lately, stringing together four straight losing seasons and coming off a 33-49 showing. It's far worse that the Knicks have been so boring in the new millennium, even after appointing Thomas in December 2003 to succeed Scott Layden.
There is plenty in New York to discomfort Brown, all of it separate from the serious bladder problems that plagued him for much of last season and which still linger.
Larry has already found it difficult to coach Stephon Marbury (at last summer's Olympics) and now faces philosophical clashes with two shoot-first guards in the same ill-conceived backcourt: Marbury and Jamal Crawford, neither of whom possesses a trade-friendly contract.
Larry is known for defense, but few Knicks are (if any). He'll be trying to preach his defense-first message not to the selfless Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace or Tayshaun Prince but to a group that finished 28th in the league in opponent field-goal percentage last season.
Larry is famed for getting role players to overachieve, but he's looking at a lot of role players on his hometown team. In Philadelphia, Brown at least had one MVP-caliber talent to build around. Marbury is no Allen Iverson, and the cast surrounding Marbury features no less than five undersized power forwards (Malik Rose, Jerome Williams, Michael Sweetney, Maurice Taylor and rookie David Lee) and two centers (James and No. 8 overall pick Channing Frye) who are far from proven.
Maybe most unsettling of all is the underrated level of competition in the East.
New Jersey, last season's No. 8 seed, suddenly has a core (Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and Shareef Abdur-Rahim) that should put the Nets in the top four alongside Detroit, Miami and Indiana.
Washington rebounded from the loss of Larry Hughes by striking deals to acquire Caron Butler and Antonio Daniels, which figures to keep the Wiz in the top eight, and Chicago still has a youthful core to envy, provided the Bulls hang onto Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry.
With Philadelphia bringing everyone back and hiring a coach (Maurice Cheeks) adored by Iverson, Boston looks like the only '04-05 playoff qualifier that could slide, and that's only because the Celtics are going young.
Cleveland and Milwaukee, meanwhile, are two non-playoff teams that have strengthened significantly through free agency.
Both look more like playoff material than the Knicks, unless Isiah and Larry can trade the expiring contracts of Tim Thomas and Penny Hardaway for parts that fit better.
You can understand why Isiah was willing to sacrifice a good chunk of his space on the Madison Square Garden marquee and thus empower the Gotham press to start calling this Larry's Team -- to keep hope alive among Knicks fans and extend his own teetering tenure. As with the Lakers, who have similar payroll problems that prevent major roster upgrades, adding a Hall of Fame coach was the straightest route to improvement for the Knicks.
You can likewise understand why Larry couldn't say no. He admitted during the NBA Finals that he lives to be loved, even by the 12th man he's not playing. His beloved Knicks have showered Brown and his family with Come Home affection from the minute his messy split with the Pistons became final. And he doesn't have to win a championship with the Knicks to cement his legacy because he won one with the Pistons. Love is what Brown craves most now and he figures he'll win enough with the Knicks to get that validation, even if it doesn't happen in Year 1.
You can't say it much better than Phoenix Suns assistant coach Alvin Gentry said it in a recent discussion with the New York Times. Reminiscing about Larry with our pal Howard Beck, Gentry likened his former boss to the Lone Ranger.
"He's comes in, does what needs to be done and moves on for another challenge," Gentry said.
This will be Brown's 11th coaching stop, presumably the last for a man who'll be 65 when training camp starts in October ... and fittingly his biggest challenge yet.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.