Why was Mike Brown fired? Was it the right decision? We consider these questions in the wake of the Los Angeles Lakers' stunning decision to let their head man go after five games.
There's been noise for weeks that Mike Brown would have a short leash as the Los Angeles Lakers' head coach. Such is life when you are handed four future hall-of-famers. But for Brown to have been fired after five games in an 82-game season is truly a shock, even if the Lakers have looked nothing like their dominant selves this season.
How can we make sense of this? Here's our best attempt:
WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?
What, you mean besides the 1-4 start? There were two major issues that dogged Lakers fans with Brown. First, despite his defensive pedigree, the Lakers were surrendering the 25th most points per 100 possessions in this short season. Last year, the Lakers were 13th, which isn't terrible, but is far below where a Mike Brown-led team should be. This is a club that has the league's best defensive center in Dwight Howard, and they haven't exactly played incredible competition thus far. For them to be 25th is pretty unacceptable, even given the tiny sample size.
The other issue was poor player rotations and minutes distribution. Last year, Kobe Bryant averaged 38.5 minutes per game. The year before last, he averaged just under 34. This year, Bryant is averaging 37 minutes, despite Brown saying he wanted to limit Bryant's court time to preserve his legs. In the Lakers' only win of the year, a blowout against the Detroit Pistons, Bryant played 31 minutes even though the game was essentially over at halftime. It's not just Bryant either. Since being hired, Brown had a tendency to overplay his starters where it wasn't necessary.
At its most fundamental level, though, Brown simply wasn't enough of a game-changer to get more out of a talented roster. It's hard to pinpoint a single thing that Brown did over the past few years to get more out of a player. Last season was Pau Gasol's worst as a pro. This year, so far, has been even worse. Bryant scored more points, but took more shots to get there. Howard, though still very early in his Lakers career, simply hasn't been the defensive game-changer he was in Orlando. Finally, while the Lakers' bench has been very shallow, Brown's coaching hasn't caused a role player to play above his means. Because of that, he's being fired.
IS THIS FAIR TO BROWN?
All the above said ... firing him this soon feels like a massive overreaction. Five games out of 82 is hardly enough time to figure out whether Brown's tactics for coaching this team are going to work.
For one thing, the organization's direction this summer wasn't going to bear fruit overnight. The Lakers, with the blessing of their star player, decided to embark on learning the Princeton offense, and that takes time to pick up. The Princeton is a read/react offense that relies more on understanding opponents' tendencies than running plays. It's somewhat counter-intuitive. That means that lots of time is needed for players who have never played in the system to understand the different reads that come into play for each spot on the floor. The Lakers have exactly one player (Antawn Jamison) that has experience with that style of play. How can they possibly expect everyone else to unlearn their old tendencies and adopt new ones in just five games?
It's also worth noting that Brown has been missing some key players. Steve Nash left the Lakers' second game of the season with a small leg fracture and hasn't returned. The drop-off between Nash and Steve Blake is massive; the drop-off between Blake and Darius Morris as the backup is even greater. Howard, despite technically being healthy, looks nothing like his usual athletic self, especially defensively, following offseason back surgery. For all his deserved praise for pulling off the Nash and Howard acquisitions, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak saddled Brown with an incredibly shallow bench made up of an over-the-hill Jamison, Blake and a bunch of guys off the scrap heap. Jordan Hill, the Lakers' eighth man, was a throw in for a trade involving 37-year-old Derek Fisher. Think about that for a second.
It seems like the Lakers overreacted to public pressure here. Yes, the team is 1-4. Yes, they need to win this season. Yes, they have played poorly. But given the team's injuries and their offseason commitment to a system that takes time to pick up, five games simply isn't enough of a sample to judge this outfit. If anything, making this move is an indictment on the team's decision to hire Brown and install the Princeton in the first place.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The Lakers will likely appoint an interim coach, with Chuck Person reportedly as the leading candidate. (Note that Eddie Jordan, the man most responsible for the Lakers' change in their style of play, is not the leading interim candidate). Bernie Bickerstaff has the most experience on staff, so it looks like he's the guy for now until a decision is made on Person. Don't expect any drastic changes in the Lakers' style of play right away. Things rarely change as much as people expect with midseason firings because the new head man is usually on the old head man's staff.
But in the long term, it sounds like the Lakers are lining up to make a play for former New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. If so, that would mean significant changes in the team's offensive style and pecking order. The Princeton is a system that spreads the point guard's responsibility and around to the rest of the roster. That's obviously 180 degrees removed from D'Antoni's Seven Seconds or Less offense, made popular because of Steve Nash. Bryant respects D'Antoni's coaching chops, but how would he feel about a system that will use him mostly as a spot-up shooter? Can Nash hold up running D'Antoni's system at his advancing age? These are important questions to consider.
Regardless, this move was the clearest indication that this is a short-term fix for the Lakers. As amazing as it sounds in retrospect, even the Heat had the luxury of time when they formed in 2010. Their stars were young, and while there was obviously a lot of pressure, they would likely be elite players through the durations of their contracts. The same cannot be said for Nash, Gasol and Bryant. Whoever becomes the new Lakers' coach must hit the ground running much faster than any in-season hiring has before.