Kings Lean on Brown’s Lessons Learned to End Playoff Drought and Instill Stability

For a while, the suspense of the impending coaching hire existed because the decision was going to speak volumes as to what direction this franchise heads in, but with the hiring of Mike Brown it seems the Kings have pinpointed stability. 

Their three finalists of Brown, Mark Jackson, and Steve Clifford funneled down to the organization’s emphasis on candidates with prior experience and a defensive track record. 

Further simplifying the matter and reducing it to the attention-grabbing binary were reports that the whole thing was down to Brown, McNair and the front office’s favorite, and Jackson, who was Ranadive’s preferred candidate. This set up for a telling scenario.

For one, there was the obvious question of how much involvement Ranadive’s anti-Midas touch has in basketball decision making. If Jackson was chosen for the position, that would connote concerning levels of influence that would contradict what a minority owner told The Sacramento Bee, per Jason Anderson’s reporting last month. 

Ranadive’s ominous, unexplained choice to appear at Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Warriors and Grizzlies in San Francisco on Saturday night didn’t help.

Just as bad, hiring Jackson—who has undeniable coaching chops—still would have been a risky move for this Kings franchise that’s thrashing around helplessly in the dried lake of a sixteen-year playoff drought. Experience and defense were priorities in the Kings search, and while that may very well be provided, picking Jackson would have put the status of instilling stability in the long term in limbo. 

By hiring Mike Brown the Kings not only demonstrated McNair’s unhindered authority regarding front office basketball decisions, but also illustrated a more serious commitment to establishing an environment for what Alvin Gentry called “sustainable winning.” 

Whether he can deliver or not will be a key storyline to the upcoming season, but given the duration of his career in the NBA, he’s learned plenty of valuable lessons along the way.

In the 1990s, after graduating from the University of San Diego, where he played two years for The Torero, Brown began his NBA career in the basketball operations department of the Denver Nuggets as a video coordinator before eventually being brought onto the Washington Wizards coaching staff.

After two seasons in DC, Brown joined Gregg Popovich’s sideline in 2000 and remained in San Antonio for three seasons. In his final year there, the Spurs won the NBA Finals in six games against the New Jersey Nets.

Following the championship run, Brown joined Rick Carlisle as he began his first stint as the head coach of the Pacers. In that first season, Indiana came up short in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champion Detroit Pistons. 

After a second year alongside Carlisle⁠—which included the infamous Malice at the Palace incident involving the defending champs from Detroit, where Brown grabbed Ron Artest out of the stands⁠—he was hired as the head coach of a Cleveland Cavaliers team with a third-year LeBron James primed to do great things.

“Mike Brown is a great choice for the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Popovich said of his former assistant’s first head coaching opportunity. “He possesses both intelligence and energy, along with a great breadth of knowledge. His ability to communicate with players is a major strength and he will make their organization proud.”

Brown was hired a year after the Cavs finished in disappointing fashion. Despite reaching a record of 31-21 and sitting at third in the conference in late February, the club slid to fifth place after going on a 3-9 stretch, which included a six-game losing streak and lead to the firing of head coach Paul Silas. 

Silas was originally brought in to foster the young LeBron, so with James’ first all-star appearance combined with the fact the team was skidding into the final stretch at just four games above .500, Cleveland let him go in a last ditch effort.

Interim head coach Brendan Malone suddenly assumed control of the team before they closed out the season 8-10 and found themselves lying defeated in the ninth spot in the conference, out of the playoffs again.

Cleveland wanted a coach that could take LeBron, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and company to the next level, and so they hired Brown.

“Mike Brown was our first choice and only choice to be the new head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers,” owner Dan Gilbert declared at the time. “Mike has learned from the very best in the business. He is focused on the defensive end of the court and I am highly confident he is exactly what the Cavaliers need to move our team to one of the very best in the NBA.”

Under Mike Brown’s first-year leadership, the Cavs were able to finish with 50 wins, getting the Cavs over the hump and into the playoffs for the first time in seven years. 

In his second year, the team finished with the same record, but this time really took off, finishing fourth in the league defensively and winning the Eastern Conference Finals only to come up short against Brown’s old boss Gregg Popovich and the Spurs.

That ended up being the peak of his success as the next three seasons⁠—despite including a Coach of the Year award for Brown⁠—failed to bring about another Finals appearance, losing to the eventual conference champion each time. 

The Cavs then came falling back towards earth when LeBron departed, burning up to a crisp as the franchise reentered the atmosphere. While the franchise’s best player stood on the cusp of heading to Miami, the Cavs fired Brown seemingly to prove that the organization was willing to make the changes with their superstar in mind. The news of firing Brown sputtered into existence as many speculated whether appeals were being made to LeBron. 

As was often reported, LeBron James was at the end of his patience with Mike Brown. The star had long been critical of his coach’s decisions regarding resting or playing stars. The two also had moments of disagreement in the huddle. In fact, former teammate Shaquille O’Neal proclaimed LeBron “never really” listened to Brown at all.

Shaq’s account includes details of how Brown became apprehensive about challenging his superstar after doing so before, which thus caused the coach to lose some respect from other players. 

The back and forth posturing pertaining to LeBron James proved a bad move for Brown, but one that provided a valuable lesson about dealing with immense talent. Moreover, needing to maintain a consistent yet authentic demeanor with his players. 

As has been noted many times, Brown’s implementation of a “defense-first” mindset was undeniably effective in Cleveland, and whatever mistakes were made could be potentially mended as long as Brown brought that same bottomline to his next job.

Following a year off, the Lakers hired Mike Brown in 2011 to replace the retired Phil Jackson. That year, amid a shortened season, Brown and that Kobe-lead team finished with a 41-25 record before losing in the Conference Semis to the Thunder, who later went to the Finals that year. Brown’s presence kept Los Angeles in the top half of the league defensively, though not to the same standard as under Phil Jackson. 

Barely into year two, with the circus of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard having joined the team, Brown was quickly let go, ultimately being replaced by Mike D’Antoni, who himself regretted ever getting involved in that mess in Southern California. 

In the aftermath of getting fired from the Lakers after five games, his former star player LeBron James came to his defense, saying he felt Brown didn’t get “a fair shake.” And Kobe Bryant claimed he “had a great relationship” with Brown and thanked him for his “hard work” despite mischaracterizations of their rapport.

Brown was beginning to form a reputation as a well-liked coach as evidence by the way his players responded to his tough luck, but one that evidently fell short in the critical department of execution. LeBron may have thought he was a good guy, but he didn’t respect his schematic choices, and no matter how much Kobe supported him, the Lakers direction—particularly offensively—in Bryant’s words, was unclear. 

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert claimed firing Brown was a mistake, so he brought him back in 2013 before firing him again at the end of the year following a 33-49 record. Even as the team’s record and defensive performance improved, it wasn’t enough to keep Brown around. Plus, LeBron was about to return to Cleveland, and the franchise wasn’t looking to recreate the same situation as the superstar’s first stint there.

After the additional lone year in Cleveland, Brown spent the next two seasons away from an NBA sideline. Then he got a job along side Steve Kerr after Luke Walton left to coach the Lakers.

Nobody was surprised Brown got back to coaching in some form. “Mike is a great coach,” Gregg Popovich said of the news. “But more importantly, he’s just a wonderful person.”

Brown may have been brought on to Kerr’s staff because he could rest on the reputation of his well-liked personality—after all, he’s nicknamed “the Mayor”—but even more than that, he offered experience. And the opportunity, in return, offered Brown a chance to learn valuable lessons from a dynastic coach.

After six years in Golden State, Brown has been along for the ride for three Finals appearances, including two rings, as well as a postseason run at this very moment. He also assumed head coaching duties multiple times and got the opportunity to coach the Nigerian national team in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The San Francisco Chronicle detailed a few years ago just how fond Brown is of Kerr’s coaching and how many notes he takes on his boss.

“Brown called working under Kerr ‘the best job I’ve ever had,’ which is high praise, considering that Brown’s resume includes a Finals run with the LeBron James-led Cavaliers and a stint as the head coach of Kobe Bryant’s Lakers,” The Chronicle noted. “But over the past year, as Brown filled more and more notepad pages with Kerr’s speeches, he sometimes wondered how he’d handle a head-coaching job differently than he had in previous stops.”

The lessons provided from working with Kerr have allowed each of them to improve. Kerr, for instance, credits Brown with making him “more organized” while Brown has learned to become more “flexible” and to be prepared to make necessary adjustments.

Exactly what these valuable lessons have provided for Mike Brown will make itself known this year as he tries to lead this Kings team into the playoffs for the first time in sixteen years. With another head coaching opportunity, Brown has a chance to prove he’s more than just a well-liked, respected personality and deliver what Gentry called “sustainable winning.”

He may have the requisite characteristics for creating a “sustainable” culture, but it will nevertheless be imperative for Brown to illustrate he’s taken that next step in his coaching development and can secure the actual “winning.”

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