When is a retread hire not a retread hire?
When the Cleveland Cavaliers hire Mike Brown.
The Cavaliers made it official Wednesday morning, bringing back Brown as coach after a three-year absence. He will receive a reported $20 million over five years and should have a heavy hand in a rebuilding project that already is well under way.
Thus far in his NBA coaching career, Brown has been the fall guy twice. He was let go by Cleveland following the 2009-10 season, when he guided the Cavaliers to 61 games before a disappointing loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
That was the summer of “The Decision,” and the Cavaliers were pulling out all the stops to keep LeBron James in Cleveland. For several seasons, they kept adding big names on the downswing of their careers such as Ben Wallace, Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O’Neal. They overpaid role players such as Boobie Gibson and Anderson Varejao. And they replaced Brown with Byron Scott.
James left anyway, and the Cavaliers fell into the abyss with a 19-63 season that included a record 26-game losing streak. A midseason trade that took on Baron Davis also netted what ended up being the top pick in the 2011 draft, which produced Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson.
After a year off, Brown returned to the sidelines with the Los Angeles Lakers, replacing Phil Jackson and coaching Kobe Bryant. It was his second straight job where any shots he was calling were done with the best interests of his superstar in mind.
Brown became the fall guy again when he was fired after a 1-4 start to this season. Detractors pointed to his hiring of Eddie Jordan and installation of the Princeton offense, and Brown should take some heat for that. But Steve Nash was sidelined, Dwight Howard was nowhere near 100 percent, and the offensive genius of Mike D’Antoni didn’t exactly produce a sea change for an old, overrated team.
Brown’s overall record is 314-167 and his worst record in any full season has been 45-37. He has won at least one playoff series in each of his six full seasons. He certainly benefited from having one of the game’s best suiting up every night in James and Bryant, and figures to have that again in Irving.
Brown’s return to Cleveland also fuels the speculation that James may return there as well. James has said that a return to his home state is not out of the realm of possibility and had nothing but praise for Brown when the news broke earlier this week that he was meeting with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.
James called Brown a “very defensive-minded coach,” which the Cavaliers desperately need. The season-ending injury to Varejao certainly impacted these numbers, but Cleveland was 25th in points allowed, dead last in opponents’ shooting and 25th in opponents’ 3-point shooting.
Here’s a tidbit from the team’s release announcing Brown’s hiring: Among all coaches with at least 400 games during the same time Brown was coaching, Brown’s team’s ranked fourth in scoring defense, second in 3-point scoring defense and first in rebound rate at 52.3 percent.
During Brown’s three-year absence, the rebuilding plan in Cleveland has continued. Irving has blossomed into an All-Star, Thompson showed huge improvement this season and 2012 first-round picks Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller appear to be – at the very least – long-term rotation players.
Coupled with the return of a healthy Varejao – yes, always an iffy proposition – youngsters with growth potential in Wayne Ellington and Marreese Speights, over $20 million in cap space and multiple first-round picks in each of the next three drafts, and this could be a plum job in a couple of years.
The Cavaliers have a 15.6 percent chance of snaring the top pick in the June draft via the lottery and will pick no lower than sixth. If form holds, they will pick third. They also hold the 19th pick from the LA Lakers, the 31st pick from Orlando and the 33rd pick.
If I were a Cavaliers fan, I would be feeling pretty good about this hire. Brown isn’t Phil Jackson, who was never coming to Cleveland. But Brown is a good coach with familiarity with some of the players, management, ownership and the community.
The Cavs could have done a lot worse.