Coaching news has rudely interrupted the endless stream of first-round playoff games, as both Charlotte and Cleveland came to major decisions about their head-coaching positions on Tuesday. The Bobcats’ semi-surprising decision to fire Mike Dunlap with one season left on his contract marked the fourth departure of a head coach since the end of the NBA regular season, which happened just one week ago. That round of firings followed four in-season dismissals, and three of the teams that made in-season changes — Milwaukee, Phoenix, and the Nets — are at the very least going to think very hard about making new hires in the next month or two.
At the high end, as many as 10 more teams could make coaching changes over the summer: Brooklyn, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Toronto, the Clippers, Memphis, Washington, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Phoenix. I’m not sure there’s ever been a better time to be the agent for a leading NBA assistant; one coaching agent told Grantland on Tuesday that the Cavaliers’ decision to hire Mike Brown might function as the coaching version of the Big First Domino trade that loosens up the player-movement market before the trade deadline every season.
Some of those teams are unlikely to pull the trigger, though there remains at least a possibility they will. The Grizzlies are a better than 50-50 bet, at least, to bring back Lionel Hollins, though a sweep in the first round might change things, and Hollins could look at the $4 million-$5 million salaries Byron Scott and now Brown are commanding in Cleveland and make some hefty demands. Rick Adelman will coach the Timberwolves as long as he likes; only a setback in his personal life would lead to his departure. The Clippers’ brass are saying nice things about Vinny Del Negro, in the final year of his contract, but lots of front offices have said nice things about coaches before showing them the door. The Suns are in turmoil with the firing of GM Lance Blanks. The Nets and Hawks are solid playoff teams without obvious grounds to can their unspectacular coaches, and Brown’s departure for the Cavaliers takes one of Danny Ferry’s rumored preferred candidates off the market. (Quin Snyder, Ferry’s friend from Duke and current assistant for Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow, will likely be in the mix if the Hawks move on from the very solid Larry Drew).
Jim Boylan is a creative mind, but probably isn’t the long-term solution in Milwaukee — especially with former Bucks assistant Kelvin Sampson itching for a head-coaching job in the NBA. Dwane Casey and Bryan Colangelo have tied themselves together in seeking another year in Toronto, and Randy Wittman seems safe, for now, with the Wiz.
Still, teams more than ever are recognizing the importance of high-quality, creative coaching, and this promises to be a very interesting few months in coaching circles. Some quick thoughts on the most interesting bits of news:
The Bobcats hired a relatively unknown college assistant and empowered him to do bold things — teach the game in very long practices, give and take away playing time without worrying about repercussions, and experiment in games with innovative defenses. There was something refreshing about the whole thing. The Bobcats were young and bad; why not turn the team into a real-time laboratory for pressing defenses and extreme, pack-the-paint zones and hybrids that looked like amped-up versions of Tom Thibodeau’s strongside overloading defenses? Perhaps the Bobcats could build a unique identity and discover some inefficiencies about NBA strategy by thinking outside the box with very little actually at stake.
And guess what Charlotte got? A demanding, college-style coach who experimented with unusual tactics, controlled playing time with an iron hand and (at least at first) held very long practices. Charlotte, in other words, got just about what it expected — what it publicly celebrated upon hiring Dunlap — and decided almost immediately it didn’t like the idea.
And it’s not as if Dunlap was some crazed maniac. He cut the practice lengths once he realized NBA players wouldn’t tolerate it. He was quiet on the sidelines, even in arguing with officials. He scaled back the full-court pressure and the craziest inside-out schemes once the league figured them out and started raining 3s on the poor Kitties.
There’s no question Dunlap’s style grated on the veteran players, and even some of the young ones. The confrontation with Ben Gordon, first reported by Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, was real and perhaps representative, though Gordon spent much of the season loafing on defense to an embarrassing degree. Most Charlotte players sort of chuckled and shook their heads when I asked them, at games in Toronto and then New York, about working within Dunlap’s frenetic defensive scheme; Gordon almost sneered out the word “college,” and even positive guys like Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker were clearly ready for the season to be over.
And Charlotte was really, really bad. The Bobcats will crow about both their 7-5 start and 7-9 finish, but if I were evaluating the team (and, look, I am!), I’d focus much more on the 54 games in between. The 7-5 start was nice, but anyone with half a brain realized it was fool’s gold — a bunch of 50/50 close wins, filled with buzzer-beaters and missed enemy buzzer-beaters and uncalled fouls on those missed buzzer-beaters, sprinkled around blowout losses. And no team should make any real assumptions about itself based on a solid stretch run to a lost season against other lottery dregs playing out the string. Five of Charlotte’s last seven wins came against fellow lottery teams in various stages of “I don’t give a crap” sloth, and the other two came against the flailing Bucks and a New York team that rested its four best players in its next-to-last game. That 7-9 finish, even with some nice play from Bismack Biyombo, Walker, and Henderson, is borderline meaningless.
The meat of the season consisted of 54 games in which the Bobcats went 7-47 and were outscored by 13.7 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's only 1.8 points per 100 possessions better than the Bobcats managed in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, when they were arguably the worst single-season team in NBA history. In the end, Charlotte’s average game margin this season — about -9.25 points game, by far the worst in the league — still places them among the two dozen or so worst teams in league history. The Bobcats, even with some amorphous progress, were still closer this season to “historically bad” than “run-of-the-mill bad.”
It’s unclear how much better Dunlap could have really done here. He massaged the Bobcats' shot selection in the right direction, ordering more 3-pointers and shots at the rim, and cutting Charlotte’s midrange attempts, which were disastrously high in 2011-12 under Paul Silas. Kemba Walker improved as a scorer, though much of that probably came as natural Year 2 progression, and Henderson stepped up his aggression as both a long-range shooter and a scorer in general. Henderson probably wasn’t playing enough early on, as Dunlap gave starts and heavy minutes to the overmatched Jeffrey Taylor, but the rest of the alienated bench guys — Gordon, Tyrus Thomas, Byron Mullens, DeSagana Diop — have done nothing over the last few seasons to justify serious playing time. The lack of time for Reggie Williams, a keen signing ahead of last season, was puzzling, but the Ramon Sessions injury was a huge blow, and this roster just isn’t any good.
I mean, look at the big-man rotation: Diop, Thomas, Jeff Adrien, Biyombo, Brendan Haywood, and (once upon a time) Hakim Warrick. That seriously might be the worst offensive big-man rotation in NBA history. The Bobcats at one point midseason were running the offense through Warrick at the elbow, which is basically as effective as running the offense through me at the elbow. When the Bobcats acquired Josh McRoberts and stuck him in that role, he looked like Bill Walton on offense compared to the rest of these guys.
So much of this is about lottery luck, too. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be a very nice player, especially when he learns to shoot, but the future of this franchise would look entirely different were Anthony Davis on this roster.
Look, Dunlap came on a cheap two-year deal. The players didn’t like him all that much, and he may have been a deterrent to those theoretical free agents dying to soak up Charlotte’s max-level cap space this summer. (Note: That $20 million in approximate cap space the Bobcats are trumpeting at every chance is also mostly theoretical. Charlotte has about $41 million committed to eight players next season. Henderson’s cap hold takes up another $7.7 million of that space, and the no. 2 pick would eat up another $4 million or so. Toss in charges for empty roster spots, and the Bobcats are looking at something like $8 million in actual cap space — at least before deciding on Henderson’s fate.)
Dunlap's defenses didn’t work — at least not yet. There’s little harm, both in terms of money and public relations, in cutting the cord on this experiment and trying to lure a quality NBA assistant — Brian Shaw and Mike Malone stand out as candidates, along with former Suns head man Alvin Gentry and others — to this bench, using that cap space, another top-five pick, and two future first-round picks coming from Detroit and Portland, respectively.
But the Bobcats got almost exactly what they hired in Dunlap. That they hired him in the first place is the thornier issue here.
The (re)hiring of Mike Brown, for as much as $5 million per season, is entirely about the Cavaliers’ defensive culture. Cleveland improved by tiny bits on defense in Byron Scott’s three seasons there, at least relative to league average, and there’s something to be said for maintaining that improvement even after losing Anderson Varejao to a season-ending injury this year. But the improvements were so small as to border on inconsequential; Cleveland ranked 27th in points per possession, about where it was in Scott’s prior two years, and the team was just a total mess on that end of the floor.
Teams with young players are usually going to be a total mess defensively. Kyrie Irving is still completely out of sorts navigating NBA screening action, both on and off the ball, though carrying such a heavy burden on offense makes it hard for Irving to reserve the required energy for the other end. Dion Waiters should be fine in the long run on the wing, but he was clueless this season. Tyler Zeller, predictably, isn’t ready to be a starting NBA center.
But more than that, there just didn’t seem to be any rules to Cleveland’s defense. Basic pick-and-roll strategies often changed possession-to-possession, and player-to-player, and rotations behind the play were either chaotic or nonexistent. Good defensive teams talk about all five players being “on a string” — moving together, so that when one player slides into help position at Spot X, his teammate knows naturally that he should move into Spot Y.
What’s the opposite of five guys “on a string”? Five guys rowing a canoe in different directions? That was Cleveland’s defense on too many possessions, on too many losing nights.
The concerns about Brown’s offensive system and in-game adjustments are real, but very few head coaches pass those tests on a Popovichian level night-to-night. And Brown’s Lakers in 2011-12 ranked only 13th in points allowed per possession. In his, umm, defense, that was a lockout-shortened season in which a new coaching staff had to proceed without a proper training camp or practice time, and this season’s Lakers, with Dwight Howard in Andrew Bynum’s place, have ranked about a half-dozen spots worse on defense than Brown’s bunch the year before.
There are rules in Brown’s defense, and those rules won’t change willy-nilly. Players at all spots on the floor — point guards, big men, wings with various job assignments on both high and side pick-and-rolls — will know exactly what they're supposed to do on every typical NBA set. That kind of certainty fosters accountability, and the very best defenses — Memphis, Indiana, Boston, Chicago, San Antonio, Miami — thrive on that combination. The rules are different in each place, and sometimes vary by player (David West and Roy Hibbert, for instance, defend pick-and-rolls in different styles for the Pacers), but they're essentially unchanging. Players who don’t follow them won’t play. Players who get lazy on defense and decide to conserve energy there, missing a rotation in the process, cannot hide behind confusion with the scheme.
This is step one of building a decent defense, and thus step one of building a decent team. The next steps are trickier — developing the young guys, especially Tristan Thompson and Waiters (chosen over Jonas Valanciunas, Andre Drummond, and others); nailing the never-ending boatload of first-round picks the Cavs have coming from the Lakers, Kings, Grizzlies, and Heat; deciding what to do with Varejao if and when he returns healthy; and negotiating a bonanza of cap space going forward.
That last part is the sexiest bit, given Cleveland’s rumored pursuit of a potential reunion with LeBron James, who can enter free agency anytime after next season. I’ve no clue what LeBron wants to do, nor if the Cavs have any clue of what LeBron wants to do. I suspect no one other than a tiny handful of people has any more than rumors or whispers on this topic. Luckily for Cleveland, they’ve got one franchise player already, and a ton of cap space for some very good free-agency classes coming in 2014 and beyond — classes that go deep beyond Akron’s favorite son. The Cavaliers could also use this considerable pile of assets and cap space to swing a blockbuster trade for a second star to slot beside Irving. There are lots of options here.
The Cavs need to start cleaning up all this other stuff before thinking about the King. Brown’s hiring is a step in that direction, though he’ll need an offensive-minded assistant, and his hiring might cost the Cavs their own ace coach — Alex Jensen, the D-League’s Coach of the Year, and a guy whose name keeps coming up when you talk to people about defensive-minded coaches to watch. He’ll be on an NBA bench soon, perhaps even next season, and Cleveland going with a defensive-minded head guy might make it more likely that Jensen ends up with another NBA team.
Again, the concerns about Brown’s offenses are real, even if he steered the Cavaliers to more 3-pointers and shots at the rim over the course of his tenure there. His sets were never the most creative, though he and John Kuester threw some nice wrinkles in at times, and he failed to unlock James as a small-ball power forward — a failure for which James himself must also take some responsibility. He struggled a bit in high-profile playoff series, especially in the 2010 flameout against Boston, when he couldn’t figure out the right way to mix and match Shaquille O’Neal, Varejao, and the utterly helpless Antawn Jamison. Brown generally managed the 2011-12 Lakers offense fine, though Kobe Bryant hijacked it in some high-leverage moments, and he never got a real chance to work the Princeton system there this season.
The Cavs, of course, have run a sort of modified Princeton under Scott, so Brown can take all sorts of paths in sussing out the Irving-centric offense going forward. But this is about defense, and with that in mind, Brown should be a solid hire. He still has to prove he’s the right coach to take the Cavaliers to a championship level of play in the adjustment-filled hothouse of the playoffs, but that’s a discussion for several years down the road.