June 27, 2016

Mostly cloudy

James play contributed to Brown’s exit

No matter what the Cavaliers say or don’t say — and they are saying virtually nothing at the moment — we all know the main reason Mike Brown was fired as coach on Monday: Owner Dan Gilbert realized it was the only way his team had a chance of re-signing LeBron James when the 25-year-old becomes a free agent on July 1.

Certainly, the Cavaliers’ playoff failures the last two years — losing to Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2010 and falling to Orlando in the conference finals in 2009 — played a tremendous role, but let’s not kid ourselves.

If James had gone to Gilbert and said, “I’ll re-sign if Mike comes back,” do you honestly think there is any way Brown would have been fired?

The Cavaliers not only would have kept Brown, they would have had a contract extension in hand and offered Brown as many years as James felt were appropriate.

Always image conscious, James never publicly called for Brown’s dismissal, but he didn’t have to. His actions — or, particularly as they relate to Game 5 of the Boston series this year, non-actions — spoke loud enough.

While his team was getting blown out in the third quarter of an eventual 32-point loss at home, James spent the majority of the period clanging jumpers or, worse, standing off to the side, totally away from the ball.

For a player with an unbelievable desire to win, not to mention one who frequently had to be begged not to dominate the ball, it was a shocking development, an indication the normally super-competitive James had resigned himself to the fact the Cavaliers could not beat the Celtics.

Whether a different bench leader would have made enough of a difference will never be known for certain, especially given the fact James was playing with an injured right elbow, but it was not the first sign of problems between superstar player and coach.

This is not to say James is uncoachable. In fact, the exact opposite is true, and James and Brown actually got along very well for the majority of their five years together.

But when times got their toughest, James didn’t buy into — or support — all of Brown’s decisions.

More crucial still, it’s hard not to side with James on the most important of those matters (though it could be argued he should have handled things behind closed doors).

Brown’s decision to have James defend Orlando point guard Rafer Alston and be a help defender backfired miserably last year in the conference finals, ultimately resulting in an angry James walking off the court without shaking hands after Game 6 and then failing to show up for a postgame press conference.

This year, James openly second-guessed Brown on several occasions, lobbying after Game 4 to defend Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who repeatedly torched the Cavaliers, and openly wondering why Shaquille O’Neal sat the last 11 minutes of that loss in Boston.

Clearly, there were problems between James and Brown, and when a two-time league MVP has problems with his coach, guess who is going to win out?

James, it should be noted, is not the first superstar to become unhappy with his coach, as the Lakers’ Magic Johnson basically forced out Paul Westhead and Chicago’s Michael Jordan was not happy with Doug Collins.

That led to the hirings of Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, respectively, and both went on to win numerous championships, but Cleveland’s position is different in one extremely important aspect.

Firing Brown does not guarantee James will return. It only guarantees there’s a chance he’ll re-sign with Cleveland. Without Brown’s dismissal, James was gone, folks.

Right now, there are a ton of questions surrounding the Cavaliers, but very, very few answers, which may explain why the team held no press conference to announce Brown’s firing.

The coach’s dismissal, which was formally announced in a 7:37 a.m. press release, was widely expected and very justified given the team’s playoff failures, but the Cavaliers are now in the unenviable position of trying to hire a coach their superstar wants without knowing if their superstar is coming back.

That means Gilbert — and general manager Danny Ferry, if he wants to come back or if he is wanted back after his contract expires in the coming months — must not only hit a home run, it must also be hit while facing an 0-2 count and trailing with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

The Cavaliers must go to James, who is extremely astute but not always right (remember, he wanted the team to pursue aging point guard Jason Kidd a few years ago), and ask him for his top choices as the organization’s next head coach.

Heaven forbid if James tells them he wants the University of Akron’s Keith Dambrot, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School’s Dru Joyce II or good buddy Maverick Carter to coach the Cavaliers.

Or might he just want to be player-coach?

In all seriousness, James wants to be coached, but he wants to be coached by a man he truly respects and trusts. Just as important, he has to be coached by someone he will trust in tough times. Brown was not that man.

More than likely, James’ top choice will be someone like Jackson, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how difficult landing one of those people will be.

Jackson is already with the Los Angeles Lakers, who are pursuing their second straight title. There’s no guarantee he will want to continue coaching after this year, and there’s even less certainty he will want to leave L.A. for Cleveland if he does.

Izzo (Michigan State), Krzyzewski (Duke) and Calipari (Kentucky) rule their college worlds and have extremely lucrative contracts. On top of that, only Calipari has legitimate NBA head coaching experience — Krzyzewski’s stints with the Olympic team do not qualify — so there are a lot of legitimate questions about how they would fare at the professional level.

Even if he thinks one of those people is the right person to coach him — and the Cavaliers — the basketball-savvy James has to understand how difficult it will be for Cleveland to land one of them, so he likely has a few other people in mind.

If, that is, he has any intention of returning to Cleveland.

Right now, that’s the biggest of many questions surrounding the Cavaliers, who have virtually nothing to show for 127 regular-season wins over the past two seasons.

The one answer we have — and have always had, for that matter — is whose hoped-for presence has the most influence on everything the organization does.

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.