1. Heckuva of a Job Brownie!: The big news of this week has come out of Los Angeles where the Lakers have canned Mike Brown and spurned an apparently willing and able Phil Jackson in favor of Mike D’Antoni. There is so much going on here, so let’s break it down piece-by-piece:
-Should Brown have been fired?
Certainly, the early returns were not good but it’s pretty hard to envision a scenario where a team could possibly conclude that a coach is lost after a five-game stretch to open a season. Brown had done some strange offensive things like trying to impose the Princeton offense on a team that would seem to thrive either running with Steve Nash or in isolation for Kobe Bryant. Despite this strange idea, the Lakers’ problem with Brown was not the offense (which was reasonably efficient) but the defense that couldn’t stop anyone. On top of that, Dwight Howard looks a little rusty on defense, so there is every reason to believe the defense would improve under a coach like Brown, who was always more defense focused, once Howard got his sea legs. In addition, a quick firing like this is pretty unprecedented (no coach has been let go so soon after the start the season since Dolph Schayes in 1971), which creates a tumult and sense of directionless that the players will have to deal with.
The Lakers also cut the cord on Brown before some winnable games without a new coach ready to come in his place. In the absence of any identifiably abysmal coaching moves, it seems that Brown must’ve ticked off the wrong guy: either ownership or Kobe, the only parties with the power and the temperament to fire Brown so quickly. Objectively, the firing was clearly too early. Brown is a competent enough coach and the team thought pretty highly of him last year when he was hired. He deserved at least some leash before being fired. This isn’t a supreme injustice (Brown will be paid a lot not to coach) but this seems unfair and such capriciousness is not a good way to run an organization.
-Did the Lakers hire the right guy?
D’Antoni is a pretty good coach but I’m not sure he is the perfect fit either. Remember the problem here was defense and not offense. In his Nash Years and later with the Knicks, D’Antoni teams were almost always much better offensively than defensively except for last year’s Knicks (when D’Antoni was let go in the middle of the year). At least D’Antoni can be expected to establish a smoother offense than Brown had and should figure out how to use Nash with Kobe a little better. We can expect offensive improvement going forward either way but the defense may still be an issue.
Jackson, the best coach of the last 20 years or so, would have been much better here. He has blended stars well in the past and his teams always play a nice defensive system. Of course, the decision is not just who is the better coach in the abstract but also includes what the coaches were demanding in salary and benefits. The word was that Jackson thought he had maximum leverage and put out some huge demands (part ownership, taking off some road games). I don’t know if this is true but you can’t kill the Lakers for wanting to have less onerous contract of D’Antoni, particularly on the ownership demand. If Jackson were the defense between a title and no title, the Lakers should’ve paid him but I don’t see the Lakers winning a title as currently constituted with either coach (they seem a little long in the tooth to beat OKC).
-Did the Lakers treat Phil Jackson poorly in the process?
Jackson and his agent have very publicly let the Lakers know that they feel screwed. Jackson thought he had another day to mull it over and then had the offer pulled off the table. I agree the Lakers seemed to go out of their way to irk Jackson but I can’t say I’m crying for him. Jackson has never been particularly sensitive to the feelings of his own management or other coaches in the past (remember Phil’s quasi-campaign for the Knicks job in 1999 while Jeff Van Gundy was still coaching the team?). The more interesting question is whether Jackson might come back to another team in the future. I don’t see a team built for him now but this could change by the end of the season. Stay tuned…
2. To Foul or Not to Foul: In watching the end of last night’s Nets-Celtics game, I came away questioning Avery Johnson’s tactics on one particular issue. The Nets were up by four with 19 seconds left the Celtics had the ball. Johnson then instructed his team to intentionally foul the Celts to avoid a three-pointer. First, the Nets fouled Paul Pierce near midcourt and he promptly hit two free throws to cut the lead to two. After that, the Nets made two free throws and, with eleven seconds left, the Nets did the same thing to Jason Terry, who promptly missed two free throws and the Nets scored two more free throws to ice the game.
Was this really the best way to end the game? In theory, the strategy worked because Terry missed his shots and the Nets won but this struck me as a really bad path to a win. Pierce is a career 81% from the line and Terry is 85%. From three, Pierce is 37% and Terry is 38%. Aren’t the odds much better that Pierce and/or Terry will miss the threes than the free throws? If Pierce and Terry hit, the Nets must match the free throws (and avoid a potential stupid turnover) or the Celts will get the ball back with a chance to tie or win. I understand the fear of the three when up four but the Nets would still have the ball and the lead. Instead, the Nets stopped the clock and gave the Celts higher percentage shots. Sure, the Nets had a chance to match the free throws but the odds were much better just playing out the game and daring the Celts to hit a three. The intentional foul to take away the three makes much more sense when the clock ticks down closer two five seconds left in the game, thereby eliminating the chance of a tie and giving the Celtics no time left to bring the ball up and shoot a three after the Nets are intentionally fouled and shoot foul shots. Again, Terry missed the free throws here but that is focusing on results and not the process, which seemed quite flawed.
3. What Happened to Dolph?: Finally, the Mike Brown Affair does raise the question of how the heck did Dolph Schayes leave his team after one game back in 1971? Fortunately, the Sports Illustrated Vault is available to give us the answer. Schayes, who was a great player for the Syracuse Nats in the 1950s, first coached the Philadelphia 76ers in 1963-64 and lasted three seasons. The Sixers picked up Wilt Chamberlain under Schayes’ watch and went 55-25 in 1965-66 but lost to Boston 4-1 in the playoffs. Schayes didn’t get along with Wilt and, after the playoff loss, Schayes was bounced for Alex Hannum (who ultimately won a title with Wilt).
Schayes next job was with the 1970-71 Buffalo Braves, an expansion team (that later became the Clippers). Buffalo had no talent and, not surprisingly, went 22-60 during that first season. According to Sports Illustrated, there were player complaints about Schayes’ leadership but he was retained for a second season. In the 1971-72 pre-season, the Braves looked bad and then lost its opening game to Seattle (another expansion team) by 33, after which Schayes was abruptly fired. According to owner Paul Snyder, the terrible showing merited firing: “I wasn’t a little disappointed by last year, I was a lot disappointed. I’m used to running a business and I felt it was the right decision to let Dolph go. So I did it. After the way we played in the first game I felt I would rather sell the franchise than watch another performance like that.”
How did this firing turn out? Schayes was replaced with scout Johnny McCarthy, who promptly led the team to another 22-win season. Neither Schayes nor McCarthy were ever NBA head coaches again after that season.