Larry Brown Wanders Again

It seemed like he was ready to leave the moment he got there, but Larry Brown actually lasted six years in Philadelphia.  Larry Brown has become one of those walking paradoxes.  He is an all-time great coach yet he never stays in one place long enough to see it to fruition (championship).  He has also developed a bad rap for blowing town early and letting down those who rely on him.  These are the raps, how true are they?  Brown has coached seven professional teams and two college teams since 1972.  That’s quite a body of work.  Looking at the circumstances of each of Brown’s tenure will help determine how true this criticism is.

Larry Brown’s career coaching record
Year Team W L Pct
72-73 Carolina (ABA) 57 27 .679
73-74 Carolina (ABA) 47 37 .560
74-75 Denver (ABA) 65 19 .774
75-76 Denver (ABA) 60 24 .714
76-77 Denver (NBA) 50 32 .610
77-78 Denver 48 34 .585
78-79 Denver 28 25 .528
81-82 New Jersey 44 38 .557
82-83 New Jersey 47 29 .618
88-89 San Antonio 21 61 .256
89-90 San Antonio 56 26 .683
90-91 San Antonio 55 27 .671
91-92 San Antonio 21 17 .553
91-92 LA Clippers 23 12 .657
92-93 LA Clippers 41 41 .500
93-94 Indiana 47 35 .573
94-95 Indiana 52 30 .634
95-96 Indiana 52 30 .634
96-97 Indiana 39 43 .476
97-98 Philadelphia 31 51 .378
98-99 Philadelphia 28 22 .560
99-00 Philadelphia 49 33 .598
00-01 Philadelphia 56 26 .683
01-02 Philadelphia 43 39 .524
02-03 Philadelphia 48 34 .585
Totals 1108 792 .583

Carolina Cougars 1972-74

After bumming around the nascent ABA as a solid point guard for a few years, Brown started his coaching career with the Carolina Cougars in 1972-73 near his Tar Heel roots.  The Cougars had been a .500 team for the previous three years that they existed.  With Brown, the team broke out to 57-27.  It didn’t hurt that Billy Cunningham, Mack Calvin, and Steve Jones came aboard.  The team slumped a bit to 47 wins the next year when Cunningham went down with a knee injury but Brown continued his solid run.  Unfortunately, the Cougars, like many ABA teams, were not solvent and went under after the 1973-74 season.  Brown’s tenure in Carolina was short but it showed him to be a dynamic coach which he would prove even more in his next job in Denver.

Denver Rockets/Nuggets 1974-1979

Denver was only 37-47 the year before Brown got there.  He started quite well in Denver going 65-19 and 60-24 his first two years.  The team was built around rookie David Thompson and Dan Issel (and to a lesser extent Ralph Simpson).  The team never won an ABA championship but came close in 1975-76.  The team continued to be solid when they moved over to the NBA in 1976-77.  The success of Thompson and company translated in the NBA.  Brown went to the playoffs his two full years in the NBA including going to the Western Conference Finals in 1977-78, which was Denver’s peak under Brown.  The next year the team traded Bobby Jones, a player Brown loved, for the George McGinnis, a player that epitomized the everything Brown detested (a scorer who did not fit into Brown’s team concept).  The team stumbled around .500 before Brown was fired near the end of 1978-79.  Interestingly enough, the year after Brown left the Nuggets plummeted to 30-52 and missed the playoffs for the first time since Brown came to Denver (to be fair, this was also due to Thompson’s drug/injury problems) .  Brown spent 4.5 good years in Denver where he gave Denver all he had.  He, again, showed he could build a good team and he did not leave early.

New Jersey Nets 1981-1983 

After a brief but successful stint with UCLA, Brown returned near home to the New Jersey Nets in 1981-82.  The team was coming off of a 24-58 season and still felt the hangover of selling Julius Erving a few years earlier (the Nets had not yet broken .500 since moving to the NBA in 1976-77).  Brown immediately turned around the Nets, going 44-38 and making the playoffs with an unimpressive team.  He got a lot out of rookie Buck Williams and Ray Williams and guys like Len Elmore, Darwin Cook, and Albert King.  Brown looked to be building on his success in 1982-83, the Nets were 47-29 when word was leaked that Brown had already agreed to the Kansas job six days before the playoffs.  The Nets refused to go to the playoffs with a lame duck coach and fired on the spot.  Brown had created a good team from scratch again but his dealings with the Nets left a lot to be desired.  Brown broke his contract and put the Nets in turmoil at an inappropriate.  Even Donnie Walsh, Brown’s close friend and ardent supporter, admits that Brown’s departure in New Jersey was entirely Brown’s own fault.  The Jersey experience helped create a perception that Brown could not be relied as a long term solution as a coach which did not exist in the ten years previous that Brown had coached.

University of Kansas and the Knick Flirtations 1984-1988

Brown’s reputation as an unreliable wanderer grew as he waffled between returning to Kansas and taking the Knicks job in the spring of 1987.  Brown had all but agreed to the Knicks job (I think a press release even went out) when Brown backtracked and returned to Kansas.  In the subsequent Year Brown and his star Danny Manning would win an NCAA title.  Then, Brown left Kansas abruptly (and with probation violations) to go coach the San Antonio Spurs.  Brown had been coaching for 15 years at this point but the multiple job incidents from 1983-1988 started to create a perception that Brown did not want to hang around any town too long.

San Antonio Spurs 1988-1992

Coming to San Antonio felt right but ultimately ended in disappointment.  The Spurs had drafted David Robinson with the first pick of the 1997 draft understanding that he would not be ready to play until 1989-90.  Brown came to Texas in 1988-89 waiting out the Admiral one year and hoping to build a good team around him.  A bad Spur team went 21-61 with Alvin Robertson and Willie Anderson.  Brown basically looked ahead to 1989-90 the whole year (which was the correct thing to do).  Once Robinson came to town, the Spurs exploded to 56-26.  In addition, the team acquired Maurice Cheeks (for Johnny Dawkins) and Terry Cummings (for Robertson) to complement Robinson, making the Spurs look like a possible dynasty in the 1990s.  These major moves showed Brown’s first real inclination to shake up his nucleus.  It didn’t end there.

Cheeks was traded halfway through his first year in San Antonio for raw second year point guard Rod Strickland.  Strickland had all the makings of a great guard but he was raw as a decision maker on the court and off.  In game 7 of the second round series in the 1990 playoffs, Strickland threw an ill-advised behind the back pass on a fast break in the waning moments that went into the stands.  The Blazers then went down and clinched the game and the series, blowing Larry Brown’s best playoff run with the Spurs.

The next year the Spurs continued to play well (55-27) but they were upset by the seven seed Warriors who played 6’7 Rod Higgins at center and a small ball lineup against the bigger Spurs.  This left a bad taste in Brown’s mouth and created some tension in San Antonio.  When the Spurs struggled to a 21-17 record in 1991-92, Brown got in a dispute with new owner Peter Holt that ended in Brown leaving the team ASAP (Brown swears he was fired while Holt swears Brown quit).  Brown underachieved in San Antonio, this team had a chance to be quite good.  Granted Strickland’s off court incidents did not help but this was a team that Brown could have seen through to the next level.

We can never know whether Brown quit or what background tensions existed (I think there were rumors that the conservative Robinson thought Brown was a bit abrasive).  Even if you consider all the mitigating factors, Brown probably wanted out.  Days after leaving the Spurs, Brown signed on to coach the Clippers.

Los Angeles Clippers 1991-1993

47 games into the 1991-92 season, Brown left Texas for LA.  The state of the Clippers was the same as it every couple of years, the team was bad but it had accrued a bunch of good young players through the draft and trade (Danny Manning, Olden Polynice, Ron Harper, Loy Vaught, Charles Smith, and Ken Norman to name a few).  The hope was that these players would gel.  Coach Mike Schuler was 22-25 and the team would likely miss the playoffs unless they got hot in the last third of the season.  Enter Larry.  Brown energized this team to a 23-12 record and the seven seed where they took a good Utah team to a deciding fifth before losing.

Brown came back for a return engagement an 1992-93 and the team played pretty well (41-41) and again got the seventh seed.  The playoffs were, again, competitive (another close five game series to a good team, the Rockets, but another loss).  1993-94 looked to be a make or break year for this young Clipper team, they were on the verge of becoming good but many of the players were going to be free agents and wanted to re-negotiate. Brown wanted no part of this potential problem and bolted town.  You have to be less harsh on Brown for this one than for New Jersey or San Antonio.  The Clippers were a powder keg and Donald Sterling, the owner, was notoriously unreliable in helping coaches or in averting salary disputes.  So, Brown fairly read the handwriting on the wall and moved on to Indiana.

Indiana Pacers 1993-97

Like every team Brown coached, the Pacers were not very good when Brown got to town.  They had lost in the first round of the playoffs four straight years and never had won a playoff series since the team joined the NBA.  They had talent in Detlef Schrempf and Reggie Miller but the Pacers were considered pretenders as good teams could beat them in the playoffs with superior defense.

Brown immediately turned around the Pacers.  He rebalanced the team to be more defensive and less finesse.  First he traded away Schrempf for the less skilled but tougher Derrick McKey.  McKey combined with Dale Davis and rookie Antonio Davis to make a tough front line.  Brown also helped Rik Smits turn from project to legit low post center (Brown gave up on trying to make Smits anything more than a scorer and that helped Smits thrive).  The result was two game sevens in 1994 and 1995 Eastern Conference Finals.  Unfortunately, the Pacers lost them both.  Still, the team was on the verge of breaking through.  But Brown hit a wall.

In 1995-96, Reggie Miller broke his cheek bone in the first round which helped the team get upset by the Hawks.  1996-97 was an even bigger waste when the team traded away point guard Mark Jackson and handed the job to raw Jalen Rose and Travis Best.  The Pacers sniped and slumped and missed the playoffs.  The Pacers still had a nice core but Brown wanted no part of re-grouping.  This was not so much of a bail out as the team may have been legitimately tired of Brown and it was best to get a different style of coach in their.  (The team did thrive the next three years with the same personnel under Larry Bird).  Brown left Indiana in decent shape and went to Philly.

Philadelphia 76ers 1997-2003

Brown arrived to another ugly situation in Philly in 1997-98.  The team had not made the playoffs since 1990-91 and management was unsure what to do with Allen Iverson the dynamic yet frustrating 1996-97 Rookie of the Year.  Brown figured it midway through 1997-98, Iverson was not a point guard he was a shooting guard.  Brown then shipped out Jerry Stackhouse for defensive stopper Theo Ratliff and found Eric Snow on the scrap heap.  In one year, Brown turned the Sixers from a mess to a bona fide team but turning Snow, Ratliff, and Aaron McKie into real contributors when then previously they had been nothing more than backups and after thoughts.

The Sixers made the playoffs in 1998-99 and upset the Orlando Magic to make the second round.  1999-00 also featured an upset (this time the Hornets) and another second round exit.  The team was peaking and Brown knew it.  He went for broke in 2000-01, trading the younger Ratliff and Toni Kukoc for Dikemebe Mutombo.  The move paid off, Mutombo helped lead the Sixers to the finals (and a loss to the Lakers).  The Sixers floundered a bit in 2001-02, losing to Boston in the first round.

This year, the Sixers righted themselves and looked like the best team in the east going into the playoffs.  However, the Pistons knocked them off and Brown called it quits after the season.  Brown had given the Sixers six good years as coach (his longest tenure as a coach).  Still, people speculated why he left Philly.  Was it Brown’s innate nomadic tendencies?  Was he tired of fighting with Iverson?  Did he really think this team had reached its peak?  Does he have a better deal somewhere?

The answer is probably a combination of all these factors.  However, I believe Brown when he says that this team has reached its peak.  Iverson is slight and may start breaking down soon.  Apart from Iverson, the team has little depth.  The second best player was a 35 year old Derrick Coleman and the front court had grown soft and weak, something Brown detests in his teams.  Besides, would you want to coach a team that might need to rebuild with Iverson on the roster?  Brown’s tenure in Philly helped the franchise and he did not leave the team in a lurch, six years was enough.

Is it fair to call Brown a wanderer?

Yes.  He is a great coach who has a clear vision of how to fix messes.  But unlike most great coaches, he moves on to the next mess.  This is a bit odd but it does not mean Brown is an unreliable hire.  He has improved every team he coached and the only teams he really left in a lurch were the Nets (20 years ago) and arguably the Spurs.  The idea that Brown creates instability is not really supported by the evidence.  The fact that he is usually no longer than a three or four year engagement should be accepted and not looked into too deeply on a psychological level.  Hell, most coaches (even the successful ones) don’t last that long in one town anyway.  He is a Hall of Fame coach and that is all that really matters.

Where will Brown go from here?  I don’t know.  Rumors are flying but the only thing for certain is that he will improve his next team too.

Miscellaneous Brown

I know these type of things are usually not done until a coach retires but we will look at some of the odds and ends of Brown’s career to date:

Brown’s All Time Starting Five:

PG:    Eric Snow (Mark Jackson is close but Brown really has not had a great point guard, just a bunch of solid good ones)

SG:    Allen Iverson (Wow, this is a tough one.  Who do you take?  David Thompson, Reggie Miller, or Allen Iverson?  They are all Hall of Famers.  Iverson and Thompson are a bit tougher to deal with but they do so much more on the court than Miller.  I’ll go with Iverson just because he is actually a more reliable player than Thompson was.)

SF:    Danny Manning (Billy Cunningham is close but he played fewer games for Brown than Manning did percentage wise)

PF:    Buck Williams    (Dale Davis was a stud for Brown and Bobby Jones also did the dirty work but Buck could score a bit more than the other two which gives him the edge)

C:     David Robinson    (Finally, a position that is not close.)

Brown’s best team:    Another tough one but I am partial to the 1994-95 Pacers.  They were complete and well balanced but they could notStop Penny and Shaq.

Brown’s worst coaching job:    It had to be a tie between the Nets of 1982-83 which he ditched and the 1996-97 Pacers that should neverhave missed the playoffs.