Warriors’ Mike Brown on facing his former team in the Finals
‘I just look at it as an opportunity’
For Mike Brown, the 2017 NBA Finals script seems like something crazy out of Hollywood.
Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr could miss the Finals because of serious complications from back surgery. He has been replaced on the bench by acting head coach Brown, whose NBA head coaching experience includes two stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers and their two stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The Cavaliers fired Brown twice, the second time in 2014 with four years and $20 million remaining on his contract. He hasn’t been a head coach since.
With the 47-year-old Brown now on the sideline for the Warriors, he faces not only James and Irving in the Finals but also a franchise still paying him.
“First of all, Steve may be back,” Brown told The Undefeated on Thursday night after the Cavaliers eliminated the Boston Celtics, 135-102, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals to advance to their third consecutive Finals against the Warriors. “We all want him to be back. So, I’m just taking this thing one day at a time. He’s been great. [General manager] Bob Myers has been great. The guys [players] have been great.
“I just look at it as an opportunity. I have a lot of history in Cleveland, personally. To me, it’s bigger than that. The group of guys I’m working with are tremendous. It’s a player’s league. And at this point of the year, if you have the right guys, you’re clicking and you’re healthy, you’re going to have a chance to win. I don’t know right now if I have any emotions about going back coaching there. I’m really just trying to make it into this being the next round. Obviously, it’s special to me because it is the Finals.”
The Warriors are an undefeated 12-0 during this postseason, with Brown coaching the past 10 games. The last time he was a head coach in the NBA Finals was in 2007 with James and the Cavaliers. They were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
Brown was named NBA Coach of the Year after guiding the Cavaliers to a franchise-best 66-16 record in 2008-09.
The next season, however, the Cavaliers were eliminated in the second round of the 2010 NBA playoffs by the Celtics to become the first team to not advance to the NBA Finals after back-to-back 60-plus win seasons.
James complained that Brown’s offense lacked imagination and believed they should run more. He and some of the team’s other veterans questioned Brown’s game plans in not only the Boston series but also in the first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. Adding pressure to the situation was that James was going to be a free agent in 2010.
The Cavs defense had a reputation for being suffocating and relentless in the regular season, but they allowed more than 100 points per game in the series against Boston.
Cleveland had a midnight deadline on May 23, 2010, to fire Brown or pay him his full salary of $4.5 million for the next season. Owner Dan Gilbert let him go. Brown compiled a 272-138 record in his first tour with the Cavaliers.
Brown said he had a “great time” in his first stint in Cleveland and appreciated Gilbert for giving him a head coaching job.
“We were good. LeBron was young,” Brown said. “We never really had a second guy who was a perennial year-to-year second guy besides LeBron. That made it tough from time to time the deeper we got into the playoffs. The guys we did have were tremendous individuals and did work their tails off. They just found ways to win games.”
James departed to the Miami Heat for the next four seasons, joining star power he never had with the Cavaliers in fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and won two titles. Now, Brown and James will be on opposing benches with an NBA championship up for grabs.
“We were both running and grinding together,” Brown said. “I felt like I helped him grow, and he definitely helped me grow.”
On April 24, 2013, the Cavaliers rehired Brown. Gilbert was quoted at that time saying that Brown’s firing the first time was a “mistake.” Brown coached the Cavaliers to a 33-49 record during the 2013-14 season, which was hampered by injuries, before being fired on May 12, 2014.
Brown completed his Cleveland coaching career with a 305-187 record, and his 42 playoff wins were the most in franchise history. Coincidentally, James returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014. James and the Cavaliers have split the past two NBA Finals against the Warriors.
“It was a little weird,” Brown said about his second stint with the Cavs. “[Ex-Cavs general manager] Chris Grant hired me, and he did a phenomenal job of setting everything up going forward. Three months after the season started he got let go, which was a shock to me. Obviously, the organization had every right to do it. And at the end of the season, I was let go.
“That’s when we got burned out, and we ended up finishing ninth. It was a good deal. It was a short deal. I thought the guys did a nice job. We were in the playoffs until there were three days left in the regular season. Ownership and management weren’t excited about the job we did, and that’s why we were let go.”
Since then, Irving has grown into one of the NBA’s top-scoring guards and clutch players.
“He was really young but extremely talented,” Brown said. “He was one of those guys that you said sooner or later he was going to figure this thing out. And once he did, he is basically unguardable. He has more skill sets than almost anybody in this league.
“When you have the ability and quickness that he had along with the ability to score from all three levels, you’re a remarkable player. He’s a guy that should have been on one of the All-NBA teams this year.”
The Warriors interviewed Brown for his current assistant coach job during the 2016 NBA Finals in Cleveland. The Warriors went on to blow a 3-1 series lead to the first-time champion Cavaliers. Brown primarily lived in Cleveland after his second firing from the Cavaliers.
On July 4, 2016, the Warriors hired Brown as an assistant coach, replacing Luke Walton, who left to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. That same day, the Warriors landed a major commitment from heralded Oklahoma City Thunder free-agent forward Kevin Durant.
The well-rested Warriors advanced to their third straight NBA Finals after completing a sweep of the Spurs in the Western Conference finals on May 22. Game 1 of the Finals will be June 1 in the Warriors’ home of Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.
“Two good teams,” Brown said. “Both teams have multiple guys that command double-teams. Multiple guys who can really make plays. Multiple guys that can shoot the ball from length. They value possessions. They know if they have more possessions than the other team, then they have a great chance of winning because of the way they score the ball and shoot the ball.
“We feel the same. If we can win the possession game, we’re going to have a chance to outscore most people. That is going to be big for us the entire series, just like it is for them.”
James would give Cleveland back-to-back NBA titles and earn a fourth championship with a Finals triumph. The Warriors would earn redemption and a second championship in three years. There will be many more highlighted storylines during the NBA Finals, with Brown getting more and more attention with each game against his old team.
Brown has two sons who are college athletes in Oregon newcomer guard Elijah Brown and Case Western linebacker Cameron Brown. While between jobs, Pops spent time coaching his son Cameron’s high school football team. When time permitted, Brown took red-eyes to Ohio to attend Cameron’s football games this season.
Brown said he might make a trip to Westlake to see his eye doctor when the Warriors depart to Cleveland on June 5.
“I didn’t hang out much in downtown Cleveland or inside of Cleveland,” Brown said. “We lived out in Westlake on the west side of Cleveland. That’s where my boys went to school. So I’ve still got ties out there. My tax guy is out there. My financial guy is out there.
“The restaurants and all that on the west side. The place I got a lot of my glasses from the past few years, I’m still waiting on them.”
The NBA world will be reintroduced to Brown when he coaches the Warriors during the Finals.
As much as Brown loves being on the sideline again, during these awkward circumstances he would rather it be Kerr.
“It is kind of a Catch-22. Steve is our head coach, he’s our leader,” Brown said. “He is a guy who laid the foundation with this program. You want him to be on the sidelines, but obviously with circumstances as they are … just like one of our players, Matt Barnes, had mentioned this, that we’ve been a team that when someone goes down to injury, the next guy has to be ready to step up.
“Steve knew to take some time. Bob and Steve asked me to take over. With the staff that we have and the veteran players that we have, it has been a pretty seamless process because of it. Having said that, I’ve enjoyed my time overall when I’ve been coaching from day one. When Steve was coaching I enjoyed it, and I’m enjoying it now. But I do wish that Steve was healthy enough to be on the sidelines like he should be.”