This just dawned on me: It’s possible that for this specific, lockout-shortened season, Mike Brown could be a better coach for the Lakers than Phil Jackson.
Jackson’s time spent coaching the Bulls and playing for the Knicks had prepared him to deal with nearly every scenario that came his way with the Lakers, from managing superstars to handling quirky personalities. The one thing he’d never done is coach a team in a condensed season after a work stoppage.
Jackson parted with the Bulls in 1998 and spent the next year on a coaching sabbatical while the NBA missed its first games due to a labor dispute. Coaching a reduced schedule, when the games come faster and each one carries more weight, wouldn’t suit Jackson. He’s the type to experiment during the regular season, or make decisions simply to prove a point, unconcerned if his team lost as long as it learned from the experience and was better prepared for the playoffs.
With only 66 games to play there will be no time to use games as teachable moments this year, no time to dismiss defeat by asking “Is it the playoffs yet?” -- as Jackson did after falling to the Celtics last season. The postseason isn’t as far off in the distance right now. The jockeying for position will be more furious.
Brown will have a sense of urgency and seriousness, as he demonstrated at the beginning of training camp Friday with a work schedule that began with a 9:30 breakfast and ended with sweat-drenched players walking off the practice court at 4 p.m. He knows he’ll be held to the lofty standards set by Jackson, that each game will be a mini-referendum on his hire, that there is little time to implement the changes he wants to bring to this squad.
Brown’s Cavaliers had the NBA’s best regular-season record twice during his five years coaching in Cleveland. That’s once more than Jackson did in his 11 years in L.A.
Anyone who saw Brown operate in Cleveland, where his Cavaliers held opponents to the lowest field-goal percentage and point total in the league in 2008-09, knows which side of the court Brown will emphasize.
“I believe that you can take your defense from team to team to team,” Brown said. “If you communicate, if you trust and help and you do that with effort, you’ll get stops. If you have a system that can kind of help the guys out, then I believe you’ll get more stops. But offensively I think you’ll have to cater to your personnel.
“In Cleveland everybody said, ‘That Mike Brown, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about offensively’. And I might not have, I don’t know. But I do know that our best player was a guy that liked the ball at the top of the floor in LeBron James, and he liked to play pick-and-roll. So if I can get that group to believe that they’re going to win the game by getting stops. We have enough to score when you have a guy like LeBron James …
“Offensively we just need to keep it simple and spend a ton of time on the defensive end.”
In Kobe Bryant, Brown recognizes he has a player that likes to operate from the elbows of the paint, or near the low blocks in what Brown dubbed “the Karl Malone area.” That already puts Brown a step ahead of the last coach who tried to replace Jackson in L.A., Rudy Tomjanovich, who set up Bryant at the top of the floor. That forced Kobe to do more dribbling and left him susceptible to easy double-teams from either side. As much as Bryant chafed at the triangle offense at times, he came to appreciate the way it could isolate him against a defender. It sounds like those same principles will still apply in Brown’s offense.
And it sounds like Bryant was ready to sign off on Brown after one day of work.
Kobe called Brown “very detail-oriented, passionate and a hard-worker. I can respect that. I think his attention to detail will win the rest of the guys over.”
Brown doesn’t have the qualities of a psychologist and media marionette-master that Phil Jackson possessed. Those would have come in handy this week on a typically zany episode in Lakerland, in which the team was set to ship Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom out of town in a three-way trade that would have brought Chris Paul to L.A. -- until David Stern killed the deal. As the Lakers tried to reconfigure the trade Friday, they were left with an uncertain roster and an unhappy sixth man.
Odom arrived 90 minutes late, met with general manager Mitch Kupchak, then left. Brown is classifying Odom as “unavailable” right now, and said he was willing to give him a few days off to clear his head.
Meanwhile, Brown has an out-of-shape forward renamed Metta World Peace, who admitted he had “a little more martinis” after the labor talks blew up in November and David Stern proclaimed the onset of “nuclear winter.” There is a center who will serve a five-game suspension to start the season because of his antics in the Lakers’ final playoff game. There are more cameras and digital recorders capturing Brown’s post-practice words than there were in Cleveland.
Brown said he would put his imprint on the Lakers “just like I would in any other location.” It took only one day on the job to see that Lakerland is not “any other location.”
It still wasn’t as bad as it was for the start of training camp in 2003. Bryant was coming off a tumultuous summer in which he was accused of sexual assault in Colorado, and he didn’t show up for Day One when the team gathered for camp in Hawaii. Jackson didn’t seem bothered at all. He playfully went along with the company line that Bryant was “under the weather,” wondering if that weather was a “marine inversion layer.”
Jackson was the king of media day. He is the all-time emperor of the playoffs. But all of the stuff in between training camp and late April, those petty annoyances that he called “the damn games,” are better left to a guy who cares about them more, a guy like Mike Brown.
Brown wouldn't make that proclamation himself. But he did give himself the edge over Jackson in one category.
"I do know that I have a better glasses collection than he does," Brown said, sporting a pair of stylish black-framed spectacles. "I’ll put my paycheck to his old paycheck on that any day, for sure."