OAKLAND, Calif. -- These are bizarre days for Mike Brown, who finds himself at a crossroads of several unprecedented situations.
First, he’s acting Golden State Warriors head coach for Steve Kerr. Thursday night, he won his first Finals game. It came against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are still sending him regular paychecks and will be until 2020.
“It feels a little surreal,” Brown said. “Right now, I’m just kind of taking everything in stride.”
Naturally, there has been some interest in just how this all came to be, how it could even be possible. Unless you’re a significant NBA fan, you might have even forgotten Brown coached the Cavs in the 2013-14 season, the genesis of the contract he’s being paid for.
Brown was able to drive a fantastic deal for himself in the spring of 2013 when the Cavs fired Byron Scott. Brown's deal was for more than $20 million over five years, though the last year of the deal was partially guaranteed.
When Brown was fired in May 2014, a provision in the contract spread the payments out over the next six years. Brown will get all the money guaranteed him, with the amount he’s paid as part of his Golden State Warriors contract being deducted, and the Cavs pay the balance. This is known as an “offset.”
Such arrangements are common in coaching contracts. It has just never led to the unusual scenario that has developed in these Finals. The unusual storyline has generated interest; Brown is asked about it regularly.
“So, a lot of people have said this to me, and maybe I am made up differently, I'm not looking at this as Cleveland fired me twice, this is the time to get back at them, or is there any extra incentive?” Brown said. “No, I just want to win. I don't care who it is, I just want to be a part of a winning program. So no matter who it was in front of us -- and it just happens to be Cleveland, yes -- I want to win just as bad as if it was anybody else.”
Brown is not the type to trash-talk publicly. But even if he wanted to, he couldn’t. His contract status with the Cavs discourages him from disparaging the organization.
All this happened because Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was frustrated at the team’s poor defensive performance in 2013 when the team finished 22nd in defensive rating. (Which puts things into perspective, as the Cavs were 24th in the regular season this year.) They had lost 20 of their final 24 games. Under Brown from 2005 to 2010, the Cavs regularly ranked in the top five in the league in defense.
Also, Gilbert had come to regret firing Brown in 2010 after back-to-back 60-win seasons. The team was somewhere between indecision and panic in the weeks leading up to LeBron James’ free-agent decision, and James had mostly cut off communication. Gilbert fired Brown to chase Tom Izzo, hoping that would help retain James. When Izzo couldn’t even get James on the phone, he passed.
Brown was a little skittish about returning to Cleveland, but he was drawn there because his family liked the city and his youngest son, Cameron, wanted to attend high school there. He was also drawn because he was extremely close to then-general manager Chris Grant.
Grant had put a plan in place to recruit James back to Cleveland the following year. He had conversations with people close to James and believed Brown would be an asset in bringing James back, despite a long-standing narrative that James had ordered Brown fired in 2010. That was simply not true.
Grant had drafted Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters and had a trove of draft picks and upcoming salary-cap space. He didn’t speak about it publicly, but he was confident he could get James back in free agency in 2014 and that the comfort level with Brown would be an asset.
But Brown was still burned from his previous firing, and his trust level with Gilbert was shaky, so he demanded a large and long contract to protect himself. It took days to hammer out the details -- Cavs' part-owner Nate Forbes grinded through the details with Brown’s camp. Eventually, it was signed and Brown was welcomed back with open arms.
"Yeah, it was a mistake [to fire him in 2010]. Sure, it was a mistake," Gilbert said four years ago. "We have the benefit of hindsight right now, and in hindsight, it was a mistake. We are very happy that we get to rectify any position we took back then. Maybe he's meant to be here."
He was not, as it turned out. Brown was fired a year later with three fully guaranteed seasons left on the deal. The Cavs had gone 33-49, and Brown didn’t connect with Irving, the team’s young franchise player. Midway through the season, Grant was fired, and Brown followed as Gilbert changed his course of thinking.
The threat of Gilbert’s changing moods is why Brown got himself that contract and why today he finds himself in an advantageous position.
“You would call it luck, being blessed, being in the right spot at the right time,” Brown said. “It’s the circle of life, like 'The Lion King.' Everything comes back around, I guess.”