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Cavs' Brown finally gets his due

It happened at barbershops, on radio interviews, at playgrounds and in church. It even happened at the home of my parents, proud season-ticket holders since the day after the Cavaliers won the 2003 draft lottery.

Everywhere I went -- in Cleveland and sometimes elsewhere -- I seemed to find myself defending Mike Brown.

Folks who had never played one minute of organized basketball, who couldn't diagram a pick-and-roll on the chalkboard, who didn't know a jump stop from a jumpsuit, were killing the Cleveland coach.

I had no vested interest in standing up for Brown, but I did so every time. Because to me, the criticism was bizarre.

After covering the NBA since 1995 and witnessing various coaching styles, philosophies and demeanors -- from hotheaded control freaks to laid-back delegators -- I had come to this conclusion about the men who roam the sideline:

A good coach consistently gets his team at least as far as, and sometimes further than, it should go. Period.

And for all the ugly offensive sets the Cavaliers ran during Brown's first three years as coach, he always, without question and without fail, pushed his team further than it should have gone since his arrival in 2005.

In his first year, the Cavaliers went from the draft lottery to pushing the still-powerful, defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons to seven games in the second round of the playoffs. That Pistons team was a few miscues away from being the two-time defending world champion. There's no way the Cavs should have threatened to win that series. But under Brown, they did.

The next year, the Cavs shocked the basketball world by wiping out Detroit in six games to reach the NBA Finals. Sure, San Antonio swept them like a ball of lint in the title round, but it should have. A coaching staff of Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Larry Brown and Pat Riley couldn't have gotten the Cavs two wins in that series.

Last year, Brown led the Cavs to within minutes of beating the eventual champion Boston Celtics in a Game 7 in New England. He went to war with one future Hall of Famer and nearly came out on top against three future HOFers.

And of course this season, Brown's Cavs won a league-best 66 games while putting together the second-greatest home record (39-2) of all time. Do they have the league's most talented roster? High on truth serum, I don't think even one Cavalier would argue that they do.

The 66 W's have (for the time being) silenced some of the haters, and Brown, whose Cavaliers host Detroit in Game 2 of their first-round series Tuesday night, got some long overdue love on Monday when he was named the NBA's coach of the year.

I'm sure Brown's critics will give all the credit for his success to LeBron James, but what highly successful coach hasn't had a tremendous player? In fact, most have had at least two.

How many of Phil Jackson's nine rings came without Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant? How many of Gregg Popovich's four titles came without Tim Duncan and either David Robinson, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili? Pat Riley never won it all without Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaq or Dwyane Wade. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

You can talk X's and O's all you want, but nearly every coach in the NBA knows X's and O's to a degree far beyond that of the average intelligent basketball fan. What determines a successful coach is how well he relates to his stars, how he gains and maintains the respect of his players, how strong a leader he is, how hard he works, what aspects of the game he emphasizes most, and how well he gauges when to be hands-on and hands-off.

Brown, 38, went to the Cavaliers emphasizing defense and rebounding, the two parts of the game that have proven to win championships. Let Mike D'Antoni and Don Nelson titillate you to the heavens with their run 'n' gun, defense-be-damned approach, but neither of them has been to the Finals.

Under Brown, the Cavs quickly became one of the league's top defensive and rebounding clubs, and that, along with James, has been the key to their success. This season, Brown delegated the defensive responsibilities to assistant coach Mike Malone and the offense to assistant John Kuester. Under Kuester's watch, the Cavs' offense has improved greatly.

But don't slight Brown as if to say Kuester is doing all the work. Lots of coaches have what are essentially coordinators on either or both sides of the ball. Is Phil Jackson the brains behind the triangle offense, or is it his longtime assistant Tex Winter? Larry Bird got the Indiana Pacers within a game of beating Jordan's Bulls and later to the NBA Finals by utilizing assistants Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle as coordinators.

If LeBron, who has respect and fondness for Brown, stays in Cleveland past 2010 and the expected happens (i.e., James leads the Cavs to several titles), Brown should become an institution in Cleveland and the NBA, just as Jackson, Riley, Popovich and Jerry Sloan have in their respective cities. For years, the game's leading players have had their coaches of choice. Jordan and Kobe have had Jackson, and Duncan has had Popovich. Now, it appears James has Brown.

Those types of coaches don't ever have to worry about being fired, and although he's not there yet, Brown, with James at the helm, should be on that track.

Not bad for a guy who for years has had darts thrown at him from every direction.

Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.