Cavaliers coach Mike Brown is a nice, honest guy. He answers questions thoughtfully and genuinely, he looks reporters in the eye and he doesn't run his team by fiat.
He's taken a franchise known more for its failures than triumphs to the playoffs four consecutive years. He's won 64 percent of his games, and last season he led Cleveland to a team-record 66 victories.
So what's not to be nice about?
There's the loss in last season's Eastern Conference finals, which made fans and media alike question his coaching strategy. There are the constant calls for him to open up his offense, and to not leave it to LeBron James to run a 1-on-5. And there's the intense scrutiny and pressure that come with coaching LeBron in his walk year, a championship-or-bust season.
Still, the man with the hardest job in the NBA this season remains pleasant, even while dealing with a shaky 4-3 start during which the Cavs have lost as many home games as they did last season.
"I'm OK with what [the media] say, even if they come at me hard," Brown said. "That's why I get paid the money I get paid -- to take that criticism in the spotlight. I respect that it's hard for everybody, but that's part of the process of trying to figure out whether or not you're a champion."
That process was complicated in the offseason when the Cavs added Shaquille O'Neal, whose massive presence doesn't neatly fit into any scheme.
"It's been challenging so far from the standpoint that I've never had a presence like Shaq in the middle of the paint since I've been here," Brown said. "We went back and watched tape when Shaq was in Miami, went back and watched the Miami-Dallas series [in the 2006 Finals]. And then [we] talked to a few guys who had coached Shaq in the past and took a lot of notes on those conversations. It's helped us with the transition, but there are still going to be some growing pains while we're getting used to one another. I've got to figure out the right rotation to make sure that [Zydrunas Ilgauskas] is still getting his minutes and that Shaq's getting his minutes, too, and the combinations are right with the two centers out on the floor."
After a preseason in which the team was hit with the flu bug and spent an inordinate amount of time working on defense, Brown continues to mix and match lineups two weeks into the season. As a result, Cleveland has looked disjointed and unsure on offense at times. The Cavs ranked only 22nd in scoring and 18th in field-goal percentage heading into Wednesday's visit to reigning conference champion Orlando.
"Sometimes you have to get kicked in the head a little bit to understand that this is hard," Brown said. "Especially when everybody around you is telling you you're already a champion when you haven't been, when you haven't won anything."
Of course, all of Brown's, and the Cavs', moves are subtext to the sword hanging over the franchise: LeBron's future. Win, conventional wisdom says, and no one would leave their own championship parade. Fail to bring home the trophy, though, and perhaps the reigning MVP chooses a bigger market or a superstar friend to pair with elsewhere.
"I can lay in bed and worry about it or sit in my office and worry about it, but what's it going to do me?" Brown said. "It's going to take time away from me trying to figure out how to make us into a champion."
Now that would be a nice ending for Cleveland.
• Boston's bench. Led by Rasheed Wallace, Shelden Williams, Marquis Daniels and Eddie House, the Celtics' reserves are averaging 36.1 points during a 7-1 start. That production has allowed coach Doc Rivers to play all his starters 35 minutes or fewer, an important development for a team that plans on playing into June.
• Luol Deng's resurrection. After struggling with leg injuries the past two seasons, the 24-year-old forward appears healthy and, perhaps even more important, aggressive. A capable scorer and quick on-ball defender, he has shown signs of becoming a dominant rebounder as well. Deng is averaging 9.4 rebounds (three more than his career average), a big reason why the Bulls rank fifth in the league. His willingness to use all his talents has helped make Chicago a tough out each night.
• Marc Gasol. Fifteen pounds lighter than he was as a rookie, Gasol's enhanced quickness and footwork impressed one scout we spoke with recently, and the numbers prove as much: 17.3 points and 13.3 rebounds per 40 minutes, along with 55.4 percent shooting and 1.6 blocks per game. Now, all the Western Conference has to do is make sure Mitch Kupchak can't get any calls through to Tennessee.
• Harmony in Oakland. The claim by Stephen Jackson's agent that "no one trusts Don Nelson" may be the words of a man trying to get his client traded. But it's also indicative of a locker room spiraling into chaos. In fact, that's just how Corey Maggette described the team atmosphere following a 120-107 loss to the Kings last Sunday. Two days earlier, a 28-point home loss to the Clippers prompted guard Monta Ellis to say, "We looked like a high school team." The adage a team can't improve until it hits bottom? Could apply, but where that is for the Warriors is anyone's guess.
• Tracy McGrady's return. After McGrady proclaimed he would return Nov. 18, the Rockets responded with as much enthusiasm as someone headed to the dentist's office. Considering McGrady has been more forthcoming about the progress of his knee injury to the media than the Rockets, it's a safe bet these two are headed for a divorce sooner than later.
• Defense in Toronto. As impressive as the Raptors' Euro-ball look is on offense -- averaging 109.4 points is nothing short of impressive -- it has been stereotypically soft on the other end. Toronto is surrendering 111.4 points, the third most in the league. While the Raptors' up-tempo pace can be fingered for some of the blame, an opponents' field-goal percentage of 47.7 (seventh worst) is an even bigger culprit. It would be a shame if the style of play that gets Chris Bosh some MVP votes also sends him packing when the Raptors lose in the first round of the playoffs.
• "Everybody can't be Tiger, Bird, Stockton, Duncan etc. Some people turn out to be Rodman, Maxwell and Artest! What's so bad about that?!!!!.??"-- Ron Artest, in one of 14 tweets he posted after TNT's Charles Barkley questioned Artest's focus following a story about his rap career.
• "I hope his lawyer says something negative about me tomorrow. Must've turned him on."-- Don Nelson tells the San Jose Mercury News why he felt Stephen Jackson gathered 15 assists in the Warriors' 145-106 win Monday over Minnesota.
• "You don't think I'd trade my career with Steve Nash's? I have five [championships], but I'd trade my career with his in a heartbeat."-- Suns general manager Steve Kerr, to NBA.com, on how sometimes rings aren't always the thing.
•Salt Lake Tribune: Meet Evric Gray, a member of the security team at Utah's Energy Solutions Arena ... and a former member of Jerry Tarkanian's famed Runnin' Rebels of 1991, the team that brought a 34-0 record into the Final Four before losing to Duke.
•Basketball Prospectus: Examining why scoring is up this season and whether it will continue.
• The Press-Enterprise: What does the reigning Finals MVP do to keep up with the LeBrons and D-Wades and Carmelos breathing down his neck? Well, Kobe Bryant calls on Hakeem Olajuwon to help him expand his game.
• Basketball-Reference.com:Is it ever too early to handicap the MVP race? Well, yeah, but that doesn't mean we should ignore a statistical MVP tracker that doesn't have LeBron among the top 10 candidates yet.
•NBA.com: Interesting Q&A with Rasheed Wallace about ... boxing. Turns out the Philadelphia native knows his stuff.
1. The Wizards have spent a lot of time whining about losses to lesser teams, like the Pacers, or stewing over playing time or talking up their "rivalry" with the Cavaliers. Meanwhile, they've slipped to 2-6. Here's a thought: Stop yapping. Try passing the ball a bit more and start listening to Flip Saunders and the wisdom that has earned him 589 coaching wins, and maybe then you'll show more fire than Antawn Jamison did in hurling a food tray in the locker room after a recent loss.
2. It's a shame the Nets' rebuilding may cost Lawrence Frank his job, especially if prospective owner Mikhail Prokhorov takes over the front office in his (read: European) image, as some reports have indicated. In talking to scouts, it's clear Frank is one of the most creative strategists in the game, capable of fitting his schemes to his players' talents -- no small feat. What's more, his players buy into his schemes and put forth the effort, even when overmatched. Rod Thorn may realize this, but after so many losses and so many seasons in the same seat, a very good coach will find it difficult to stay employed next summer.
3. Isn't it time one of the networks hired a studio analyst who can break down a game tape and offer more than the same old impressions about Boston's impressive start and Steve Nash's remarkable play? A boatload of scouts lost their jobs in the offseason, and many could analyze the intricacies of Eddie Jordan's offense in Philadelphia or how Denver is setting Carmelo Anthony free possession after possession. No, they wouldn't have the name recognition of any number of former players, but they'd teach us all a lot more about the game.