You have to give it to Mike Brown.
By "it," I certainly don't mean the Coach of the Year award. San Antonio's Gregg Popovich was the rightful winner, while Chicago's Tom Thibodeau and Indiana's Frank Vogel were worthy second- and third-place finishers (although I would have subbed Memphis' Lionel Hollins for Vogel in that top-three mix). Brown took ninth place, finishing with a grand total of four points (compared to Popovich's 467) because one voter gave him a second-place nod and another put him third.
But Brown's first season with the Lakers was never supposed to be about individual awards. It was about winning without Phil Jackson, about taking the Zen Master's torch from the owner's son in what was as awkward and daunting an exchange as any coach will ever come by. Larry O'Brien trophy or bust, Jim Buss style.
Buss, the newly named shot-caller who holds the title of vice president of player personnel, wanted his own man in charge. He wanted to wrestle back control of the franchise from Jackson and Kobe Bryant, to make this group respect convention and, by extension, respect him. So he didn't consult with his franchise player on the coaching decision, ignoring his request for longtime Lakers assistant Brian Shaw to be hired and thereby putting Brown in a precarious position with the players who still saw Bryant as king. A major culture change was in the works, and Brown faced the challenge of juggling the world above him and the one at his feet.
But despite all of the fits and starts -- from the over-reliance on Bryant, to the bouts with Andrew Bynum and his immaturity, to Metta World Peace's frustrations with his role early in the season -- the Lakers are looking like legitimate title contenders again. Brown, the purported defensive specialist who oversaw most of the LeBron James era as the Cavaliers' coach from 2005-10, deserves some credit for that.
The regular-season record under Brown (41-25, .621 winning percentage) paled in comparison to Jackson's finale (57-25, .695). But the latest playoff version of the Lakers -- who led their first-round series with the Nuggets 2-0 entering Game 3 on Friday in Denver -- looks superior to the 2011 edition so far.
Bynum's breakout is Brown's crowning achievement and a key to a possible NBA crown, especially considering the way things were before the new coach arrived. The 24-year-old center, long known as Buss' pet project after Buss led the decision to draft him in 2005, made it clear at the end of last season that he wanted a larger role. Bryant, in turn, stood by his stance that "I eat first, Pau [Gasol] eats second," the pecking order that had come to define the Lakers' offense. Jackson and Bryant tended to be like-minded during their later years together, and so it seemed safe to say this would be the way of the Lakers' world for the foreseeable future.
But Bynum got his way under Brown, taking nearly as many shots as Gasol during the regular season (13.3 compared to 14.1 per game) after getting roughly half the looks last season (7.6 to 13.7). The December trade of Lamar Odom to Dallas helped create more opportunity, but the fact remains that Bynum's production soared this season (the first-time All-Star's points went from 11.3 to 18.7, rebounds 9.4 to 11.8, minutes 27.8 to 35.2).
It's tough to analyze Brown's performance by the numbers, as the Lakers, oddly enough, declined defensively (from eighth in points allowed to 15th, fifth to ninth in opponents' field-goal percentage, sixth to 13th in defensive efficiency, or points allowed per possession). He's never been accused of being an offensive genius, but the Lakers' 10th-place finish in points per possession after their transition away from the triangle offense was close to their No. 7 ranking last season.
When I asked Brown at the end of the regular season whether he would have voted for himself for Coach of the Year, his answer said everything about the way he has made this thing work -- by not making it about him.
"No, I think we have some guys who are capable of winning some awards, being on the All-Defensive team," he said. "I think Kobe should definitely be in the mentioning for MVP, because we've had a lot of transition here, and if you think about the teams that are in front of us, there's no other team that had as much change as we had. You're talking about a shortened season -- no practice, no training camp -- and the expectations that are placed on this team.
"With the help that I've gotten from the staff, with the help I've gotten from the team, especially the captains and Kobe and Pau, it's made the transition easier for me. I think overall we've done a solid job this year, with all the changes."
Brown was never going to remind anyone of Jackson, the Hall of Fame coach who mastered the art of motivation and seemed destined to be a sports psychologist. But Brown's self-effacing ways have worked most of the time, allowing the group to find its way while his ego wasn't part of the equation. It wasn't spectacular, and it certainly lacked the trademark Lakers sizzle. But the coaches coached and the players played -- a simple, successful approach.
The experience itself was a change for Brown. His time with James meant he was no stranger to the bright lights, but even that didn't prepare him for the scrutiny of being with the Lakers.
"The biggest [adjustment] is the attention that we get from the public and the media," he said. "You hear it's tremendous and all that other stuff, but until you actually go through it, there's no way to really prepare for it.
"Coaching LeBron, we had a national media following. We had a big media following, but it was definitely different than what it is now. ... It's not just about one guy [with the Lakers]. ... It encompasses [everyone]. You know what it is? It basically could be reality TV."
Love Brown or not, the reality is that he's doing the job he was hired to do. And doing it well.