By Ben Golliver
Lakers ownership made a swift decision Friday, firing Mike Brown just five games into the season. You can quibble with the timing, perhaps, but this wasn't a panic move and it didn't come from nowhere. Yes, it's always shocking when a coach goes from receiving "100 percent support" from ownership to a pink slip in four days flat. But the evidence to support the quick ax was there; the only thing saving him was perception, and perception doesn't win basketball games.
The Lakers' hiring of the bookish Brown drew criticism at the time and he was unable to improve the team in any meaningful way last season. L.A. stalled out exactly where it had the season before, the Western Conference semifinals. Perhaps more important, his players clearly did not hold him in the same esteem as his predecessor, coaching legend Phil Jackson.
The most obvious warning sign last season was Andrew Bynum, who regularly refused to participate in huddles and even took to breaking the offense and throwing up three-pointers. That was child's play compared to the unmitigated disaster that has been the 2012-13 Lakers season to this point. The Lakers went 0-8 in the preseason and are 1-4 in the regular season. Brown's team has not jelled and did not look prepared for the regular season. Here was my assessment after the Lakers' second loss of the regular season:
In this case, Lakers coach Mike Brown deserves the heat that he’s receiving two days, and two losses (10 if you count the preseason), into the 2012-13 season. Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins broke down the handcuffing of point guard Steve Nash during L.A.’s opening night loss to the Mavericks on Tuesday; the problems during a 116-106 loss to the Trail Blazers on Wednesday were more basic, and seemed to point back to Brown. The biggest issues this time: the lack of chemistry, a lack of focus and, often, a lack of effort, especially on the defensive end.
“I think guys are trying,” Nash said. “I think that maybe we just didn’t live up to what our expectations were. Maybe we’re thinking too much or maybe we weren’t switched on enough.”
There’s a base level of disorganization that isn’t usually seen among teams with this much talent. Certainly, Brown’s starters didn’t play much together during the preseason, and it has impacted their timing and collective feel. The Lakers haven’t just been a half-step off here or there, as they claimed Wednesday, they have been downright sloppy. L.A. committed a total of 25 turnovers against the Blazers, sacrificing 28 points in the process. Passes slipped through hands and sailed out of bounds; others were easily intercepted. ... It was comically bad at times, at least for outsiders. Kobe Bryant didn’t look particularly pleased, getting a frustration technical foul late as L.A.’s comeback bids proved unsuccessful. Neither did Brown, who stood with his hands on his hips after Bryant chucked up and missed one long attempt.
The ongoing on-court cold war between Bryant and Brown was another warning sign. While Bryant did his best to fight back against criticism of the Lakers and express his support for Brown, he also couldn't help but mention in recent weeks that Brown lacked championship credentials and the cachet that comes with a ring.
“The critics are more likely to take runs at him [Brown] than they would at Phil Jackson,” Bryant said. “I’ve won, so I can [call for silence]. Mike, it would be a little tougher for him to say that. So I’ll say it for him: Everybody shut up. Let us work.”
The title quip seemed much more reflective of Bryant's thoughts on his coach than his line Wednesday about being Brown's "biggest supporter."
That was not the only star player tension Brown faced. He was also waging an unnecessary war with Nash over offensive style. Brown's decision to implement a Princeton offense was curious; like his hiring, it drew criticism from the start. Brown pushed back against those critics, a group that included TNT commentator Charles Barkley, by saying Nash would vouch for his approach because it would limit wear and tear on the 38-year-old point guard's body.
“Steve Nash has said it himself,” Brown asserted. “They can call him if they want, he’s said it himself. He doesn’t feel like he’s as burdened because he doesn’t have to make every play for everybody all the time with what we are trying to do. He can give it up and get it back. He says he’s felt as fresh as he’s ever felt in his career because he doesn’t feel the pressure of making every single play.”
The problem? Nash, a consummate professional who understands better than anyone how much he needs the ball to succeed, didn't even bother to publicly stand by Brown's explanation Here's what he said, per ESPNLA.com.
Asked whether that was indeed the case, Nash said, "It's not that it wears me out. It's that I'm not sure right now that should be the focus right now.
"I'm very reluctant to worry about myself. I want to learn, I want to build this team up and then if I need to be more proactive and a bigger part of things, that'll come. But right now, I want to try to get the offense going, get the guys going, get everyone's confidence up and we'll find a happy medium sometime down the road. I'm not worried about myself."
To recap: Last year's star center couldn't be bothered to tune into the coach's in-game coaching. The franchise player feels he has a better understanding of winning and stands on much more solid ground in the media. The starting point guard doesn't see eye-to-eye on the offense. Everyone else, save new center Dwight Howard, who is still recuperating from back surgery, is playing careless, half-hearted, losing basketball. Why, again, was this a tough decision?
The real question is whether it was better to fire him now or wait and hope that things turn around. There are plenty of basketball truisms that don't hold water, but the old adage "Once a locker room goes, it's gone forever," is worth taking to heart. A minor winning streak, or a patching-up process, wasn't likely to resolve the inherent differences between Brown and Nash and Brown and Bryant. Only a total rethinking of Brown's offensive approach and a change of heart from Bryant, who is set in his ways now more than ever, could have done that. Both of those seem particularly unlikely, if not impossible, and so Brown became the problem.