Ultimately, it did not matter that Mike Brown was a heck of a hard-working coach or that the vilified Princeton offense was not even his brainchild. What mattered was that every day — no, every hour — brought a new referendum on the coach of a star-laden Lakers team that was supposed to lose four games by the All-Star break, not by the eighth day of the regular season.
The results in the standings were almost secondary to the way the Lakers looked en route to their 1-12 record, including the preseason. Steve Nash, the most brilliant playmaker in the game, hardly touched the ball during the 50 minutes he spent on the court before suffering a small fracture in his left lower leg. Pau Gasol was averaging fewer shots and fewer assists per game than last year, despite an offense and a new frontcourt partner that was supposed to play to Gasol’s many talents. Dwight Howard seemed to talk to the officials as much as he did to his teammates, as though going to the foul line would have done him any good.
The only guy who seemed somewhat satisfied, and that is using the term “somewhat” very liberally, was Kobe Bryant. Many observers seem to have forgotten, if they were ever aware, that Bryant was the one who advocated for the Princeton offense while playing for Team USA last summer in London. Some reports indicated Bryant was actually frustrated that Howard and a few other Lakers teammates refused to give the Princeton a chance. In fact, Bryant was the one player whose productivity did not drop off in the first five games of this season — he was scoring 27.2 points per game, just seven-tenths of a point lower than last year, while taking six fewer shots per game and shooting better from the field and the free throw line than ever before.
But Bryant’s history as an incorrigible star made it inevitable that the storyline would focus on a conflict between him and Brown’s offense. Los Angeles is Bryant’s town, and the Lakers were not going to fire Bryant, no matter how eyebrow-raising it was that he endorsed an offense promoted by Eddie Jordan, whose 257-343 record in nine years as an NBA head coach should speak for themselves. And as the losses mounted and the Lakers’ struggles became national news, Bryant was certainly not about to remind everybody that this was his idea in the first place.
What has been forgotten is that Brown is a good coach and something of an American success story. Brown worked his way onto the men’s basketball team at the University of San Diego after toiling for two years at a community college. Determined to stay involved with the game he loved, Brown joined the Denver Nuggets as an unpaid intern and worked his way up the ladder until he was hired by the San Antonio Spurs and their illustrious coach, Gregg Popovich. When the Cavaliers hired him in 2005, it seemed like the perfect melding of a young, forward-thinking coach and a rising star in LeBron James, reminiscent of when an unproven 44-year-old named Phil Jackson, who had no previous NBA head coaching experience, took over the Chicago Bulls in 1989.
Hard work and intelligence only count for so much, unfortunately, when the outsize egos of some of the best basketball players in the world are involved. The Cavs fired Brown in an attempt to keep James, who departed anyway. Then the Lakers hired him, hoping his work ethic would appeal to Bryant, as though that was all that mattered.
Do not listen to the people who will claim that Brown “never” would have had success with the Lakers. That much can never be known, and those are probably the same people who claimed Erik Spoelstra could never win a championship with the Heat, that Doc Rivers was in over his head with the “Big Three” in 2007 and that the free-spirited Jackson could never rein in Michael Jordan‘s gung-ho tendencies. If Nash and Howard had meshed earlier with their new teammates or if Brown had simply ignored Bryant’s suggestion last summer, perhaps we would still be marveling over the future Hall of Famers occupying the Lakers roster.
Because things happened the way they did, though, the outside noise had become too much of a distraction. The Lakers had to move on from Brown to calm the furor, even if Brown alone was not to blame.