Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Better Mike

As we begin 2009, there are many pressing questions facing our beloved teams. Who will be the next Browns GM and who will that GM name as coach? What's wrong with the Cavs and when are they going to get it fixed? What will the Indians infield look like now that they've acquired DeRosa? Can the Buckeyes match up with Texas?

Unfortunately, in response to each of these questions, I can only offer speculation. However, there is one question with which I have been confronted recently that I can answer with 100% confidence:

Who would you rather have coaching your NBA team: Mike D'Antoni or Mike Brown?

I'm sure that the vast majority of NBA players, fans, and media "experts" would answer D'Antoni without hesitation. While Brown is generally treated as an unproven commodity, D'Antoni has been continuously exalted to the point where his place among the top 3 or 4 coaches in the league is rarely questioned.

The most recent article by the artist formerly known as Bill Simmons only further reinforces this notion. While acknowledging that D'Antoni's run and gun offensive philosophy ultimately led to annual playoff disappointments in Phoenix, the basic purpose of Simmons' article is to credit D'Antoni for making his players more productive. While he doesn't necessarily call D'Antoni a great coach, he certainly suggests that NBA players should want to play in his system. And of course, in accordance with ESPN protocol, the article concludes with a reference to Lebron in New York:

One of those players was a forever-grateful Nash, who was slightly better than Mark Price and now goes down for eternity as an all-time great. Another is Duhon, who gets to hold his own record in something. There are a few others in the past and present and more coming in the future. I just hope one of them isn't named Lebron. Why? Because I don't have enough brain cells to properly calibrate his first triple-double Knicks season. Could he average 36-13-13 every game with Coach Mike? What about 40-15-15?

(My head hurts. I have to go.)

Listen, I understand the point that Simmons is trying to make: D'Antoni's system artificially inflates players' stats. I'm fine with that. The thing that upsets me, however, is that the real "story" about D'Antoni is completely buried in the article: YOU CAN'T WIN WITH HIS SYSTEM!

D'Antoni's Phoenix teams had an embarrassing amount of talent. In Nash, Amare, and Marion, he probably had the best core in the league. Then, he had other guys like Barbosa, Bell, Diaw, Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, and Kurt Thomas that could all play. To his credit, D'Antoni averaged an impressive 58 wins from 2004-2007 with this cast. However, his playoff record during that time was not so impressive: 2004 - Lost in Conf Finals, 2005 - Lost in Conf Finals, 2006 - Lost in Conf Semifinals, 2007 - Lost in First Round.

Now, I'm not exactly taking a controversial position by calling D'Antoni's system fatally flawed. It has been well documented that defense wins championships and pure transition teams always get tripped up in the postseason. What I can't figure out, however, is how a guy like D'Antoni, whose calling card is a doomed offensive system, is held in such high regard. This is particularly baffling when you consider the fact that the talents of a defensive specialist like Mike Brown are virtually ignored.

Help me figure this one out: We know you can win championships with great defense and bad offense (See, e.g., 2008 Boston Celtics). We also know that you can't win championships if you don't play any defense. Mike Brown is a great defensive coach who, thus far, has not produced any teams whose offense could even be called average. Mike D'Antoni is a great offensive coach who, thus far, has not produced any teams whose defense could even be called average. Considering that one of these models is still enough to win a title, how can D'Antoni be called a better coach than Brown?

This argument is further reinforced by the fact that Brown's teams have been inherently flawed due to personnel issues. There were reasons, aside from merely a bad offensive system, that teams with one offensive weapon, albeat a nuclear one, couldn't win a title. It's hard to go deep into the playoffs with the likes of Hughes, Snow, and Jones running your point. There were no reasons, however, why teams filled with guys like Marion, Amare, and Raja Bell couldn't play any defense. They didn't play any defense because they didn't feel like it. More specifically, they didn't play defense because nobody made them feel like it or told them to make it a priority.

In addition, is it really any great feat to get NBA players to fly up and down the floor jacking up shots early in the shot clock? Isn't this what every NBA player is already predisposed to want to do? I would argue that it's a lot more difficult to get guys to make an effort on the defensive end, where performance is harder to measure and where your efforts are far less likely to get you youtube clips and big free agent deals. NBA players come into the league wanting to be great on the offensive end. They have to be taught to want to play defense and defense wins championships.

Lets look at this another way: If we were making a video game and ranking the two coaches on both ends of the floor, it might look something like this:

D'Antoni: Offense - 95 Defense - 60
Brown: Offense - 70 Defense - 90

Of course these numbers are arbitrary, but, at the very least, there is a degree of truth to them. So who has the higher composite coaching score? Who is hailed as a great NBA coach? Does this make any sense?

If this were any other sport, we wouldn't be having this argument. You wouldn't find NFL guys telling you that Mike Martz is a better coach than John Fox. Nobody would even take that seriously. Is it so far off to analogize that to Brown and D'Antoni?

The bottom line is this: Both coaches are strong on one side of the ball and weak (although Brown might be changing that sentiment this year with a competent lead guard) on the other. D'Antoni's weakness is guaranteed to kill his teams in the playoffs. Brown's is just a barrier that's hard to overcome. Which would you rather have?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, should a player who is already great want to play for D'Antoni? If you're an average player, or even a good player, playing for D'Antoni has obvious appeal. Your offensive stats will become artificially inflated, you'll never have to work hard on the defensive end, and at the end, some shortsighted GM will be begging to give you a big deal. That I get. But what about a player like Lebron or Nash? Should a great player want to play in D'Antoni's system? I would argue that they shouldn't because great players can't become legends by winning scoring titles or MVPs, or putting up gaudy stats. Great players can only jump to the next level by winning a ring, and that just so happens to be the one thing D'Antoni's system can't produce.

Even though all the talking heads spout off about how much Lebron should want to play for D'Antoni, I suspect it's just the opposite. I suspect that after learning how to play defense and seeing how tough strong defensive teams are in the playoffs, Lebron knows his best chance to win a ring is with a coach like Mike Brown...a guy who demands that everyone plays defense. Lebron might one day decide to put money and fame ahead of winning championships but I guarantee that he will never leave a championship contender just to play in a system that allows him to put up ridiculous numbers and mail it in on defense.

So what say you CMCR readers? Who would you rather have coaching the Cavs: Mike D'Antoni or Mike Brown?


Captain Invader said...

Great article. I agree 100%. I always thought that the one thing that all the Mike Brown (prior to this year of course) haters never understood was that without his defense, the Cavs were nothing. They sure as hell would not have made the NBA championship. It is good to hear praise for our underrated coach.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis, Biff.

Scott @ WFNY said...

If there was a way that this team maintained their defensive attitude while having D'Antoni run the offense, I'd take that.

But like you said, if it's a one-or-the-other, you can't go wrong with what we have going for us. Now if we can just find a way to add Amare Stoudemire to this Cavaliers team... said...

Assuming LeBron returns to Cleveland, we should theoretically have a great chance to land Amare in 2010. Some say he will want to go to a big market and isn't ready to sacrifice being "the man" for a title at this point in his career. Maybe that's true. But for now I am optimistic we will land him or Bosh.