Mike Brown has always been an easy scapegoat. There's something about the way Brown handles himself, from the blank stares on the sidelines to vague answers postgame, that never reflected the intelligence a coach has to have to work his way into two of the most prominent coaching jobs of the last decade without ever playing.
Of course, there was plenty of blame to go around this season as the Los Angeles Lakers started 1-4, which resulted in Brown's ousting as head coach Friday. Per CBSSports.com's Ken Berger, that's the fastest into the season an NBA coach has been fired since Dolph Schayes got the axe after the Buffalo Braves' opener in 1971.
Whenever a move is made that quickly, especially with a team that essentially completely overhauled its identity over the summer--and then saw one of the key newcomers, Steve Nash, injured in game two--it's inevitably going to be called an overreaction. We may never completely understand the thinking that went into the change, which was reportedly made by team president Jim Buss over the objections of GM Mitch Kupchak, according to Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski. Wojnarowski later reported the decision was primarily a repudiation of the Princeton-style offense Brown was installing with help from lead assistant Eddie Jordan.
Ultimately, Brown lost his job because he lost games. Had the Lakers won, everything else would have taken care of itself. So the relevant question is to what extent the Lakers' slow start is due to the makeup of the team, the adjustment period and factors outside of Brown's control and to what extent his decisions contributed to it. In that context, last week's column on the Lakers' issues still holds up.
While the team's offense collapsed in Utah, managing just 4-of-23 shooting beyond the arc, Sunday's blowout win over the Detroit Pistons showed the way the Lakers can click when their chemistry is good and shots are falling. Overall, the team ranks sixth in the league in Offensive Rating despite the second-worst turnover rate in the NBA. And that's despite Steve Blake manning the point instead of Nash for 3.5 of the team's five games. Offensively, the Lakers are fine, despite all the hand-wringing over the Princeton offense.
For that matter, the Lakers' starters have been perfectly good. The lineup that has started the last five games, with Blake at the point, has outscored opponents by 31 points in 79 minutes, per NBA.com/Stats. While most of that stat was naturally built against the Pistons, when it was an incredible +29 in less than 21 minutes, the temporary starters have only been outscored once in the last four games--by three points last Friday against the L.A. Clippers.
So the Lakers' problems can be traced largely to the bench, and while part of that blame must go to the front office for building such a limited group, Brown was unable to find a successful rotation. NBA.com/Stats also allows us to break down performance by the number of starters on the floor at any given time. While the results aren't exactly surprising, the enormous magnitude of the difference is staggering:
# MIN +/- PER48
5 122 +35 + 13.8
4 33 + 5 + 7.3
3 33 0 0.0
2 35 -23 - 31.5
1 7 -17 -116.6
0 8 - 8 - 48.0
A similar trend holds looking at the number of Hall of Famers in the lineup:
# MIN +/- PER48
4 45 0 0.0
3 95 +42 +21.2
2 46 - 3 - 3.1
1 44 -39 -42.5
0 8 - 8 - 48.0
During the first game and a half, lineups with all four stars were not particularly effective, but the Lakers have destroyed teams as long as they've had Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard all available. Problems crop up when one of the big men is on the bench, and lineups with just Gasol and Howard have been destroyed regardless of who else is out there with them.
In fairness to Brown, he can't really ensure that two of his stars are on the court at all times with Nash out of the lineup. At the same time, he had opted against such lineups before Nash went down despite the obvious advantages of separating Bryant and Nash as much as possible rather than resting them at the same time.
The questions about the rotation also go beyond how to manage the starters. Brown had gone to supersized lineups with Antawn Jamison at small forward and either Devin Ebanks or Metta World Peace at small forward that produced major spacing issues. Before this season, Jamison hadn't played small forward since he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers (and Brown) at the 2010 trade deadline. Lineups with Jamison at small forward have been outscored by more than a point per minute (-52 in 48 minutes), while lineups with him at his more natural power forward spot have been positive (+4 in 28).
This decision has the side effect of pushing backup shooting guard Jodie Meeks out of the team's rotation, depriving the Lakers of a necessary shooter. While the Lakers have played as poorly with Meeks as with other non-Bryant players at two-guard, the decision is still bizarre given that Meeks is the team's best standstill three-point shooter.
The other issue that cost Brown his job was the team's defense. He was hired on the strength of his defensive reputation, one in which I believed. However, his results at that end of the floor have been poor. The Lakers slipped from sixth to 13th in Defensive Rating last season, and were a disastrous 23rd so far in 2012-13. It's unclear how much Brown is suffering for the defensive shortcomings of the Gasol-Howard pairing, slow-footed point guards and Howard's recovery from back surgery, but a truly elite defensive coach would have found workarounds. We've seen far less talented teams give far more credible defensive performances under system coaches like Scott Skiles, the Van Gundys, Tom Thibodeau and Dwane Casey. At this point, Brown's track record pegs him more as an above-average defensive coach than a top one. Given his shortcomings as a tactician, it's unclear whether that marks Brown as deserving of another coaching chance.
I'm open to the possibility that Brown is nothing more than a scapegoat. I'm not sure any coach would have gotten much more out of last year's fatally flawed Lakers, and it's too early to know whether the potential of this year's group will ever translate into success on the floor. Even if the Lakers do get better, it's possible that it's nothing more than old-fashioned regression to the mean they would have enjoyed with or without a coaching change. Still, I don't think Brown can blame anyone but himself for the bizarre rotations we've seen. The Lakers may have stumbled into it the wrong direction by focusing on the offense, but I think firing Brown was the right decision.
For a comprehensive guide to the 2012-13 season, check out Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, now available in .PDF and paperback formats.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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