SACRAMENTO — The NBA’s Coach of the Year winners list is filled with those who lost. Meaning, they were fired at some point in their careers before winning the award, and almost all were fired after winning it. And the scalps are somewhat surprising in one or both of those regards: Monty Williams, Tom Thibodeau, Mike Budenholzer to name a few.
Then there’s Mike Brown, who was fired not once, not twice, but three times since he won in 2009 with the Cavaliers. In the NBA coaching world, three strikes usually means you’re out, at least for an extended stretch if not for good.
If that’s not historical enough, Brown also holds one of the speed records for dismissal, given the boot just five games into 2012-13 by the Lakers, third fastest all time to start a season.
Yet here he is, turning a setback into a comeback, the strong favorite to win Coach of the Year once again. That’s because in his first season holding one of the most thankless jobs in the profession, he has the Sacramento Kings — yes, them! — in the playoffs. Oh, and not only that, they’re top three in the Western Conference, cooking all season, disappointing everyone who thought this was a mirage.
In some ways, then, this coach and this team are made for each other. This was an ambitious marriage, as it turned out, made possible by a shared search for salvation, both sides looking for a basketball cleansing. A man who found his way back to the bench saddle, and a franchise that, after 16 years, found its way back into the postseason.
“It’s been good,” Brown said.
Go inside the Kings locker room as Coach Brown speaks with the team and awards the game ball. 👑 pic.twitter.com/Vg0vHqWuqz
— X – Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) March 30, 2023
So clang a cowbell for Brown, for his fortitude, his resilience, his reinvention and also — this might sound kinda weird — his good fortune to not hold a head coaching job when the Kings called last summer and elevated the former Warriors assistant. In that sense, the Kings were lucky that nobody wanted Brown, who interviewed for other jobs without success.
“I knew it was just a matter of time before he got another chance and he’s making the most of it,” said Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach who had Brown next to him on the bench for six years. “It’s been an amazing season for them, just watching them, watching the energy and the enthusiasm and the cohesion. And Mike has just crushed it. He’s done such a great job.”
In assessing Brown’s head coaching history, he was perhaps a victim of some weird circumstances. His first job was with the Cavs and LeBron James, and Brown didn’t cash in with a title, although the front office did him no favors by providing a so-so cast around LeBron. Even Dan Gilbert, the Cavs owner, said firing Brown was a “mistake.”
The next stop was in L.A. where the Lakers were caught in a bind, with an ailing Jerry Buss yielding the basketball matters to family members. The club added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Kobe Bryant … and subsequently fell flat. It was a disaster, from an expectations and chemistry standpoint, and Brown never saw a full second season.
Back to Cleveland, where the Cavs were regrouping after LeBron took his talents to Miami, Brown went 33-49 and was fired after one season. Gilbert mentioned nothing about a mistake this time.
Very often in the NBA coaching business, it’s about right place, right time. This is probably true about Brown, especially when you see how he’s connecting with a developing Kings team but also urged them to think big when training camp opened. Brown’s message: Why wait? Let’s go further than anyone expects. Let’s distance ourselves from our past.
And look where they are.
“I was talking to our guys about goals and one was to make the playoffs, and I said, ‘Let’s be like everyone else and win a championship.’ Don’t set a bar that’s too low,” Brown said. “We’ve been talking positively about our season from Day One and trying to instill that belief in them from Day One has been a big focus of mine.”
The Kings subsequently lost their first four games and then … never looked back, or allowed themselves to fall back again. And Brown has been a big part of that.
He put the ball in the exclusive hands of De’Aaron Fox late in fourth quarters of tight games, and because of that confidence, Fox has developed into one of the game’s best clutch players, with his efficiency and steadiness and ability to win games, much like more accomplished and older players.
“He brought a lot to us, got everyone to buy in from the first day,” Fox said. “He established a good working relationship with the guys. He came in here and told us we were going to be winners, and guys believed in him right from the start.”
Domantas Sabonis also prospered into one of the game’s best big men under Brown and is expected to collect some Kia MVP love from voters. There’s also Keegan Murray, who just recently set the record for most 3-point makes by a rookie. Brown challenged him in another way, too.
Brown: “I walked up to him, and I said, ‘Keegan, if somebody asked me if Keegan Murray’s shot is not going in, what’s he going to bring to the table?’ Keegan looked at me and thought it was a trick question. I said, ‘It’s not a trick question.’ He said, ‘well, I space the floor.’ I said, ‘you know what, I’m 52, I’m fat and I’m out of shape, and if I knock down a couple shots I could space the floor, so what else can you tell me?’”
In other words: Expand your game from being one-dimensional.
Brown has always challenged his players, be they LeBron, Kyrie Irving, or whomever. He’s also a very good communicator, true to his easygoing nature, but also unafraid to instill discipline, which comes from being an Army brat.
Kings forward Harrison Barnes said Brown has pushed all the necessary buttons.
“He’s come in and made all of us players accountable and put us in position to win games,” Barnes said, “and it’s great that he’s getting accolades because of that.”
Under Brown, the Kings operate one of the most efficient offenses in recent memory and average 121 points per game. They’re also 23-16 on the road; only the Bucks and Celtics have more road wins, which is great company for a Kings team that’s relatively young. And they haven’t had a losing streak longer than two games since they stumbled from the gate back in October.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest Brown’s success with the Kings is partly due to lessons learned from failure, like most coaches before him. For example, Monty Williams was often rigid and temperamental during his run with the Pelicans, yet more mellow and open to suggestions now with the Suns. He’s better off for it. Same for Thibodeau, who after success in Chicago bore the scars from a brief stop in Minnesota before elevating the current Knicks to respectability.
Even the Hall of Famers — Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Larry Brown, George Karl — all grew smarter after getting fired. It’s the circle of life in coaching, where lessons learned are lessons applied at the next stop.
Brown had a strong hunch he’d have another chance, “I just didn’t know when and where.”
In the meantime, he was in a superb position, as the lead assistant with the Warriors and to Kerr, a long-time friend from back in their days with the Spurs. Brown helped fortify the Warriors’ defense, which was so instrumental during their championship run last season, especially against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals, then the NBA Finals against Jayson Tatum and the Celtics.
Kerr’s respect for Brown runs so deep that Brown never had to worry about a paycheck.
“I always told him, he had a job next to me for life, as long as I was here,” Kerr said. “He suited me perfectly. I was thrilled for the opportunity he got (with the Kings) and then I thought, how am I going to replace him? He was that valuable.”
Brown was, in the words of Kerr, tremendous as an assistant coach for the Warriors. But how would he fare as a head coach again? Very often in the NBA, coaches get stigmatized, fair or not, as being quality assistants and nothing more. Even worse, once they get two or three cracks at head coaching jobs, they fall into retread territory, which becomes a bottomless pit.
Brown, it seems, is none of that. He found his calling, his spot. And it’s Sacramento, where the Kings needed a coach who could develop young talent and instill confidence not only in the locker room, but a city starved for a winner like none other in the NBA.
“We can win here,” Brown said. “We can win with what we have.”
In hindsight, after 16 years of never breaking a sweat in springtime, the Kings are indeed going to a place where they feel they belong. As for Mike Brown? Here’s already there.
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