The unraveling of the Cavaliers’ season came to its inevitable conclusion early Monday with a source confirming to CBSSports.com that coach Mike Brown has been fired.
Back-to-back 60-win seasons couldn’t save Brown from the backlash of another premature playoff ouster after the Cavs, with the best record in the league, were eliminated from the playoffs in six games by the Boston Celtics.
By firing Brown, the 2008-09 NBA coach of the year, by Sunday at midnight, the Cavs avoided his $4.5 million salary for next season becoming fully guaranteed. Since he was let go before the deadline, only half of Brown’s salary is guaranteed.
Brown, a strong defensive coach groomed in the successful Spurs organization, will immediately become a candidate for head coaching openings in New Orleans and Atlanta and perhaps elsewhere.
According to a second source familiar with the Cavs' strategy, Brown's ouster was the first -- and most important -- piece of the puzzle that had to be solved before Cleveland could proceed with its plan to persuade LeBron James to return to the Cavs once the free-agent negotiating period begins July 1. Recent reports have indicated that James recused himself from the decision on Brown, but decision makers in the organization were well aware that he was not pleased with the way the team failed to adjust to its opponent's style of play for the second straight postseason. Last season, it was Orlando foiling the Cavs' simplistic defensive rotations. This time, it was Boston shredding the Cavs' defense with Rajon Rondo's dribble penetration and mismatches on the interior, with Kevin Garnett exposing Antawn Jamison for the entire six-game series.
In a telling dose of doom for Brown after the Cavs' ouster in Game 6 of the conference semis, James was noncommittal about Brown and declined to come to his defense publicly when asked. Despite Brown's regular season success, it was only a matter of time before the playoff losses caught up to him. And in Cleveland, where an entire city is bracing for James' anticipated foray into unrestricted free agency, the regular season doesn't matter. Playoffs and championships do.
So with everyone from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to President Obama urging LeBron to weigh his chances of winning a title in another city, the process of sucking up to James begins anew. What coach would persuade him to stay? Or better yet, what coach and supporting cast would persuade him not to leave?
Despite the Cavs' best efforts to placate him with roster additions that have not worked -- Mo Williams, Shaquille O'Neal, Jamison -- there is a growing belief among those familiar with the situation that James is more open than ever to the possibility that he would be able to find a better supporting cast in Chicago. Several factors independent of the Cavs' playoff collapse have enhanced the Bulls' position. The possibility of playing with Derrick Rose, and the fact that the Bulls have left their coaching job vacant -- with James' buddy, John Calipari, lurking in the wings and with Phil Jackson's contractual situation with the Lakers still unresolved -- have conspired to make the Cavs' job of keeping him even harder.
Step one was firing Brown, whether LeBron was directly involved in the decision or not. The next set of dominoes will begin tumbling almost immediately, with Cleveland engaging in a coaching search and LeBron getting some clarity as to what he'd be returning to if he stayed in Cleveland.
Whether Brown deserved to be fired is hardly the issue. Given the expectations, and what was at stake for James' future, it's hard to argue with the decision. Under those circumstances, you can't bring a team with the best record in the league into the playoffs and lose as thoroughly as the Cavs did and expect to keep your job. All we know for sure, though, is that one shoe has dropped. The big ones -- the franchise-shaping ones -- are coming next.