He was professional. That’s how Steph Curry usually handles matters. But still, if just that one time he had fallen all over himself in awe, it would have been understandable. The rest of us did.
At one point during the Warriors’ Game 1 stomping of the Jazz, Rudy Gobert got matched up defensively on Curry. It was NBA-nerd fan fiction come to life. Had they met in the restricted area or at the rim, it would have been advantage Gobert. But they did not meet in the restricted area or at the rim — they met out on the perimeter. It was most decidedly not advantage Gobert. Curry turned the poor guy into his unwilling and dizzy dance partner.
It was like Curry suddenly channeled Barry Sanders and cast Gobert, against his consent, in the role of an overmatched Patriots defensive back. The sequence was mesmerizing, the kind of thing you want to watch on loop. Unless you’re Rudy Gobert or the Jazz. Then you didn’t want to watch at all, much less on loop.
Naturally, Curry was asked about the play, and he said all the right things. He acted like it was nothing special. It’s his standard operating procedure. Fine. But damn if that wasn’t a beautiful bit of basketball. Surely one of the Warriors marveled at it the way civilians did. Surely someone recognized the magnificence.
Mike Brown was that someone. He was almost giddy.
“I feel like I’ve got one of the better seats in the house,” Brown grinned, “and I’m not even paying for it.”
As moments and metaphors go, Brown’s reaction was close to perfect. For a guy who’s supposed to be under a lot of pressure — taking over for Steve Kerr in the middle of a playoff push — Brown sure didn’t seem shook. Not before or after the Warriors smashed the Utah Jazz at Oracle Arena in the first two games of the series. Compare that to Tyronn Lue, who recently said he has “the hardest job by far” of any coach in the NBA. (You are forgiven if you challenge that assertion.) To whatever extent that’s true, Brown is at the other end of the spectrum. The guy appears to be enjoying himself, which sort of demolishes the tidy prefab takes that were constructed around him.
When it was announced that Kerr’s back problems would keep him out of the playoffs indefinitely, a knee-jerk narrative emerged. If the Warriors were invincible at full strength — at least in the Western Conference and without LeBron to deal with — then losing Kerr would make them somewhat vulnerable. (Kerr wasn’t at Oracle for either game against the Jazz, and he won’t travel to Utah.) Brown was pushed forward as that potential impediment. Even after he coached the Warriors to wins in Games 3 and 4 in a first-round sweep of Portland, Brown discussed the spotlight and the butterflies. People wanted to know what he’d do to keep the Warriors from getting stale during the long layoff between rounds, or if he’d somehow alter the approach that’s made them the most successful team in the league for a while now. As different reporters put it in various interview sessions, “taking over midstream” and “keeping the ball rolling” was supposed to represent a massive challenge. Brown didn’t seem too stressed about it. Like he said: Why reinvent the wheel when it already works?
The teeth-gnashing. The hand-wringing. The earnest doubts about the spot Brown was put in and how he’d handle the attendant pressure. It was predictable. Part of it was even understandable. Not because it was real, but because it made things more interesting. Perfection, or whatever approximation of it the Warriors have recently represented, can be boring. Where’s the fun in inevitability? Who wants to know how the story ends before it’s over? When there’s a lack of drama, you search for it even when you know it’s not there. The Warriors needed an obstacle, and that’s what Brown became for a moment.
Not that he played into it. On the contrary. Brown said he might have been less at ease with his new responsibilities if he hadn’t been with the team all year. But he was with the team all year. He got a feel for the culture Kerr built, and the “X’s and O’s basketball-wise” that were installed. More than once over the past few days in Oakland, he ticked off the many people that took the weight off him — from the other assistants to general manager Bob Myers and his staff to “the leaders on the team, the veteran team we have.”
It takes a village to get anything serious accomplished in the NBA, and the Warriors’ happy little hamlet was self-sufficient long before Brown showed up in town. All he had to do was move in and not burn the place down.
When I landed in Oakland, my Uber driver was listening to local sports radio. It sounded like that’s what the host and his guest expected — for Brown to go full firebug and torch the joint. Kerr is an excellent coach, and the Bay Area is right to want him healthy and back on the bench as soon as possible. Brown and the Warriors obviously want the same and have said as much. But it’s easy to forget that Brown is sixth among active coaches in playoff game appearances and wins. (Because he’s only the acting head coach, this year’s playoff victories get credited to Kerr.) He was Coach of the Year back in 2008–09, too. Yeah, he had LeBron, but he still managed to not reach for the gasoline and matches back then, either.
Here we pause to stipulate that Brown and the perception of his abilities took some serious PR hits not long thereafter. He coached the Lakers to 41 wins in the 66-game lockout-shortened season — then got fired after just five games the following year. It’s not like his successor, Mike D’Antoni, managed to course-correct the organization, but it wasn’t a good look for Brown. Neither was the not-so-triumphant return to Cleveland for the 2013–14 campaign. The Cavs won just 33 games that season. The next year Brown was gone again — which means he missed out on LeBron’s legitimately triumphant return and the long-elusive championship parade that followed in 2016. If you’re looking for how Brown got set up as a would-be punchline in Golden State, all of that helped.
But when he was elevated to acting head coach of the Warriors, Brown had a few advantages that he didn’t enjoy when he coached the Lakers or Cavs 2.0. Golden State led the league in net rating by a massive margin during the regular season, and was also first in true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, and assist percentage, and was fourth in pace and ninth in rebound percentage, per NBA.com. They also had a comfy plus-minus cushion of plus-10.3 against the Jazz in three games this year. Throw in 67 regular-season wins and the team’s pedigree, and there’s a reason they were such heavy favorites heading into the second round.
Those odds were so cartoonish, Brown could have rocketed himself off a Bay Area bridge, Wile E. Coyote style, and the coachless Warriors would’ve remained the biggest favorites in the second round.
After what happened in the Finals last year, and then in the offseason, the Warriors have a lengthy list of people with something to prove. But Brown is pretty far down that list — if he’s on it at all. If people truly believed that Brown was suddenly saddled with responsibilities that were too daunting for him, or living in a moment too big for him or a job too tough for him, they had it all wrong. Mike Brown has an awesome job. That doesn’t mean he’ll do an awesome job, or that he’s always done an awesome job in the past. It simply means that, relative to everything going on around him and everything required of myriad Warriors as they hunt another title, Brown is in the best spot he could be.
If there was a recurring knock on Brown in the past, it centered on in-game adjustments. Magic Johnson famously flamed Brown for them after the Lakers exiled him in 2012. But here, again, the narrative isn’t so neat. Jazz coach Quin Snyder was an assistant under Brown in Los Angeles. You wouldn’t expect him to say anything bad about his former boss, but if Brown were such a buffoon you wouldn’t expect Snyder to gush about him either. Which he did. Snyder called it “a privilege working with him” (despite Snyder getting hazed in L.A.), and he took every opportunity to trumpet Brown’s coaching ability. Even if that was merely reflexive coach-on-coach back-slapping, Snyder still nailed the overarching point here.
“They know who they are,” Snyder said in an interview. “[It’s] still Draymond Green, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and so on and so forth, Andre Iguodala. They know who they are as players. And this team, they wouldn’t have been successful if they didn’t.”
Bummer for Iguodala that he got rated behind So On and So Forth — though So On’s PER is pretty great — but Snyder was right. The Warriors do what they do. Brown knows it just like Snyder knows it just like everyone knows it. The real issue at present isn’t about Brown getting in the Warriors’ way, it’s about the team opposite Golden State trying to do so. “Are we gonna be good or not?” Snyder asked rhetorically. “Because they’re gonna be good.”
Golden State was good. Utah was … less good. The Warriors led Game 1 from start to finish and tied a franchise playoff record for fewest turnovers. That last part pleased Brown. He said it was something that Kerr had stressed since they had their preseason coaches’ retreat in Napa. (Being a Warriors coach does not suck.) Brown called Kerr afterward to discuss it — then playfully told Kerr he was taking credit for the achievement.
Game 2’s 115–104 win wasn’t the Warriors’ best performance of the playoffs — they were sloppier, more than doubling their Game 1 turnover total, and the Jazz made a few runs — but it didn’t matter. Kevin Durant had 25 points. Steph Curry scored 23. Draymond Green added 21, including five 3-pointers in the first half. Once again, the Warriors never trailed.
But if Brown’s tactics haven’t slowed the Warriors, then surely his personnel-management methods have been a drag. Right? When Draymond Green waved off Brown’s substitution attempt after picking up two fouls early in Game 3 against the Trail Blazers, Brown’s detractors thought they had finally found the nit they were so eager to pick. Except Brown shrugged it off, and Green credited him for it.
“There are so many times you see guys wave a coach off … and they’ll still take them out,” Green said. “But that’s the trust our coaching staff has in us. And I know if I wave to stay in, I can’t pick up that third foul. It’s a two-way street.”
The idea that Green had somehow disrespected Brown in a way he never would with Kerr was amusing given Green’s well-documented disagreements with Kerr in the past. And the counter-argument that Brown should have yanked Green and yelled at him in an attempt to assert himself felt off-brand. You rarely see Brown jaw at players like Pop did with David Lee or Doc Rivers has in all the games ever. Brown’s approach is more confidant than confronter. Between Games 1 and 2 against the Jazz, Brown finished practice at the Warriors facility in downtown Oakland by rebounding for Green while he worked on his free throws (just like Luke Walton used to do). When they were done, they embraced in a half-hug, half-handshake employed by chummy dudes everywhere.
But the best example of how Brown handles things these days probably occurred before the Jazz series started. Several of the Warriors said they would have rather played the Clippers — not because of the matchup, but because of the nightlife in L.A. Kevin Durant lamented the lack of clubs in Salt Lake City. Andre Iguodala revealed he gets “bored out of [his] mind” there. And Matt Barnes ranked the town’s best restaurants: Olive Garden and Benihana. They couldn’t have been more dismissive of Utah and, by proxy, the Jazz. They sounded far more worried about what would happen after games than during them. Some coaches might have taken umbrage with that. They might have pivoted and redirected the conversation back to basketball. Brown went a different way. He humored reporters on the topic, though he disagreed that Salt Lake City is boring.
“I think if you really want to find something to get into,” Brown said, “I don’t care where you are, you can find something to get into.”
You could look at Brown as a pushover and say he ought to play the stern babysitter instead. Maybe even padlock the freezer so the Warriors couldn’t liberate the ice cream. But why? They’re not his kids (or kids at all, for that matter). As long as they’re still breathing if/when Kerr returns, Brown did his job. In the meantime, they can have all the ice cream they want. He might even join them.
None of this is much of a departure from Steve Kerr’s style. As Mike Brown noted several times, Kerr gave his players ownership of the operation for a reason. That’s the word Brown used before Game 1 against Utah — ownership. Oh man, was that a mistake. It provided an opening for the faction that wanted Brown to hurry up and do some all-caps COACHING. The relevant exchange starts at the 9:53 mark in the video below. It’s worth watching — not just for Brown’s rightly puzzled look when he heard the question, but for the excellent answer he eventually gave.
The abridged version of the back-and-forth went like this: The reporter wanted to know what Brown would have to see from the Warriors to “take some of that ownership back from them.” It was a weird question. There was an undertone of: Hey fella, when might you coach them up or put them in their place? Or something. Who knows? Again, weird question. Brown handled it well. He explained that they’ve had ownership for three years, and he wouldn’t take it away from them because “I don’t know if it’s my place to do that.” Then Brown used a journalism analogy to further spell it out for the media — because we can be knotheads sometimes.
As writers, Brown said, you probably don’t want the bosses back in the office to insist that you take a certain angle on a given story. You wouldn’t want your editors micromanaging from afar. He said Kerr doesn’t do that with him, which is why he would never dream of stripping the Warriors of the ownership Kerr handed them in the first place.
“For Steve,” Brown said, finishing up the journalism parallel, “basically, it’d be like him saying, ‘You know what? Write a story on the Warriors and just make it good.’”
He’s writing the story. He’s making it good. Did we mention Mike Brown has a great job?