Another Free Pass for Larry
Nobody is willing to blame Brown for anything
By Adam Hoff
I suppose it is about that time of year. The time where I become so infuriated and bewildered by the constant support for Larry Brown that I am forced to write another anti-Larry column. Please understand that I don’t have anything against the man and that I believe him to be a fine coach, but enough is enough.
The latest Brown love fest is coming in the form of a response to the Knicks’ hideous play through the first half of the season. They are 14-30, sitting on the third worst record in the NBA, and are seven games out of the playoff picture despite playing in the Eastern Conference, where the number eight seed (Washington) is two games under .500. The Knicks are an absolute train wreck.
Obviously, there are many parties to blame in this situation. Isiah Thomas just might be the worst general manager in recent NBA history (apologies to the recently fired Rob Babcock in Toronto and to former Blazers GM Bob Whitsitt), so he bears plenty of the responsibility. After all, he’s the guy that eliminated all cap flexibility, traded for three point guards in the span of 18 months, and sent his best frontcourt player (Kurt Thomas) to Phoenix for a guy with a back so messed up that nobody would even insure it (Quentin Richardson). And don’t forget the Malik Rose trade or the Jerome James signing, both of which ranked among the all-time worst acquisitions in league history (I’m not even exaggerating). Isiah is an unmitigated disaster in New York. A human wrecking ball wearing a suit.
Next up is the players. Hey, they are the guys making all the cash, so if they can’t win more than 32% of their games, they get some blame too. Marbury’s numbers are down across the board. Eddy Curry continues to rebound like he’s 5’7” and turn the ball over as if he’s allergic to it. Jamal Crawford is just as wild and out of control as ever. Q is awful, and that is on the rare occasion when he can actually play. Antonio Davis is charging into the stands. Maurice Taylor continues to prove why he is not a guy you want in the lineup at any time. Even the exciting rookie trio of Channing Frye, Nate Robinson, and David Lee is starting to hit the wall a little bit. So yes, the players have to take responsibility as well.
Then there is the coach. Naturally, a coach bears some responsibility for his team spiraling so far out of control, right? 99 times of out of 100, that would be the case. But not here. Nobody will question the Almighty Larry Brown. It doesn’t matter that approximately 3% of the people in the organization trust him to stick around for the length of his contract. Or that the Pistons are joyously thriving in his absence, playing with a glee that is borderline scary. Or that time has proven his disastrous personnel moves in Philadelphia to be beyond awful. Or that he shuffles his lineup around like he’s trying to set a record for most roster moves in his fantasy league. Somehow, none of this seems to matter when his name comes up. Writers say, “Poor Larry.” Pundits merely offer up a “Wait until April before you judge this team,” or “Hey, the man wins games” cliché. How about holding the second-highest paid coach in the game responsible for the play of his team? Coaches get run out of town all the time, even when it’s not their fault. Why should he be immune?
Not only should Brown be forced to bear the normal brunt in this case, but a closer look at the situation shows him to be just as responsible for the MSG mess as his boss and his players. The bottom line is that he has had a very rough season on the bench for his (latest) new team.
You could make a case that Brown is one of the most overrated coaches of all time. He is a great “teacher of the game” as everyone claims, and I do believe that he can help a team move up a level or two due to his knowledge and experience. However, this guy has a lot of baggage as well. He’s notoriously hard on young players. He causes intense friction wherever he goes. People don’t seem to like playing for him and they only praise him when he leaves (admittedly, this one cuts both ways; like when you admit that your parents were wise to only let you drive with two people in the car when you first got your license, sometimes it takes hindsight to see the true benefit of something).
Beyond the intangible aspects of Brown’s coaching style, one can also look at the results and quietly wonder if they validate “coaching genius” status. His only NBA title came in Detroit and was delivered by a very good team that he inherited from Rick Carlisle and then was bolstered by the acquisition of Rasheed Wallace. Considering that Carlisle took the Pistons to 50 wins and a top seed in the East without Sheed and basically without Tayshaun Prince (he was a rookie and rarely played until the playoffs), it isn’t a stretch to imagine that he would have been capable of running the table the following year as well.
Despite having Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and Amare Stoudemire on his roster for the 2004 Olympic Games, Brown was able to bring home only the bronze metal from Athens. In fact, one could pretty easily make the case that he hindered the United States’ chances at gold, considering the way he benched some of the finest young players in the league. (Honestly, can you believe that Carlos Boozer started over Amare Stoudemire? Or that Richard Jefferson was the starting small forward ahead of LeBron James? Someone should have taken Larry to court over that one. Either that or given him a drug test.)
One could also dive into his stints in all six cities prior to Detroit and attempt to prove or disprove the myth that he made every team “much better” than when he arrived, but that can be a job for someone else. (Okay, so maybe that will be a job for me, but just for another time.) Besides, who needs to dredge up the past when we have the present? Brown’s handling of this Knicks team is certainly not beyond reproach.
I should probably make it clear that I am not a Knicks fan, so I really don’t care that they suck. My only concern here is that people keep an open mind when assigning blame. Even though I’ve long been convinced that Brown is an overrated NBA coach, I am perfectly willing to admit that Isiah deserves the most blame in this situation. However, others simply refuse to even consider that Brown could be doing anything wrong. In reality, common sense would dictate that it is impossible that he’s not doing anything wrong. Because otherwise, New York would be better. It’s pretty simple.
My chief criticism of Brown is his handling of the Knicks’ rotation. I don’t find fault with his offensive or defensive strategies, or his management of the clock, or any of that. Mainly because I avoid watching Knicks games at all cost. However, the seemingly simple coaching duty of putting players in the game is a wildly underrated responsibility. And never before has someone made something so simple seem so hard.
It may or may not be a proven fact, but my guess is that you could somehow prove that NBA teams are better with a set rotation. In an 82-game season, the key is finding continuity and maintaining consistency. I remember the biggest problem with those “oh so close” Blazers teams from 1999-2001 is that they never had any idea who was going to shoot the ball down the stretch. Rasheed Wallace should have been the go-to guy late in games, but he lacked the mentality (and composure) to emerge in that role. So Portland saw games go down the wire with an aging Scottie Pippen trying to create off the dribble and with Steve Smith launching pull-up jumpers. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. I’m convinced that if Portland had ironed out that one small problem over the course of the 1999-2000 season, they wouldn’t have blown that legendary Game Seven against the Lakers, and that it would have been the Blazers winning the NBA Finals that year. Whatever.
The point is that NBA coaches have very few make-or-break duties during the regular season. One of those is creating a hierarchy and a set rotation. It is mandatory. Yet here are the Knicks, playing 12 guys every game, changing starting lineups every other night, and completely revolutionizing the “can’t tell the players without a scorecard” concept. Here are a few examples of the madness:
- David Lee racked up DNP’s through the first 30 games of the season, then became a starter during the Knicks’ six-game winning streak, and then averaged nine minute a game during a recent five-game stretch. In three consecutive games his playing time went: 49 seconds, 28 minutes, 5 minutes. How is anyone supposed to get comfortable under that scenario?
- On January 27, Jamal Crawford played 28 minutes and scored 21 points while shooting the ball well, garnering three steals, and committing only one turnover. Even better, the Knicks beat the Magic for their lone win over the past 10 games. Crawford then played a whopping five minutes in the first half the next night at Philadelphia.
- In late November and early December, the Knicks seemed to have found a silver lining in the play of rookie Channing Frye. He played 30 or more minutes in six straight games and scored nearly 20 points a night. Despite no discernable difference in his performance, he has played more than 30 minutes in exactly six of the 29 games since.
- Rookie Nate Robinson started 11 straight games, then was banished to the bench where he played a total of 33 minutes in three games … and then started again.
- Maurice Taylor has seven DNP’s and seven games started. There is no rhyme or reason to either number.
- Trevor Ariza earned a spot in the rotation for November and December thanks to his athleticism and defense. Then he lost it in January. Now Larry Brown is complaining about his team’s defense. You figure it out.
- A whopping 16 players are averaging 9 or more minutes per game this season for the Knicks. Only the Pacers and Bobcats, with 14, are even close, and that is only because each of those teams have been riddled with injuries.
- The Knicks join the Blazers and the Jazz as the only three teams in the league with only two players averaging 30 or more minutes per game. (One of them is Crawford, who has started just nine games and makes the list only because he logged big minutes while Marbury was out.)
- New York has started six different players at power forward this year. The countdown begins for that magical moment when the PA announcer yells out, “And starting at forward, 6’10” … Jackie Butler!”
- Malik Rose and Channing Frye have made nearly the same number of starts.
- Matt Barnes started five games.
That just gives you a taste of the insanity in New York. I don’t know how many lineups that Brown has already used, but it has to be approaching some sort of a record. When you factor in that there really haven’t been many injury concerns (Q’s back, Marbury missing a few, Curry missing a few, Davis’ suspension), the constant change is almost unfathomable. Beyond that, the constant change is making it hard to win games. And for that, Larry has to take some of the blame. Not all of it, but some of it.
Good luck getting anyone else to admit that.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com.