Larry Brown’s Inevitable Return From The Dead

Photo from Flickr by doug88888

Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown has an interest in joining Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics staff as an assistant coach, assuming Lawrence Frank accepts the Detroit Pistons’ head coaching job, league sources told Yahoo! Sports.

Via Yahoo! Sports: Brown wants to join Celtics’ staff

“Extra, extra, read all about it! Larry Brown wants to return to coaching again!”

The following statement may cause some backlash, but I’ll say it anyway: Larry Brown is one of the most overrated coaches in NBA history. Now, before I go any further, let me explain. Whenever someone uses the term ‘overrated’, people tend to jump to conclusions and think that the person (in this case me) is saying that the overrated thing (Brown) sucks. What some people tend to forget is that good things can be overrated too. And yes, Brown is a good, if not great, coach. In fact, he’s probably in the NBA’s top-10 coaches of all-time (somewhere between 8-10). With that said, Brown’s coaching legacy is overvalued by false perceived notions and a boosted reputation.

With 27 years of head coaching experience in the NBA, along with four seasons in the ABA and seven in NCAA basketball, Brown has basically been a head coach for the better part of 40 years. That’s obviously a long time to be entrusted as a head coach (a trust that can easily be lost) and a testament to his success and abilities (which has caused him to develop an amazing reputation). Nevertheless, I have a hard time placing him in the elite, elite pantheon of coaches (feauturing the likes of Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Greg Popovich, Pat Riley, Red Holzman, John Kundla and Jerry Sloan, in no particular order).

The biggest difference, in my opinion, between those coaches and Brown is the simple factor of winning (Sloan hasn’t won a title, yes, but his teams have always been very good and consistently contenders). We can all agree, if I’m not mistaken, that the main purpose of basketball is to put the ball through the hoop more than your opponent and win the game. Winning matters. It’s a simple notion that sometimes gets overlooked in this complex sport filled with hundreds of narratives. Unfortunately for him, Brown’s singular title (’04 with Detroit), coupled with a .548 winning percentage (relatively low compared to other greats who are in the .630 range and above) and an inability to sustain a coaching home for more than a few seasons (nine teams in all), has weakened Brown’s case amongst the all-time greats (I’ll also through in the fact that he’s been labeled as high maintenance and burned bridges with a lot of teams; we’ll call this the “Shaq” factor).

Don’t get me wrong. Brown has won an NBA title (and an NCAA title as well, the only coach to do both) and has been to three NBA Finals. In practical terms that’s a very successful career, as only one team is fortunate enough to win a championship each season. At most, there would have been 26 other head coaches who won a championship during Brown’s tenure in the league. But of course we know otherwise, as Brown’s coaching career has seen the likes of Jackson, Riley and Popovich enjoy countless success, each winning multiple titles (and passing him by in the coaching hierarchy).

Undoubtedly a major part of winning a championship has to do with luck (with injuries, players’ egos meshing, etc., all playing a huge role), yet it also has a lot to do with the coach. This is a players’ league, no doubt, but coaches can elevate talented players to the next level (see Lakers, Los Angeles). Brown didn’t have the fortune of having all-time great players (he had David Robinson (kind of), Reggie Miller and Allen Iverson in their primes with weak supporting casts) like Jackson (Jordan, Pippen, Shaq and Kobe), Auerbach (Russell, Cousy and Havlicek), Popovich (Robinson, Duncan and Ginobili), Riley (Kareem, Magic, Worthy, Wade and Shaq) and others have had, so there has to be a disclaimer somewhere when his final page is written.

The fact that he has taken eight different teams to the playoffs is incredible, and what’s even more impressive is that he’s helped turn around at least five or six franchises, even if only temporarily. THE PROBLEM IS THAT HE’S COACHED NINE TEAMS! Most elite coaches coach two, maybe three teams tops. Whether it be leaving to coach in college, plain boredom, retirement, or his team firing him, Brown never found a home for more than a few seasons. That has to be a huge asterisk on his legacy. One thing is to not be fortunate enough to win titles or have great players; another is not being able to keep a coaching home (or stay content with it). He has to be penalized for this when comparing him to the Riley’s and Popovich’s of the world. As I previously mentioned, he’s one of the best coaches ever, we just have to nitpick when comparing to the very best.

Unfortunately for Brown, we live in a “what have you done for me lately” society, always looking for the next best thing and constantly forgetting the history of the past. Since 2005, Brown has bounced around to the Knicks (a total disaster) and then the Bobcats (a semi-disaster). He hasn’t been able to relate and get through to his players as he did in years past. This has left a sour taste in the public’s mouth and prevented him from other coaching opportunities. Father Time has a weird way of catching up to people, and it may ring true that he has done so on Brown. There comes a point when the players stop listening to coaches, and Brown has unquestionably had that happen throughout his last few coaching stints.

After being fired by the Bobcats early last season, Brown looked into returning to coach NCAA basketball. He had no such luck (even Isiah Thomas found a coaching job, and he’s a lunatic!). He’s now moved back to wanting to coach in the NBA. Fortunately for him, his name and reputation alone should land him somewhere (possibly as an assistant, though), whether it be in college or in the pros. The question is where? Brown is a particular type of coach. He’s stereotyped as a tough, defensive-minded guy who doesn’t like fast-paced, uptempo teams or playing rookies/young players. So naturally, the Minnesota Timberwolves (who play at the league’s highest pace and feature the youngest roster) are interested. I’m not sold on the fit, obviously, but David Kahn will be David Kahn (although Don Nelson and Rick Adelman may have precedence over Brown in Kahn’s evil genius mind).

At this point in his career, Brown is likely no longer be fit to be a head coach. As an assistant coach with Boston, as reported above, Brown would thrive in the Thibodeau/Frank defensive mastermind role. Brown’s teams have always been good defensively (even great), and he could probably help add new wrinkles to Boston’s almost-perfect defensive system. The Celtics have taken chances on Stephon Marbury, Michael Finley, Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal and the Artist Formerly Known as Shaq, so why not on an assistant coach, especially one of Brown’s caliber?

Seth Carstens