Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Tortoise and the King

Henry Abbott reports that we shouldn't expect many big changes in the Cavs' offense tonight. Apparently the sole decoration in Mike Brown's office is this quote:

"When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."

Henry closes the article with an amusing and salient observation: "[W]hat happens if you only get four chances to split that rock in two? I'm thinking you might need some dynamite."

I'd like to expand on his post in thinking about Game 4 tonight. Mike Brown is definitely a system coach--no doubt about it. He's taken the San Antonio defense and implemented it here, and you can't deny that it's been successful. He's taken a bunch of guys who in all honesty aren't phenomenal on-the-ball defenders (with a few notable exceptions) and turned them into a unified group on the court that cover for each other, rely on each other, and generally do a great job. The Cavs seem to take pride in their defense, which is a good thing.

Here's my question. What's the offensive system? We know what the defensive system is, but I have yet to discern what the Cavs' actual plan is on offense. Occasionally, we run a pick/screen and roll for LeBron, which has become laughably predictable and easy to defend, given that we have no consistent shooting big man to actually do anything after setting the pick or screen. Otherwise, aside from the five times a game we pass the ball in to Z and watch him take four dribbles before putting up a jump hook, there is no system. Mike Brown himself admits this--see, for example, the last item in this post where Brown extols the virtues of "random offense." According to Brown, he's fine with random offense as long as players move a lot.

So, as far as I can determine right now, Brown's system on offense consists of 1.) easy to defend pick-and-rolls, 2.) Z jump hooks, and 3.) random offense, which is OK as long as guys move.

Forgive me for being blunt, but the very idea of "random offense with movement" sounds a lot like "five guys playing pickup together for the first time." And often, that's what the Cavs look like. Pavlovic isn't sure how to play with LeBron or when he can assert himself. Z is the classic larger slower guy who gets stuck on a team with a bunch of athletes and infuriates everyone by slowing the game down (though he means well). Larry Hughes is the good athlete who treats pickup games as a showcase for skills he doesn't have (three point shooting and ball handling) instead of doing what he can do best (slash to the hoop). Gibson and LeBron are the only ones who seem to have a clue about how to play together, but both are still relative neophytes. For all the talk about this team being built around LeBron, we haven't given him the types of players he should have as running mates, nor does he have a system that plays to his considerable strengths.

In a nutshell, that's what bothers me about Mike Brown's refusal to mix things up on offense. I know he's a system guy. But I don't see the system. The only thing I see is a consistent rotation, but that rotation is effectively meaningless if the guys in it don't know how to play together.

It goes back to what I was saying yesterday. Mike Brown knows what this team's identity is on defense, and so do the players. But neither seems to have a clue about what it is on offense (hence the squabbling earlier this year between Hughes/LeBron on the one hand and Mike Brown on the other). Part of that identity confusion comes from having mismatched players (older slow veterans on one hand, and young athletes on the other) that have to occupy the court at the same time. But part of it definitely comes from the coaching staff not trying to address that disparity in any way. Time will tell if the front office steps in with some big moves to address the talent disparity over the summer. But even if they do, the Cavs need to change the system. I like Mike Brown--I think he's a great defensive coach and a good guy. But he needs to show growth on offense and less hesitancy to change because right now, he's running perilously close to Romeo Crennel's career path (great defensive mind who won titles as a coordinator may not be a great head coach).

It comes back to the stonecutter quote. Henry responds one way--"if you only have four blows, you may need something stronger than a hammer." I offer a slightly different response that (I think) takes the metaphor on its own terms. The stonecutter that Mike Brown is so fond of makes 102 identical blows, each of which gets him closer to his breakthrough. He doesn't make 102 random blows in 102 different ways. And he doesn't trust 102 random stonecutters to come by and each take a crack. Instead he devises a method, a system, and sticks to it.

In short, I don't think the problem is that Mike Brown's offensive method is flawed. I think the problem is that he doesn't really have one. And make no mistake--the Cavs need a real, not random, offense, if they want to get back to the Finals in the near future. Random may work against a team missing its two best players, a team with no real frontcourt, and a aging team that may well be in its twilight--but it hasn't, and won't, work against these Spurs.

1 comment:

Joseph said...

"Larry Hughes is the good athlete who treats pickup games as a showcase for skills he doesn't have (three point shooting and ball handling) instead of doing what he can do best (slash to the hoop)."

Funny, because we've all played basketball with these type of guys. Funnier, because I'm pretty sure I've played with guys who were better shooters than Larry.

Nice, insightful post. If you're going to bank on the strategy of chipping away, you are certaintly right that the blows have to be precise and well-directed. No so sure that Brown views this quote with an offensive mindset, however, he's probably looking at it through his defensively colored glasses.

Seems to me that to chip away and grind at a team is what the Cavs tried to do to the Spurs in game 3. They kept the game low-scoring and defensive, yet still lost a heart-breaker.

When you have a once-in-a-lifetime player like LeBron, you can't force him into a box just because that's worked well with other players. Special talents need to be maximized and although LeBron's brilliance will always show through even the tiniest cracks, I'd love to see what James could do with some dyanmite (and some players that can consistently hit an open J).