Let me pause here and apologize. Mine is absurd self-delusion, the result of spending too much time in my hometown, New York City, watching Mr. 11-Rings, Phil Jackson, make a fool of himself as president of the former professional basketball team known as the Knicks. You want to argue again that his “legendary” success owes more than a bit to having the good fortune to coach first Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and then Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal? I’m all ears.
Back in the N.B.A., the success of the Warriors and the Cavaliers owes to cooperative evolution, as players and coaches and general managers work as co-producers. In Cleveland, LeBron James takes guff for playing maestro, but it’s difficult to look at the team, with its core of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving and a bench loaded with midseason pickups like Kyle Korver and Deron Williams, and not give him his due.
The Warriors take the co-producer approach and cube it. Durant sat on the dais after practice on Saturday and talked of culture shock upon joining the Warriors last summer. As he describes it, the team is akin to a hip start-up, all free sandwiches and Kale-and-turmeric shakes, with yoga classes and Flying Lotus on the speakers.
The players do their own thing as music blasts, working on footwork and Pilates and dekes and shots — in sync, but not in uniformity.
“I remember the first few practices, me and Mike, we were the new guys and we were looking at each other like: ‘This is how it goes down here’?” Durant said of those early days when he and Brown were settling in. “Sometimes in games, we don’t run a play for two or three minutes straight. And I’m, like, ‘Man, I’m so used to making sure we run something every time down.’”
Let’s turn now to Brown, who as it happens sat on that dais a few minutes before Durant. To watch him joking with reporters about his questionable taste in fashion was to watch a man at the giggly intersection of synchronicity and who knew?
He has had a respectable coaching career. He coached the Cavaliers during James’s first run, won a passel of games and was named the coach of the year. He also spent a disastrous season as coach of the Lakers, but who hasn’t of late? The rap on Brown was that he is strong on defense — his teams invariably give up among the fewest points in the league — and a wandering soul on offense whose substitution patterns drive analysts and fans to distraction.
The Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert recruited Brown to Cleveland for a second time in 2013. At the time, Gilbert apologized for his stupidity in firing Brown the first time around.
A year later, Gilbert again fired Brown. To be a billionaire — Gilbert owns Quicken Loans — is to require no consistency and no thought of yourself. No matter: The second time around, Brown laid a fat piece of cheese in the mouse trap. He insisted on a five year, $20 million deal — meaning that the Cavaliers are, in part, paying him to coach the Warriors.
No wonder Brown was quick with a grin on the dais.
Does the confusion about who is coaching ever get to him? He shook his head. Kerr insists that Brown make his own choices during the game. He was pressed to talk about what he has learned. Has Warriors life changed him? This time he nodded.
“I was a guy who wanted to squeeze every ounce I could out of every minute we were together,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Kerr, he noted, demands only that basketball be fun and collegial. Brown pointed to Green, the wiseacre forward/guard/center and the team’s basketball savant. “The stuff he does on the floor — during timeouts, in practice, in film sessions, whatever — it’s almost irreplaceable,” he said.
In Game 1, the Cavaliers went on a run and Brown called a timeout. He began to draw up a play, but Green shook his head.
“He said, ‘No, no, no, we’re going to do this,’” Brown said. “When you have players of his stature that are confident about wanting to do something, you sit back and you let them do it.”
And did it work?
Brown gave that cat-that-swallowed-the-canary grin. “It was the absolute right play call.”
Does that work on a less talented, less cohesive team? Perhaps not. But on the mountaintop of the world’s beautiful game, which is to say many thousands of miles from the Triangle-obsessed Knicks team president, this is what the league looks like.
The players drive the car no less than the coaches and the general managers, and the future is so bright they all need to wear shades.
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