Going into the 2011 NBA offseason there was one name at the top of every team's coaching search. Without question, the big fish in the available coaches pool was former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown. The Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers were among the teams with a great deal of interest in interviewing Brown, but he turned everyone away until the Los Angeles Lakers came calling. Brown was the big name the Lakers needed to replace the retiring Phil Jackson, but that doesn't mean Brown was the best hire of the summer; not by a long shot.
Brown is a great hire, make no mistake about that. For all of the talk about Brian Shaw taking over for Jackson, the team with the highest visibility and most pressure to win of any team in the world, the Lakers needed a high profile head coach with a proven track record. Mike Brown is just such a coach, having lead the Cavaliers to the status of the NBA's elite teams, including a trip to the NBA Finals and a .663 winning percentage over five seasons and the 2008-09 Coach Of The Year award. Brown is adept at balancing superstar egos and enormous pressure to win, both of which will be issues in LA.
Still, if the NBA loses training camp and a chunk of games due to the current lockout, Brown has his work cut out for him. There's very little chance he will try to run Tex Winters' triangle offense, meaning he'll be trying to put in his own system basically on the fly. He'll also be trying to gain the trust of Kobe Bryant, which is no small task, and he'll be adjusting to life under the world's largest microscope all at the same time. Brown is the best long-term choice for the Lakers, but under the circumstances, one team did a better job in their coaching hire.
Dwane Casey is also a nice hire, as he will go from winning a championship with the Dallas Mavericks to installing his own system and starting from scratch with the Toronto Raptors. He won't have savvy veterans like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry to help him along the way, so Casey, too, has his work cut out for him as he looks to throw things together on the fly. Likewise for Kevin McHale in Houston, who has never had success as a coach, and for Mark Jackson in Golden State, who hardly seems a better choice than the fired Keith Smart.
If the NBA does, indeed, lose games next season the best coaching hire in the league may just be Indiana Pacers head man Frank Vogel. The Pacers were going nowhere fast when they relieved head coach Jim O'Brien of his duties on January 30th. They had lost seven of their last eight games, most of them in embarrassing fashion, and looked like they were headed to the lottery yet again. Pacers assistant coach Frank Vogel told reporters he never expected to be a head coach in the NBA, yet he woke up on January 31st as precisely that, and the Pacers responded in a big way. He turned point guard Darren Collison loose, ran more plays through Roy Hibbert in the post, and his team ran off seven wins in their next eight games. They went on to make the playoffs, where they gave the top-seeded Chicago Bulls all they could handle before eventually losing in the first round.
When the Pacers' players went through their exit interviews with front office staff, to a man they endorsed the return of Vogel, who made them believe in themselves when no one else seemed to. It is precisely that collective vote of confidence, combined with the momentum the team built in making the playoffs that could mean Vogel was actually the summer's best hire. The team knows and likes his system, they've added a significant piece in George Hill, and they have the cap space to add another major piece, perhaps a power forward like David West or Carl Landry. Indiana is set to take things to the next level, even if the lockout means they have very little training camp and a shortened season. The Pacers are prepared.
Taking over a new team is never easy, and adding the extra challenge of taking the reins without a full training camp and summer of programs under your belt makes the job even tougher. For that reason, of all the teams who signed new head coaches this summer, the Pacers may have made the best hire for at least the short-term and perhaps beyond