Commentary

Mike Brown has a challenge ahead

An aging Kobe, the Pau/Bynum problem and Ron Artest await the next Lakers coach

Updated: May 26, 2011, 9:15 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNLosAngeles.com

There is a lot to like about Mike Brown. He's a solid coach. A good man. A former coach of the year. One with an overall winning record and a bevy of associations to authenticate his status as a legitimate head coach in the National Basketball Association.

But these are the Lakers we're talking about here, not some team from Cleveland. It's Phil Jackson he's replacing, not some no-name provoking amnesia the second a season expires. So if the honchos really believe their latest selection is something to get excited about -- that somehow, we're all to believe a new-and-improved version of the Lake Show is destined to emerge -- perhaps next season and beyond could end up being a lot tougher than any of us realized.

Call it a product of not managing one's expectations.

[+] EnlargeMike Brown and  LeBron James
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesMike Brown's experience coaching a superstar in LeBron James should help him in the L.A. market, but the Lakers offer a whole different set of issues.

Congratulations to Mike Brown. He deserves the job. That much, accentuated by a 272-138 record, simply can't be denied. He coached the Cavaliers for five seasons. For five years, they were contenders. They went to the NBA Finals in 2007. Coach of the year honors came in 2009, following an NBA-best 66-16 record. But if that's all there was to coaching, he would still be in Cleveland.

Except he's not, which is where the intrigue begins.

"He's a bright young mind in this game," one NBA coach told me Wednesday. "You can't help but be happy for him because he paid his dues and he's such a nice guy. But that last part -- the one about being such a nice guy -- is the kind of thing that hurts you in this league."

It hurt Brown with coaching LeBron James, with Brown being seen as a pushover, whether intended or not. It hurt Brown in his quest for an NBA championship. And whether anyone is willing to admit it or not, there has to be some concern as to whether his nice-guy demeanor will help him with this roster full of Lakers, fresh off being unceremoniously removed from postseason action, willing to point fingers whenever possible just to absolve themselves from relocation to far-away places.

Welcome to Hollywood, Coach Brown. You've got your work cut out for you, that's for sure. And the list couldn't get any longer for an NBA coach.

First, there's the issue of Kobe Bryant, with three years and more than $80 million on his deal, who's still a superstar and a champion, but robbed of his surreal athleticism by Father Time. One problem with Bryant is that he doesn't appear to know it. Another is that he's even less interested in hearing it. And if that wasn't bad enough for Brown to have to deal with, he'll also have to absorb the aloofness of a star who openly endorsed assistant Brian Shaw, obviously didn't get his wish and reportedly wasn't even granted the courtesy of being consulted by the Lakers.

Then there's the Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum issue. From the looks of things, one of the two probably will have to go. That much was exposed during the Mavs series in the conference semifinals when the Lakers' height and size advantage meant absolutely nothing because of their inability to deal with Dallas' speed and perimeter shooter. Both of these two have value, and the Lakers need an infusion of athleticism.

Then there's the issue of Ron Artest, their enigmatic forward who came into the season ill-prepared after finally capturing his coveted championship ring. He's older, slower, porous offensively and about two steps behind defensively. If Jackson couldn't do much with him, it's hard to imagine what Brown is going to be able to come up with.

Of course, there's also the issue of Lamar Odom's focus and aggression. There's also Derek Fisher's age, and what Brown will be able to come up with in the event GM Mitch Kupchak can't find another serviceable point guard. Somehow, we must discover what's exactly the problem with Shannon Brown, since he's clearly the team's second-best athlete -- and there's also a bench that needs to be completely obliterated.

"The Lakers have a lot of problems, but they are still the Lakers," another coach said. "They still have Kobe. And Pau. And Bynum. And Odom. They may need a bit of tweaking, but they have the talent to contend. They just need a piece or two, some focus and a coach who can make them do it. Some might think Brown can't do it. But he can. Especially after dealing with LeBron all those years."

Those years were from 2005 to 2010, a time in which the stature of LeBron James continued to elevate and, some say, Brown had no influence at all. James did what he wanted, when he wanted, how he wanted -- but primarily because ownership (Cavs owner Dan Gilbert) let him. James was very complimentary in his reaction to Brown's hiring, dismissing any talk of tension between them.

Brown coached under the likes of Gregg Popovich, so the belief is he knows what discipline is all about. He knows how to implement it. The fact that he's a tireless worker with some experience and the support of the Lakers' organization will leave Lakers players with no choice but to respect their new coach.

As of Wednesday evening, Brown couldn't be reached to confirm a reported three-year deal with an option for a fourth, worth approximately $18.25 million. But clearly he isn't stupid.

Brown held out for the money -- and the years -- because he knows he'll need the Lakers fully invested to deal with the semi-mess he's inherited.

After all, the more the Lakers invest in him, the more they must ensure his success. Brown can't do it by himself.

It didn't work before. No need to even try it now.

Stephen A. Smith is host of the "Stephen A. Smith Show" on 710 ESPN Radio and a columnist for ESPNLA.com.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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