Commentary

Lakers must buy into Mike Brown

Forget fans, schemes and defense. The players will make or break the new coach in L.A.

Updated: June 1, 2011, 2:29 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Mike Brown stood at the podium for nearly an hour Tuesday afternoon, patiently answering every question lobbed at him with an endearing mix of clumsiness and earnestness.

At the end of his introductory news conference, you had a pretty good sense of the kind of offense he plans to run as the new coach of the Lakers, the kind of defense he's made his reputation with and the work ethic that has improbably carried the average-at-best guard from the University of San Diego to one of the most important coaching jobs in the NBA.

What you saw Tuesday is exactly what the Lakers will get from their new coach whenever the next NBA season starts.

Mike Brown is likeable, honest, a little boring, a lot better dressed than Phil Jackson and as prepared as any coach who has ever held a dry-erase board.

[+] EnlargeBarnes/Buss
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesMatt Barnes was the only Lakers player to attend Mike Brown's introductory news conference, a fact he downplayed, but perhaps a sign the players will need some convincing.

I still have no idea whether he can coach the Lakers, though.

He will certainly try.

And based on what he's done since getting the job last week and what he said Tuesday, Brown seems to have a decent grasp on just how fine the line is between trying to coach this team and trying too hard.

But his success or failure in coaching the Lakers has very little to do with the offense or defense he'll run, how much film he watches or even what he says to his team on the first day of training camp.

The only thing that matters is whether the Lakers want Mike Brown to coach them.

"As long as the group is willing, which it sounds like it is, we'll get it done," Brown said.

It was exactly what Brown should have said.

It was also exactly what Lakers fans were afraid of.

There is absolutely nothing Brown can say or do right now to make anybody feel certain this is all going to work out well.

He's clearly a good coach with integrity and instincts. And if he can publicly admit to being the water boy for his son's eighth-grade football team, his ego easily fits in the front door.

But he's also a young coach being asked to follow a legend and lead a group of veteran players who are significantly more accomplished than he is. The nine Lakers players under contract or expected back next season have won a combined 19 NBA titles. Brown is still looking for his first.

About the only thing he's got going for him is that those veterans know their championship window will be open for only another couple of seasons and they don't have another year to waste on hazing or adjusting to the new guy.

"I have a way," Brown said, stopping short of finishing the cliche or pointing in the direction of the highway running alongside the Lakers' training complex.

"I have a philosophy, and that's how we'll do it. But in the same breath, I'm a guy that likes to give ownership. I'm going to give these guys ownership so that they feel like they're a part of the process."

Going forward, that delicate balance is the only thing that really matters. Fortunately, Brown already senses it.

He's spent the past week reaching out to his new players, seemingly and smartly in order of seniority and importance.

"My relationships Kobe on down are extremely important," Brown said. "Part of my strengths are as a manager. I feel like I have a great handle on dealing with and handling relationships with anybody.

"A relationship starts, in my opinion, with the word respect. I'm going to give respect, and hopefully if I'm in front of a pretty good human being, initially they'll give me respect back. Then in time, that respect will go to trust, which will be the foundation for our relationship."

On Tuesday morning, he met with Kobe Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, near their Newport Beach, Calif., home and made it clear to Bryant that "this is still his team."

He's also had extended conversations with co-captain Derek Fisher, power forward Pau Gasol, center Andrew Bynum and small forward Ron Artest.

Still, it was striking that only one Lakers player -- reserve forward Matt Barnes -- attended Brown's news conference to show support or even to just hear what the man had to say.

Bryant was said to be on a plane to Europe. Gasol was in Spain. Bynum was in London. Fisher was on vacation. Lamar Odom was ... on television Sunday night. Artest was ... tweeting?

All valid excuses.

But in the absence of previous public shows of support for Brown, and in light of some of their previous endorsements of assistant coach Brian Shaw, it was still a little troubling.

In the week since Brown reached an agreement in principle to coach the Lakers, only Gasol and Fisher have offered any sort of public comment, and both were tepid affirmations via Twitter.

"I'm excited about our new coach, I hope he can lead us to more titles," Gasol wrote.

To which Fisher added, and conspicuously mentioned Shaw: "A lot of really great coaches were being considered for the job. B Shaw was at the top of the list! He'll be amazing and wherever he goes is lucky to have him. Will miss Phil but excited to start a new chapter under Mike Brown. Looking forward to a different style and energy!!"

Asked why he was the only player to show up Tuesday, Barnes downplayed the symbolism.

"I don't think that's a sign of anything," Barnes said. "I just got back in town last night. Everyone is out and about. I don't think it has anything to do with whether guys are supporting him or not. It's just, it's the summer, you're supposed to be gone.

"He's an open-minded coach. We have a very veteran-driven team. I'm sure guys are going to have their opinions on this and that. As long as he listens to them and decides what's best for the team, I think it'll be great.

"Even though we have the greatest player in the world, the coach is the leader. We need to buy into what he's bringing to the table. If we do that, we should be a really good team."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.