Mike Brown interrupts Dion Waiters's post game interview to discuss Dion's defense. (NBA TV)
This isn't just how it could be, this is how it is.
The Cleveland Cavaliers started Summer League Tournament play a house on fire Thursday when powerhouse Coach Mike Brown strolled into the gym just as the game started, drawing the attention and eyes of the bench, announcers and crowd. Brown has positioned himself as perhaps the most powerful Cavalier employee in the organization, perhaps unfireable, having been rehired on a long term lucrative contact by owner Dan Gilbert, who now deems Brown’s 2010 dismissal an error of judgment.
Brown has arrives a changed man, with more confidence and perhaps more ability, a greater depth of perception and a more commanding voice. He’s years and miles from that night in Boston when an uncoachable MVP, down only 6 points to the Celtics in Game 6 made the decision to end his Cavalier career. When the team walked the ball up the court with no sense of urgency as precious seconds elapsed. Mike Brown was not emasculated. Mike Brown has grown and returned stronger.
In one motion this afternoon in Vegas, he positioned himself beside the Cavaliers bench. He is not the head coach of the Cavs Summer League team, that’s assistant Jamahl Mosley, but he is the clear off court leader of the organization. When Mike Brown is sitting at the end of the bench, he commands respect.
Dion Waiters was a buzzsaw, slicing to the rim, piercing the San Antonio Spurs with lethal passing, playing inspired and energetic defense. When Waiters shot is falling, he’s always looked like a special player well worthy of the future Dwyane Wade tag that preceded his being taken 4th overall by the Cavaliers in the 2012 draft. Right now Dion Waiters looks like the difference between the Cavaliers being a playoff team and the Cavaliers being a team that could win a playoff series.
This was the first game in which Brown coached Waiters. Somehow, sitting courtside and taking notes with a pad of paper and a pen, Brown appeared to exert a measure of influence over the scowling shooting guard while he was on the court. There was eye contact, body language, direct comment and discussion before, during and after plays. One discussion took place across 30 feet of court through a series of nods, a few sparse words about defense, and acknowledgement by Waiters. When Waiters shot started to fall, no one in the entire gym applauded louder than Brown. Waiters appeared to respect Brown and take a genuine interest in what he was saying, which is a huge difference from the relationship Byron Scott had with the Cavaliers players during the end of the 2012-13 campaign.
Meanwhile, Tristan Thompson, who has been working on his right handed shooting with Cavs coaches while in Vegas, appeared in the gym wearing a $300 shirt that said “Pervert 17” on the back which looked very similar to the Spurs sleeved jerseys, which they were wearing on the other side of the gym. He was sitting on the Cavs bench and appeared to be mentoring Anthony Bennett, joining in huddles during the game and eventually wore a towel over the back of his shirt. Personally, I hope that the shirt was a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom.
Tristan Thompson is obviously committed to improving his game and to this team. Not every player had to come and support his team’s summer league squad. Not every player sat on the bench during games, joined in time out huddles or took advantage of the developmental coaching staff to improve his free throw shooting while in Las Vegas. Tristan Thompson did. He is evolving further into becoming the emotional leader of the team and the rookies, young players and coaches will remember that he was there and that he was putting in work when there were other places in the world he could have been that would have required less effort.
There was an interaction in which Coach Brown noticed that Thompson was wearing a towel and appeared to ask if Thompson was going in the game. Thompson told Brown why he was wearing the towel and Brown, laughed audibly. Brown is now the veteran coach leading young players and above all, he understands that.
Tyler Zeller apparently learned something from having his face smashed in by Deandre Jordan in November last season. Zeller, who had a poor game due largely to early foul trouble caused by Spurs flops, hurt his finger in this game and appeared to have a fingernail completely come off of his hand mid-game. Zeller, who is now the Cavs third option at center behind Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum, was third in minutes played among rookies in 2012 behind Damian Lillard and Harrison Barnes. This was despite the time missed from having his face crushed and minutes limited after his return.
Zeller got the message sent by Jordan’s elbow, however, and looks visibly larger, particularly in his shoulders and arms. Zeller may have to fight for those minutes this season, with a deeper rotation at center, but from a physical standpoint, he’s doing the work he needs to do.
Waiters finished with 27 points, well after establishing himself as the best player on the court and advancing the Cavaliers in the tournament. This all culminated in a post-game interview bombing of Waiters by Brown, who congratulated him for playing solid defense by tackling him on NBA TV.
You’re going to enjoy watching this team. Cavs play the Heat at 4:00 PM ET as tournament play continues.