For Lakers’ Mike Brown, next year will be a stretch

There was a moment in the postseason when I asked Lakers Coach Mike Brown if he had any idea how his team would respond to that evening’s challenge, and his answer stunned me.

“I really don’t have any idea,” he said.

He admitted he could not predict its energy or focus but added that he didn’t think any NBA coach was capable of such powers.

Well, Phil Jackson always seemed to know, and Pat Riley made a cottage industry out of knowing, and though it is unfair to compare Brown with two of the best coaches in NBA history, it is completely fair to wonder if he fits into the Lakers’ championship culture.

Kinda. Sorta. Not really. Not yet.

If you had to evaluate Brown’s first Lakers season, those six words work about as well as any. He touched on inspiration, flirted with resonance, but never quite found a grip that the Lakers will insist grow tighter next season — or else.

Brown exceeded many critics’ expectations by maneuvering an uncertain team into a No. 3 seeding and winning one more playoff game than Jackson won in his final season here. He calmly handled the Chris Paul trade debacle, the Lamar Odom departure and the arrival of Andrew Bynum’s “terrible twos.” He kept Kobe Bryant quiet, he woke up Metta World Peace, dealt with the loss of Derek Fisher and rattled the famous Lakers entitlement with impromptu benchings and even the occasional public scolding.

Brown stretched himself plenty but was unable to stretch far enough. He was unable to reach deep enough. He never seem quite able to extend his touch from the grease board into the locker room, where the biggest games are won, where the Lakers couldn’t find the cohesion to win them.

He would try to run an offense, and Kobe Bryant would sneer at him. He would try to discipline Bynum, and the kid would insult him. He gave World Peace tons of rope, and the eccentric one tied him up in knots. He taught them and toughened them, but sometimes he was unable to really coach them.

In the playoffs, the Denver Nuggets’ George Karl made adjustments that Brown couldn’t match, and Oklahoma City reeled off two comeback, game-winning runs that Brown couldn’t figure out how to stop. The players thought he handcuffed them with preparation time — they called him, “All Day, Every Day” — while failing to give them the tools to win at game time.

“I think it was a tough connection between the staff and the players this year,” Matt Barnes told the media after this week’s exit interview.

Barnes was obviously angry at his slow postseason disappearance — he played 29 minutes in the playoff opener and zero minutes in the final playoff loss. But he’s still the sort of veteran who understands a locker room, and his understanding was that Brown wasn’t working it.

“It was a drastic change,” said World Peace about Brown’s arrival. “It was big getting used to.”

Maybe with the shortened season, Brown didn’t have enough time. Maybe a clinical, defense-minded approach isn’t so good at measuring heartbeats. He’s great at drawing Xs and O’s, but does his team feel him giving them out?

Whatever the reason, the sense here is that Lakers officials were satisfied under the circumstances but will be expecting far more next season, the second year of a contract that is fully guaranteed for only three years. They will expect a better offense. They will expect a better player attitude. They will want to know that the Lakers are actually listening to their coach.

Magic Johnson was incorrect in saying that Brown would have been fired if the Lakers had lost to Denver in the first round, but if Johnson says the same thing at the same time next season, he’ll be right. There is a thought that if the Lakers don’t evolve into a championship-type club by the All-Star break, Brown might not even make it to the postseason.

“I thought he did a fine job considering everything that took place this year,” said Mitch Kupchak, with emphasis on the last part of that quote, giving the coach a one-year pass that will not be offered again.

I’m cheering for Brown. I’d like to see his influence match his acumen. He puts a strong, professional face on the organization. He has a solid basketball mind shaped by his mentor, San Antonio Spurs guru Gregg Popovich. He’s a decent, grounded man who handled one tough playoff loss by simply walking slowly to his car while holding hands with his wife.

And yeah, he’s a pretty honest dude.

“I feel like I could’ve done a lot better,” he said in his final news conference this week. “Based on the circumstances … we did fairly well. Could we have done better? Yes, we could’ve done a lot better.”

Brown said he knows he took shortcuts in everything. He knows those shortcuts led to dead ends. He knows that next season he will have no such excuse.

“I know there were a lot of things I rushed on, that I kind of did on the fly based on the lack of time,” he said. “To really give myself a true evaluation would be hard.”

So his first grade will be an incomplete. As long as he understands that this course is eventually graded on champ-fail.