CLEVELAND (AP) — Of the many reasons the Cleveland Cavaliers had for firing coach Mike Brown after five seasons without an NBA title, one mattered most.
They can't lose LeBron James.
Less than two weeks after their stunning, second-round loss to Boston in the playoffs, the Cavaliers fired Brown on Monday, an expected move that perhaps indicates the team believes it can re-sign James, the two-time MVP and free agent-in-waiting.
Brown was the most successful coach in franchise history. In five seasons, he led the Cavs to the playoffs every year, to the finals in 2007 and to 127 wins in the past two seasons. But Brown failed to win a championship, and after Cleveland's second straight early exodus from the postseason — a collapse that included two blowout losses at home and dissension in the Cavs' locker room — and with James about to explore free agency, owner Dan Gilbert decided to make a change.
"After a long and deep analysis of all of the factors that led to the disappointing early ends to our playoff runs over the past two seasons, we concluded that it was time for the Cavaliers to move in a different direction," Gilbert said in a statement. "The expectations of this organization are very high and, although change always carries an element of risk, there are times when that risk must be taken in an attempt to break through to new, higher levels of accomplishment.
"This is one of those times."
The Cavs did not hold a news conference to explain their decision to relieve Brown, who went 314-177 and was the league's coach of the year in 2009.
Brown was not immediately available for comment. No one answered the door at his home in Westlake, Ohio.
A James family publicist said the superstar is out of town on vacation and would not be available to comment on Brown's dismissal.
Boston's Doc Rivers and Orlando's Stan Van Gundy, the coaches who knocked Brown and the Cavs from the playoffs the past two years, expressed disappointment in Cleveland's decision.
"Obviously, I was not thrilled to see it," Rivers said before Game 4 in Boston. "I wonder what you have to do to keep your job — back-to-back 60-win seasons. Our profession is tough."
Said Van Gundy: "Franchises have the right to make any decisions they want. You can't do a hell of a lot better. There's not a coach in the league that has done better than Mike Brown."
The Cavaliers were under a deadline to dismiss Brown. If they had waited beyond 10 days after the season, they would have had to pay the 40-year-old coach his salary for next season. Cleveland's assistant coaches remain under contract for 2010-11.
The team now faces an even more pressing deadline. James can become a free agent on July 1, when he'll head a free-agent class unlike any other in league history. He will hit the market with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and others, and while the expected bidding wars are weeks away, the speculation and suspense are hanging over the NBA playoffs.
James has said winning will be the most important factor in choosing a team. In building around him, the Cavs have already shown their commitment to giving the 25-year-old James the tools he needs to win multiple titles.
Now, by firing Brown, who won more than 66 percent of his games, the Cavs have again demonstrated a willingness to go beyond the norm to make James happy. While the All-Star forward did not call for Brown's head, it was clear during the Boston series that James and his coach were not on the same page.
The Cavs, though, are in a bind as complex as any defense they saw in the playoffs.
James will likely keep his options open until free agency begins, and without an agreement from him, it will be almost impossible for the team to land a high-profile coach since any prospective coach can't be assured he'll have James.
Beyond that, general manager Danny Ferry's contract expires next month and there's no guarantee he wants to stay around.
If Ferry isn't re-signed, the Cavs face the prospect of preparing for the NBA college draft and free agency without a coach or GM — hardly the position they thought they'd be in after winning 61 regular-season games and dispatching Chicago in the first playoff round.
It gets even trickier. Gilbert will undoubtedly try to make a big splash to convince James to stay, but to do so he'll likely have to land a high-profile coach. There's no indication Gilbert has reached out to anyone yet but the top-tier candidate list would include people like Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State's Tom Izzo or Kentucky's John Calipari, a close friend of James, whose seat near Cleveland's bench added awkward drama to the Cavs' loss in Game 5 to the Celtics.
Jackson's contract with the Lakers expires after this season. The 10-time champion has talked about retirement and recently said he can't imagine himself coaching anywhere else, but that may not stop Gilbert from making him a strong pitch — especially if James is part of the package.
Krzyzewski and James formed a strong bond in three seasons together on the U.S. Olympic team, winning a gold medal in Beijing two years ago. Krzyzewski came close to leaving Duke for the Lakers in 2004, and if he's ever going to test his mettle in the pro game, the opportunity to coach James could be enough to pry him from campus.
Also, assuming he stays, Ferry is close with Krzyzewski, whom he played for in college and still calls "coach."
"The NBA rumors have been addressed several times in recent years by coach Krzyzewski," Duke spokesman Jon Jackson said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "He has repeatedly stated that he will be the Duke head coach for the remainder of his career."
Gilbert has always been impressed with Izzo, who fits the tough-minded defensive profile the owner was looking for when he hired Brown in 2005. Also, Gilbert is a Michigan State graduate. Izzo has turned down previous NBA overtures, but maybe none as big as what Gilbert might offer.
And then there's Calipari, who has insisted he'll stay at Kentucky. But that's not likely to stop the Cavs from reaching out to Calipari to gauge his interest in coming to Cleveland, a move that could keep James home.
Brown, meanwhile, did everything in his five seasons with the Cavs — everything but win a title. In the end, that meant Gilbert had little choice but to let him go.
The Cavs owner can't let James walk away as easily.